Sweden jails Syrian rebel who fled Idlib after killing Assad soldiers

Anti-regime activist says he was just ‘following orders’ in shooting of seven prisoners of war in what could be landmark international case

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The Independent Online

In a remarkable case which has seen an international law violation prosecuted in a court in a non-actor state, Sweden has sentenced a Syrian rebel to life in prison over his role in the executions of regime soldiers in 2012.

Haisam Omar Sakhanh, who fled to Sweden and successfully claimed asylum in 2013, was arrested last year over his role in the brutal executions of seven government soldiers who were prisoners of war in Idlib province.

In video footage of the incident which emerged in 2013 and was used by the prosecution as evidence, Sakhanh is seen joking around with others whilst holding an assault rifle which he then uses to shoot a man lying at his feet.

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He pleaded not guilty to executing the seven men, although admitted he had been involved in the apparent war crime by following orders from his superiors. The soldiers were sentenced to death by a legal rebel court, the 46-year-old has maintained. 

The former rebel was reportedly part of a little-known group called the Suleiman Company, or Firqat Suleiman el-Muqatila, which has since been disbanded in Syria’s complex civil war. 

After determining that the context of the conflict meant the deaths constituted war crimes rather than seven murders, the Stockholm court found him guilty of “serious violations of the regulations of international humanitarian law“.

“A big question in the judicial process has been whether a non-governmental actor can establish their own courts to maintain law and order within the framework of a non-international armed conflict,” presiding judge Tomas Zander said in a statement. 

“The soldiers were executed less than two days after they were captured,” Judge Zander said. “For that reason, the court ruled it was not possible that the executions were preceded by a fair trial in which a legitimate court sentenced the soldiers to death.”

Sakhanh’s defence lawyer said in a statement that he plans to appeal the sentence. 

The verdict was hailed as an “important signal” by Per Ahsltröm, the head of Sweden’s war crimes investigation unit.

“The judges have given an important signal that Sweden is not a safe haven for war criminals,” he said.