Human rights lawyers and legal activists hope that the testimony and evidence presented to the court at Al-Khatib’s trial can be used in other legal proceedings against Syrian government officials in future cases.
Thomas Frey – AFP via Getty
In a historic ruling last month, Germany’s regional court in Koblenz convicted one of two former Syrian secret police officers in war crimes trials outside Syria and outside the International Criminal Court.
Eyad al-Gharib arrested and transported protesters to Al-Khatib’s detention and interrogation center in 2011 – the start of the Syrian uprising – even though he was aware they would be tortured. He has been sentenced to four and a half years in prison for aiding and supporting crimes against humanity.
The sentence was based on Eyad’s confession but according to human rights lawyers, it proved that illegal detention, torture and enforced disappearances were carried out systematically under Assad’s rule.
Stacks of evidence are presented to the court during the trial, named after the one detention center where the torture was carried out, to establish a chain of command. The evidence includes: Tens of thousands of photographs of corpses – with evidence of traces of torture – were smuggled in by military police photographers codenamed Caesar, as well as some testimony.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which supports Syrian torture survivors who were co-plaintiffs at the trial, welcomed the ruling. “This is the first time a former member of the Syrian intelligence service has been convicted of a crime under international law,” said the ECCHR in a statement. “The trial of the main defendant, Anwar R, will continue until at least October 2021.”
Anwar Raslan, Eyad’s senior, is on trial for overseeing the torture of 4,000 people in Al-Khatib. Raslan was in charge of a well-known detention center in Damascus at the height of the protests in Syria.
Since Russia and China vetoed all attempts to try cases against the upper echelons of the Syrian regime at the International Criminal Court, Germany has decided to step in. Germany applies the principle of universal jurisdiction under which it can prosecute foreigners for war crimes. It was praised for taking the initiative and sending a message to dictators and authoritarian regimes that they cannot commit such crimes with impunity.
“The testimonies of torture survivors and intelligence officers, as well as photographs of Caesar, attest to the scale and systemic nature of the disappearances, torture and sexual violence in Syria,” said Patrick Kroker who represented the joint plaintiffs in the Anwar Raslan case. The relevance of this evidence goes far beyond the process at Koblenz.
Human rights lawyers and legal activists hope that the testimony and evidence presented to the court at Al-Khatib’s trial can be used in other legal proceedings against Syrian government officials in future cases. They also hope the ruling will provide closure for at least some victims of crimes in Syria and encourage other European prosecutors to initiate a similar process.
On March 1, the United Nations also released a report that tens of thousands of civilians were arbitrarily detained and disappeared during the decade-long conflict. He acknowledged that the international system has failed to provide justice and stressed the importance of the principle of universal jurisdiction in such cases.
While the UN report accuses other warring parties of serious crimes as well, the focus of the 30-page document – based on more than 2,500 interviews with victims and witnesses carried out over the past decade – is on excesses committed by the Syrian government.
“Pro-government forces, but also other warring parties, use methods of warfare and use weapons that minimize risks to their fighters, not that minimize harm to civilians,” said the report. “They consistently focus on acquiring and controlling territory, at the expense of civilian rights. Syria has experienced massive aerial bombardment in densely populated areas; they have endured chemical weapons attacks and modern sieges in which the perpetrators deliberately starved the population throughout the medieval script, and unsustainable and humiliating restrictions on humanitarian aid – both across line and across borders, the latter even with Security Council approval. “
The United Nations is calling for the release of about 100,000 prisoners in Syrian prisons and says that until they are released, a political solution to the Syrian crisis is not possible.
The Syrian government denies all accusations. However, experts say that releasing a prisoner is tantamount to suicide for the government because it would prove the government’s alleged crimes.
Some celebrated Koblenz’s ruling but many others remained pessimistic and said some such beliefs would not change the government’s behavior much.