In a small but significant step toward justice, federal prosecutors in Germany arrested a doctor accused of carrying out torture in one of the Syrian regime’s notorious detention centers.
Alaa M., as he is identified under Germany’s privacy laws, was arrested on Friday night in the central German state of Hesse on suspicion of crimes against humanity and grievous bodily harm.
Prosecutors allege that Alaa M. worked at a prison in the Syrian city of Homs during the first year of the uprising against the country's President Bashar al-Assad. The charges say that one day in October 2011, Alaa M. was notified that a detainee had suffered a torture-induced epileptic seizure. Rather than administer care, Alaa M. beat the detainee with a plastic tube when he arrived at the scene, according to a statement from the federal prosecutor's office.
By the next day, the detainee’s “health [had] deteriorated significantly.” Prosecutors allege Alaa M. and another doctor then beat the man a second time, causing him to lose consciousness. Prison guards carried the prisoner away on a blanket, and he later died in custody.
In 2015, Alaa M. turned up in Germany as a refugee and has continued to work as a doctor.
Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni and his Berlin-based nonprofit organization, the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, compiled testimony that was key to bringing charges against Alaa M. The most damning evidence came from two former detainees who say they witnessed him torture other men inside the prison, al-Bunni said.
That a doctor in Syria's vast network of secret prisons and military hospitals would harm those he was trained to care for would not have been uncommon, he said.
“We have many stories of how the doctors and nurses beat and killed the detainees when they sent them to the hospitals,” al-Bunni said. “Sometimes they gave them medicine just to kill them.”
In the early days of the civil war, the government used its hospitals as “instruments of repression” to crush the opposition, Amnesty International said in 2011. The organization reported that medical staff in at least four government-run hospitals subjected injured protesters to torture and other ill treatment.
Rights organizations have continued to document the widespread abuse of prisoners, more than 130,000 of whom remain missing nine years after Syria's brutal war began.
“While this doctor may not be the highest level perpetrator within the Syrian regime, pursuit of this case is still significant,” said Mai El-Sadany, the managing director and legal and judicial director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “It means something to those who he is believed to have tortured, to others who have similarly been victims of doctors and to survivors of this regime waiting for their day in court.”
The arrest of Alaa M. is the latest in Germany’s campaign to hold Syrian war criminals to account under its sweeping universal jurisdiction law, which allows for the prosecution of grave crimes committed in another country.
The concept is being put to the test in the ongoing trial of two suspected members of Assad’s intelligence services. In the German city of Koblenz, Anwar Raslan and Eyad Gharib stand accused of crimes against humanity, including the brutal and systematic torture of anti-government activists.
Germany and France have also issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the chief of Syria's Air Force Intelligence Directorate. Hassan is among nine high-ranking officials accused of crimes against humanity in a recent criminal complaint filed with the German federal prosecutor by a group of men and women who say they experienced rape and other sexual abuse in Syria’s prisons.
Al-Bunni, the Berlin rights lawyer, said these cases should serve as a warning not just to the Syrian regime but also to members of the Islamic State and other armed groups living comfortably in Europe.
“We are trying to send a message through these cases to all the criminals who have arrived already or are still in Syria,” said al-Bunni. “You will not find any safe place to hide.”