Germany, Sweden make arrests over crimes against humanity in Syria

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Investigators in Germany and Sweden on Wednesday arrested eight suspects allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government over alleged participation in crimes against humanity in Syria, prosecutors in both countries said.

The suspects are accused of taking part in a “violent crackdown on a peaceful anti-government protest” in the al-Yarmouk district in Damascus on July 13, 2012, Germany’s Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office said.

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It said the four stateless Syrian Palestinians and Syrian national detained in Germany were “strongly suspected of killing and attempting to kill civilians, qualified as crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

It named the Syrian Palestinians as Jihad A., Mahmoud A., Sameer S. and Wael S. The Syrian national, identified as Mazhar J, is believed to have worked for the Syrian military intelligence service.

“They and other accessories specifically targeted the civilian protesters, shooting at them,” resulting in six deaths and other serious injuries, the prosecutor said.

The war between al-Assad’s troops and armed opposition groups, including ISIS, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

It has killed more than half a million people, forced millions to flee their homes, and ravaged Syria’s economy and infrastructure.

Wednesday’s arrests took place as a result of work carried out by an investigation team named “Caesar” after a defector who worked as a photographer for Syrian military police.

In 2013 he smuggled more than 50,000 photographs out of Syria, many of them documenting the deaths of prisoners in detention centers or military hospitals.

‘Severe and repeated’ abuse

German prosecutors said that those arrested in Sweden belonged to a pro-government militia which also participated in the crimes on July 13, 2012.

Ulrika Bentelius Egelrud, the Swedish prosecutor in charge of the investigation, said the suspects were arrested thanks to “good cooperation with Germany, Eurojust and Europol.”

German prosecutors say the four Syrian Palestinians also “physically abused civilians from al-Yarmouk severely and repeatedly” between mid-2012 and 2014, including at militia checkpoints on the outskirts of the district, inhabited predominantly by Palestinians.

Germany let in hundreds of thousands of Syrians during the 2015-16 refugee influx and has arrested several Syrians since on its soil over crimes committed in their country.

It has used the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of certain serious crimes -- regardless of where they took place -- to try Syrians over atrocities committed during the country’s civil war.

One of the most high profile cases to be brought to trial was that of a former Syrian colonel who was found guilty in January 2022 of crimes against humanity committed in Damascus.

Last month a Swedish court acquitted a Syrian former general of war crimes charges, saying prosecutors had not proved his involvement in the army’s “indiscriminate attacks.”

Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65, was one of the highest-ranking Syrian military officials to stand trial in Europe.

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