A court in Germany has convicted an ex-Syrian intelligence officer for crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison, in a verdict that has been hailed by the United Nations as a “landmark leap forward” for justice.
The trial was the world’s first on state-sponsored torture in Syria and resulted in the sentencing of the most high-ranking ex-Syrian official yet. Germany’s justice minister Marco Buschmann called the verdict “pioneering” and urged other countries to follow suit.
Syrian former colonel Anwar Raslan, 58 was charged with overseeing the “systematic and brutal” torture of 4000 people that resulted in dozens of murders of detainees, as well as instances of rape and sexual assault at a prison facility in Damascus known as Branch 251.
Mr Raslan, who defected from the Syrian regime in 2012 and claimed asylum in Germany in 2014, had denied all charges.
The court in the German city Koblenz concluded that Mr Raslan was the senior officer in charge of Branch 251, where suspected opposition protesters were detained. Judges ruled that there was evidence to hold him responsible for 27 deaths.
The trial has been closely watched by Syrians attempting to seek justice for rights abuses committed during Syria’s decade-old civil war.
Tens of thousands of people are thought to have been arbitrarily arrested, forcibly disappeared and tortured in the decade since the start of the devastating civil war, according to activist groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW).
It is the second issued in the same trial by the higher regional court for crimes against humanity in the conflict.
Last year Eyad al-Gharib, a low-ranking officer at a subdivision of Branch 251 was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. His lawyers appealed that verdict which is still pending.
“This trial cast a much-needed, renewed spotlight on the kinds of sickening torture, cruel and truly inhuman treatment – including abject sexual violence – that countless Syrians were subjected to in detention facilities,” said the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights (UNHCR), Michelle Bachelet.
“It is a landmark leap forward in the pursuit of truth, justice and reparations for the serious human rights violations perpetrated in Syria over more than a decade,” she said, calling the verdict “historic”.
Mr Buschmann called on other countries to follow what he called the “pioneering work” performed by his country’s legal system.
“Crimes against humanity mustn’t remain unpunished. No matter where they are committed, no matter by whom,” he added.
Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at HRW that was monitoring the trial called the ruling a “breakthrough for Syrian victims” that would crack the wall of impunity.
“Other countries should follow Germany’s lead and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”
Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws allow courts to prosecute crimes against humanity no matter where they take place. The two defendants who defected from the regime in the early years of the decade-long civil war were arrested 2019 in Germany after seeking asylum there.
It is one of the few instances where a former high ranking Syrian officer has faced trial and so the proceedings have become a rallying point for those attempting to seek justice for rights abuses committed during Syria’s conflict.
At least 100,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared in the country according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). An estimated 15,000 have been tortured to death since March 2011, the majority at the hands of Syrian government forces, the group says.
Torture survivors of Branch 251 told The Independent that Thursday’s verdict would be an important moment for justice as other attempts to initiate legal proceedings have been thwarted. Russia and China have blocked efforts for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer cases to The Hague-based International Criminal Court meaning it has not been able to investigate crimes.
Countries such as Germany have applied the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes, a venue which has become one of the few ways to pursue accountability.
Those who have survived Syria’s notorious jails welcomed the verdict, saying it must pave the way for wider accountability for Syrian war criminals.
Hussein Ghreir, a torture survivor who testified during the trial, said it was a long awaited moment of justice. He was arrested twice and spent more than three-and-a-half years in total detained by the Syrian regime.
“We waited for so long to witness this moment,” he said in a statement to the Syria Campaign. “This individual conviction has not only seen justice served for survivors of torture like me but it also carries a wider meaning – it provides legal confirmation of the systematic nature of the crimes being committed by the Syrian regime.” Ruham Hawash, another survivor of Branch 251 who also testified in the trial said “it was only a beginning”.
“We have a long way to go – but for us affected people, this trial and today’s ruling are a first step towards freedom, dignity and justice,” she said. Mariam Hallak, founder of Caesar Families Association (CFA), whose own son died from torture while detained by the Syrian regime, told The Independent she hoped the verdict would set an example. “May this verdict send a clear message to every politician, security officer in Syria who is still detaining, torturing and killing people: you cannot escape justice, one day you will be held accountable for your crimes,” she added.
The successful prosecution of the two men will could embolden other uses of universal jurisdiction to pursue those accused of crimes against humanity.
A team of German and French prosecutors and investigators began pooling efforts to pursue Syrian war criminals in 2018, working under the auspices of Hague-based Eurojust, a confederation of international jurists working for national governments across the continent.
Years ago, Eurojust set up a genocide network of jurists specialising in war crimes and crimes against humanity to provide resources to judicial authorities prosecuting terrorists and international criminals.
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