The legal proceedings at the Frankfurt regional court mark the first trial of a Syrian doctor on torture charges and the world’s second ever case on Syrian state-sponsored torture.
Last week a court in the German town of Koblenz sentenced an ex-Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for crimes against humanity, a verdict that was hailed by the United Nations as a “landmark leap forward for justice“ for abuses committed during Syria’s decade-old civil war.
Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws allow its courts to prosecute crimes against humanity no matter where they take place.
In this latest case, German federal prosecutors say the doctor, identified only as Alaa M, worked at a government-run prison run by Syrian intelligence services in Homs between April 2011 and the end of 2012, as well as two military hospitals.
He is charged with killing one person, torture in 18 cases, two counts of sexualised violence and causing serious physical and psychological harm to another person, and other crimes including one that led to another death. If convicted he faces a mandatory life sentence.
Alaa M has denied the allegations.
Addressing the court, the-father of-two, who has worked in several German hospitals, did not address the charges but acknowledged that he had worked at a military hospital in Syria.
Alaa M moved to Germany in 2015 and started practising as a doctor. He was recognised by multiple Syrians who reported him to German police, and was eventually arrested in 2020.
In the December 2020 extended arrest warrant, he is accused of several crimes including forced sterilisation, dousing a teenage boy’s genitals with alcohol and setting them on fire, and beating an anti-government protester. Alaa M is also accused of intentionally killing a prisoner by injecting them with a lethal substance.
The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which contributed to the investigation into Alaa M, said the trial could “finally shed a light on the role of military hospitals in Assad’s torture system.”
“It has become clear how closely related the work of hospitals and doctors are to those to the detention and torture centres,” said Patrick Kroker of the Berlin-based legal charity.
“It also hasn’t been acknowledged how instrumental the commitment of sexualised violence in this torture programme,” he told The Independent.
However, the German lawyer said the trials would never be able to achieve full justice as the crimes are so horrendous. Nevertheless, he said they were “significant steps forward”.
Alaa M was permitted by the German authorities to practice medicine after re-certifying his Syrian medical credentials. He worked at a clinic near Kassel in central Germany where he was recognised by Syrians who reported him to the authorities triggering the investigation.
Thursday’s trial, and others in Germany, have been closely watched by Syrians attempting to seek justice for rights abuses committed during the conflict in Syria.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says 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.
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 in Syrian government facilities, the group says.
The Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied these allegations.
However last week’s conviction in Koblenz of former colonel Anwar Raslan, 58, who was charged with overseeing the “systematic and brutal” torture of 4,000 people, was widely heralded by Germany’s justice minister, the UN, and various rights groups.
Activists welcomed the latest proceedings against Alaa M but criticised German courts for not making Arabic translation readily available to spectators.
HRW said the Frankfurt court must make this available in the trial against Alaa M as it is “vital to help people from affected communities understand the complicated proceedings”.
"To be meaningful, justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done,” said Balkees Jarrah, HRW’s interim international justice director.
“Court authorities should make Arabic translation more widely available for these cases involving the world’s worst crimes committed abroad.”
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