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France begins its first war crime trial of Syrian officials

A war between Bashar al-Assad's regime and armed opposition groups erupted after the government crushed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011
— Paris (AFP)

The first trial in France of officials of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is to begin on Tuesday, with three top security officers to be tried in absentia for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The Paris Criminal Court will try the three officials for their role in the deaths of two French Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, arrested in Damascus in 2013.

"For the first time, French courts will address the crimes of the Syrian authorities, and will try the most senior members of the authorities to ever be prosecuted since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011," said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The war between al-Assad's regime and armed opposition groups, including Islamic State, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

The conflict has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria's economy and infrastructure.

Trials into the abuses of the Syrian regime have taken place elsewhere in Europe, notably in Germany.

But in those cases, the people prosecuted held lower ranks and were present at the hearings.

Ali Mamlouk, former head of the National Security Bureau, Jamil Hassan, former director of the Air Force intelligence service, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations for the service in Damascus, are subject to international arrest warrants and will be tried in absentia.

Scheduled to last four days, the hearings will be filmed.

- 'Torture' -

At the time of the arrest, Patrick Dabbagh was a 20-year-old student in his second year of arts and humanities at the University of Damascus. His father Mazzen worked as a senior education adviser at the French high school in Damascus.

The two were arrested in November 2013 by officers who claimed to belong to the Syrian Air Force intelligence service.

"Witness testimony confirms that Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader were both taken to a detention centre at Mezzeh Military Airport, which is run by Syrian Air Force Intelligence and notorious for the use of brutal torture," the International Federation for Human Rights said, stressing that the pair were not involved in protests against the Assad regime.

They were declared dead in 2018. The family was formally notified that Patrick died on 21 January 2014. His father Mazzen died nearly four years later, on 25 November 2017.

In the committal order, the investigating judges said that it was "sufficiently established" that the two men "like thousands of detainees of the Air Force intelligence suffered torture of such intensity that they died".

During the probe, French investigators and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a non-governmental organisation, collected accounts of torture and mistreatment at the Mezzeh prison, including the use of electric shocks and sexual violence, from dozens of witnesses including former detainees.

Lawyer Clemence Bectarte, who represents the Dabbagh family and the International Federation for Human Rights, said the trial was a new reminder that "under no circumstances" should relations with the Assad regime be normalised.

"We tend to forget that the regime's crimes are still being committed today", she said.