Trial of Syrian officers in Germany to shed light on Assad reign of terror: Lawyers

Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad and senior military officials. (File photo: Reuters)

Landmark trials of Syrian intelligence officers will reveal new information about the country’s sprawling security apparatus and its war crimes under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, according to lawyers who say they are happy the trials are finally taking place.

“The whole machine will be exposed to the public,” said Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights lawyer who will serve as an expert witness in the trials. “We will see how intelligence officers tortured detainees and hid their dead bodies. It was a systematic policy implemented by all branches of the security services, involving the police.”

Syria’s intelligence services are famed for their brutality. At least 127,000 detainees have gone missing and over 14,000 are known to have died under torture, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

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This week, two former intelligence officers will stand trial at the Higher Regional Court in the German city of Koblenz for crimes committed in Damascus’ Al-Khatib prison between 2011 and 2012. The trial will be the first to connect the Syrian government to crimes against humanity in a court of law.

The main defendant, Anwar Raslan, served as a senior official at Al-Khatib and is accused of complicity in the torture of over 4,000 detainees, causing at least 58 deaths. The second defendant Eyad el-Gharib, allegedly hunted and detained demonstrators and is accused of aiding crimes against humanity.

The pair were arrested in Germany last year where they were living as asylum seekers.

“It is a milestone,” said Patrick Kroker a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights who will represent prosecution witnesses at the trial, “We are happy that these trials are finally happening.”

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No more immunity

Despite the mountains of evidence of war crimes by the Syrian government, prosecuting any of its members has taken years. Attempts to launch an international tribunal in The Hague failed to gain consensus from the United Nations Security Council.

Eventually, Syrian activists and former detainees got together to build cases against known criminals now living as refugees in Europe. The current case is based on hundreds of testimonials, photographs and other evidence compiled over years by Syrian activists and partner NGOs.

The criminal complaint was submitted to the German Federal Prosecutor in 2017, under the principle of “universal jurisdiction.” This allows German courts to prosecute crimes committed anywhere in the world. Further cases have been submitted in Austria, Sweden and Norway under the same principle.

“In Syria, officials who committed crimes had immunity from the government,” said al-Bunni. “The trial will send a message to the regime, that they cannot torture and kill with impunity.”

A handout picture released by the Syiran Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Chief of the General Staff of the Syrian Army Ali Abdullah Ayyoub (C), accompanied by a number of senior army officers during fighting in 2014. (AFP, SANA)

A handout picture released by the Syiran Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Chief of the General Staff of the Syrian Army Ali Abdullah Ayyoub (C), accompanied by a number of senior army officers during fighting in 2014. (AFP, SANA)

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Exposing the system

Syrians have long been terrorized by their secret police. The sprawling security apparatus was developed over decades with help from the Russian KGB and operates internally and abroad. “Before 2011, the security services tortured to get information. After the uprising, they tortured to exact revenge,” said al-Bunni, who has himself been a prisoner in Syria.

The prosecution will draw on its extensive case file. Former detainees and torture victims will also come forth as witnesses. “We will show the system that is behind these crimes, and which has been in use for a long time,” said Kroker, who worked on the case.

Some of the most crucial information will come from the defendants themselves. “The defendants will likely claim that they followed orders from above,” said al-Bunni, who hopes their defense will shed led light on the chain of command.”

“We want information from them about is happening in Syria and who is giving those orders,” he said.

“One of the defendants was part of the security services for over 20 years. He should have very important information,” added al-Bunni.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wearing face masks as protection against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), meet in Damascus, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on April 20, 2020. (Reuters)

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wearing face masks as protection against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), meet in Damascus, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on April 20, 2020. (Reuters)

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A long road to justice

The trial faces challenges, not least from the restrictions imposed by the current coronavirus pandemic.

“This trial deserves to be in the largest courtroom. We’re sorry that the audience will be limited,” said Kroker. Many other trials in Germany have been postponed.

It will be a difficult time for the traumatized witnesses, some of whom still fear repercussions from the secret police on themselves or their families. “Some witnesses may not be brave enough to testify in front of the media,” said al-Bunni.

It is also a long road to justice, with any decision likely to take months.

“We don’t know how long the trials will last, it could be one or two years, I don’t need to hope that the transitional justice for Syria will take place here in Germany. We just need to send a message. That’s enough for now.”

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:54 - GMT 06:54
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