On 29 October, a court in Germany charged two suspected former Syrian intelligence officers with crimes against humanity, a key step in a patchwork of international efforts to seek justice for atrocities committed during the country’s long civil war. The trial of the two men, who were arrested in Berlin and Rhineland-Palatinate state in February, is expected to start in the western city of Koblenz early next year and will be the first prosecution for state-sponsored torture in Syria.
One of them, Anwar Raslan, is suspected of being involved in the torture of at least 4,000 people in 2011-12. This resulted in the deaths of 58 people. The other suspect, Eyad al-Gharib, is charged with torture in at least 30 cases.
“These charges send an important message to survivors of Assad’s system of torture,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, Secretary General of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), in a statement. “We will continue working to ensure that the main perpetrators of state torture under Assad are brought to justice – in Germany or elsewhere,” he added.
Raslan allegedly led an investigative unit with its own infamous prison, known as Branch 251, near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Prosecutors claimed at least 4,000 people were tortured by his subordinates during interrogation there between April 2011 and 2012, with guards using bars, cables and whips to beat prisoners during interviews.
Some prisoners were subjected to electric shocks, while others were “hung from the ceiling by their wrists, with only their toes touching the ground”, according to a statement by the German prosecutor.
“As head of the investigation unit, the accused Anwar R determined and oversaw the prison’s operational procedures, including the systematic and brutal use of torture,” prosecutors said in a statement. “He was aware of the fact that prisoners were dying as a result of the massive application of violent force.”
Gharib allegedly reported to Raslan, arresting protesters and delivering them to the Branch 251 jail. He is charged with a role in the abduction and torture of at least 30 people in the autumn of 2011. Raslan and Gharib left Syria in 2013 and entered Germany as asylum seekers in July 2014 and August 2018 respectively.
German officials say they are investigating dozens of other former Syrian officials under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which allows courts to try individuals suspected of committing genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Last year, German prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence service, accusing him of overseeing the torture, rape and murder of hundreds of people between 2011 and 2013.
“This process in Germany gives hope, even if everything takes a long time and nothing happens tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow. The fact that it continues at all gives us as survivors hope for justice. I am ready to testify,” said a survivor of the Branch 251 in the ECCHR statement.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a campaign group, said in August that it had documented the deaths of more than 13,600 people due to torture in prisons operated by parties to the war in Syria, with more than 90% occurring in government-run facilities.
After years of civilian deaths and suffering at the hands of multiple parties during the Syrian conflict, the first slow efforts to bring perpetrators to justice and dispel a sense of impunity are moving through national courts in several countries. Many have been driven by Syrian survivors, relatives, activists and lawyers, who have been collecting evidence and submitting criminal complaints across countries including Germany, Austria and Sweden.
Documented crimes include the use of chemical weapons and torture, mass execution, Islamic State’s abduction and sexual enslavement of Yazidi women, and the targeted bombing of hospitals and other civilian installations.
There has been no concerted international effort because Syria is not a party to the treaty that established the international criminal court, and Russia and China have vetoed efforts to mandate the ICC to set up a special tribunal for Syria.
The trial in Koblenz is the result of a series of criminal complaints regarding torture in Syria, which ECCHR and nearly 50 Syrian torture survivors, relatives, activists, and lawyers have filed since 2016 in Germany, Austria and Sweden.
“We are starting to see the fruits of a determined push by victims and others to achieve justice,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch.
“Criminal cases in Germany and elsewhere in Europe are an important first step in puncturing the climate of impunity that has plagued Syria for far too long. Perpetrators should take note that an unprecedented volume of information is being gathered to help ensure they face justice, no matter how much time passes.”
Valerie Peay, Director of International Observatory of Human Rights, said:
“The world owes justice to the victims of atrocities perpetrated during the Syrian civil war. Crimes against humanity need to be acknowledged internationally and punished to the full extent of the law to give the Syrian people hope that they can heal.”