The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz convicted a former Syrian regime intelligence officer on January 13, 2022, of crimes against humanity, concluding the world’s first trial related to state-sponsored torture in Syria, under President Bashar al-Assad. He was sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 15 years.
The Court found Anwar R. guilty of crimes against humanity of “killing, torture, serious deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault in combination with murder in 27 cases, dangerous bodily injuries in 25 cases, particularly serious rape, sexual assault in two cases, over a week of deprivation of liberty in 14 cases [and] hostage-taking in two cases and sexual abuse of prisoners in three cases.”
Anwar R. is the former head of the Investigation Department of the notorious detention facility of Branch 251 of the General Intelligence Service in Syria. He was charged with complicity in the torture of thousands of people between 2011 and 2012 in the Al-Khatib Branch (Branch 251) of Syrian General Intelligence in Damascus. According to the court’s findings, at least 4,000 prisoners were held in the prison attached to Raslan’s interrogation unit while he worked there.
The inmates were brutally tortured during their interrogation in various ways, the court said, including the use of electric shocks. Sexual violence was also used, and prisoners could hear constant screams from other inmates suffering torture. Medical care was denied, and the food supplied was inadequate. While Raslan did not physically carry out the crimes himself, he was deemed responsible for the incidents that took place in the prison due to his position of authority, said court spokesperson Anne-Christina Brodöfel.
It is the most important trial in a decade for victims who suffered at the hands of the Syrian state apparatus and have been waiting for justice. It is also the first time a high-profile member of the Al-Bashir regime has been convicted for crimes committed during the Syrian war against civilians.
It is important to note that enforced disappearances, one of the most emblematic crimes against Syrian civilians, were not upheld by the Court. Tens of thousands continue to disappear in Syria. Witnesses in the trial also repeatedly told the court of how they, their family members or acquaintances had been disappeared.
Raslan was convicted of crimes that took place between April 29, 2011, and Sept. 7, 2012, when Syria was gripped by revolution and in the early days of the conflict.
Three reports, by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic from Geneva, (“Syria Commission of Inquiry”) were read into evidence during the trial at the Koblenz Court in Germany. Persistent advocacy and cooperation by victims, witnesses, and activists in Germany were vital features of the proceedings. Outcomes such as today’s verdict would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of victims and family associations.
However, the Syria Commission of Inquiry recalls that torture, ill-treatment, rape, enforced and acts tantamount to enforced disappearances have continued in Syria, as documented in more than 20 regular mandates reports and 13 thematic reports, including in its most recent report focused on detention in March 2021. Further, more than 100,000 people are estimated to remain missing due to the conflict. These issues were not upheld by the court in this verdict.
Was there any other trial related to crimes against humanity in Germany concerning crimes committed in Syria?
In February 2021, the same Koblenz Court in Germany sentenced Eyad A., an associate of Anwar R., to four and a half years’ imprisonment for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, marking the first time a former member of the Syrian intelligence services was convicted in a third State based upon the principle of universal jurisdiction related to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
The trial started in Germany in April 2020. The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office charged Anwar R. and Eyad A. with crimes against humanity in October 2019. Victims who spoke in court as witnesses have described the case as a milestone but still just one step on the road to accountability.
How is it possible to trial cases before German courts based upon universal jurisdiction?
In 2002, Germany adopted a Code of Crimes against International Law, allowing German courts to try crimes against international law committed in other countries, where neither the perpetrator nor the victim was a German national under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The Code also excludes the statute of limitations for these crimes.
How did the trial start in Germany? What triggered the arrest of the former Syrian Intelligent Officer in Germany?
The proceedings against Raslan began with a chance encounter seven years ago, when Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer, living in Berlin, recognized Raslan at his center in Berlin. At first, he could not figure out from where he knew him. It only came back to him after a fellow refugee told him that a regime official was in the same facility.
In court, Bunni recounted how Raslan was the man who had detained him outside his house in the Kafr Souseh neighborhood of Damascus in 2006, after which he spent five years in prison. After recognizing Raslan in Berlin, Bunni lodged a complaint with the German police, and Raslan was eventually arrested in 2019.
What are the reactions to the landmark verdict of the Syria trial in Germany that resulted in the conviction of crimes against humanity?
Syrian activists living in Germany and abroad welcomed the verdict but also warned that atrocities continue in Syria. The German-Syrian human rights organization, ‘Adopt a Revolution’, said that the judgment should not be used as “a fig leaf for political inaction.”
U.S. based NGO, ‘Human Rights Watch’, described the conviction as “a ground-breaking step toward justice for serious crimes in Syria” and called on other countries to follow Germany’s lead. Emphasizing the central role of Syrian survivors, lawyers and activists in the trial, the organization lamented the challenges presented by witness protection.
More than a dozen cases related to crimes committed in Syria are active in Germany. These two trials are the first landmark cases. Next week, a court in Frankfurt will begin the trial of a Syrian doctor accused of torturing opponents of Assad’s government in military medical facilities.