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How a German court is trying to bring Syrian war criminals to justice

Because Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, victims of torture and abuse by the Syrian government are seeking justice in Germany and other countries.
A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on the main road to the airport in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki - RC138B3674B0

Day 36 is seared into Yazan Awad’s memory. Locked away inside the prison at the al-Mezzeh military airport in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Awad hung naked and blindfolded. Prison guards that day had suspended him from the ceiling by his wrists, a torture technique he had yet to experience. 

As the guards raped an unidentified woman they claimed was his mother, Awaz was made to listen to her screams. Later, when he refused to give up information, he says they sexually assaulted him using a rifle.  

His hell ended after 12 hours, when Awad agreed to kiss the boots of one of his tormentors.

Jailed in 2011 for his involvement in Syria’s anti-government protests, Awad would undergo extreme torture, both physical and psychological, during his remaining months in prison. To distract himself during the sessions, he tried to commit his interrogator’s face to memory. 

“When I meet God, I want to tell him, this is the person. I need my justice from him,” Awad said. 

The perpetrators of such torture in Syria have largely evaded justice, despite a vast amount of evidence collected by the United Nations and human rights groups. But that could change Thursday when a court in Koblenz, Germany, begins a landmark criminal trial on state-sponsored torture in Syria. 

Anwar Raslan and Eyad Gharib, two suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence services, stand accused of crimes against humanity, including the brutal and systematic torture of anti-government activists who rose up against the regime in 2011.

Separately, the two men fled Syria in the early years of the civil war, and later entered Germany as asylum seekers. Federal police arrested them in February 2019 as part of a coordinated effort between French and German authorities.

The German trial is the first of its kind. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague would be the obvious venue, but the Syrian government is not a member state, meaning the ICC has no jurisdiction. The court could obtain jurisdiction through the United Nations Security Council, but Assad-backers Russia and China have vetoed such attempts. 

Unable to achieve justice at the ICC or within Syrian courts, victims have turned to third countries like Germany. Prosecutors are relying on their country’s sweeping universal jurisdiction law, which allows for the prosecution of grave crimes committed in another country, regardless of whether a German national was involved.

“There are some crimes that are so horrific that it would be a huge violation of the international legal system if they were left not to be prosecuted,” said Mai El-Sadany, the managing director and legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“The argument for universal jurisdiction becomes that much stronger with a context like Syria, where there are really no other opportunities for justice.”

Other national courts, mainly in Europe, where some perpetrators have fled, have taken up similar war crimes cases using their own interpretations of universal jurisdiction. France and Germany have also issued international arrest warrants for Jamil Hassan, who, as head of Syria's Air Force Intelligence Service until 2019, oversaw widespread torture. 

Raslan is accused of overseeing the torture of opposition activists at the notorious military intelligence prison in Damascus, known as Branch 251, between 2011 and 2012. Prosecutors say that Raslan, a former colonel in the Syrian army who ultimately defected, was aware of the massive violence that occurred under his watch. 

The indictment describes detainees at the facility being hung from their wrists, deprived of sleep and subjected to electric shocks. The prisoners were allegedly held in cells so crowded it was impossible for them to sit or lie down.

Raslan is charged with 58 murders, as well as rape and sexual assault. Gharib, who worked under Raslan’s command in the intelligence unit, is accused of aiding and abetting torture in at least 30 cases. 

Prosecuting individuals like Raslan and Gharib could have far-reaching implications when it comes to building a case against the wider Syrian regime, said Beth Van Schaack, the Leah Kaplan visiting professor in human rights at Stanford Law School.  

“It testifies to the fact that there was this system in place that others suffered from," she said. "So that can then lay the groundwork for future cases elsewhere because you’ve sort of proved that the Syrian regime is essentially a criminal regime.” 

The trial follows years of case-building by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Syrian-led organizations, including the Syrian Center for Legal Studies & Researches and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression

In addition to witness testimony, key evidence also includes photographs smuggled out of Syria in 2013 by a Syrian military defector who goes by the pseudonym "Caesar.” The photos of at least 145 detainees killed at Branch 251 custody appear in Caesar’s files, according to the Open Society Foundations, which has provided evidence to prosecutors in the Raslan case. 

Anwar al-Bunni, a former detainee and human rights lawyer living in Germany, believes this case will set an important precedent. 

“It’s not about this guy or this guy,” he said during a virtual briefing organized by ECCHR on Monday. “[It’s about] who gives the orders, how the orders come, what they do with these detainees.” 

“The information exposed in this trial will be so important to use in other investigations in other countries,” he said.  

Over nine years into its war against the opposition, the Syrian government continues to use its vast network of prisons to torture and execute civilians perceived as disloyal. More than 130,000 people remain detained or forcibly disappeared by regime forces, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a local monitoring group.

International criminal attorney Patrick Kroker represents the eight survivors involved the Koblenz trial as joint plaintiffs. All were arrested for their participation in anti-government protests and tortured at Branch 251.  

The six men and two women range in age from their late 20s to mid-60s, but share the same motivation for coming forward.

“They want to really bring light into this whole system that is so characterized by secrecy and darkness,” Kroker said. “They are very much looking for truth and justice above all, not revenge.” 

Awad, the torture survivor, said the next step is bringing Assad himself to trial. 

“I believe justice will happen, whether it will be in Germany or another country. Whether it will be in 2020 or in another 30 years. Someday it will happen,” he said. “This is the start of winning the truth.”

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