Syria Insight: German court case highlights Assad's torture legacy
In a small provincial town in western Germany a trial is being followed by Syrians across the world and could have consequences for Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Damascus.
The two defendants, Anwar Raslan and Eyad Al-Gharib, are accused of crimes against humanity due to their alleged role in the disappearance and torture of scores of Syrians activists.
How they ended up in this court room in Koblenz is one of the most remarkable stories of the nine-year war but only materialised after thousands of hours of work and research from lawyers, activists and campaigners.
Anwar Al-Bunni played a central role in bringing the two defendants to the dock, having been for several decades one of Syria's best-known lawyers, defending human rights activists in the country and often pro bono.
Al-Bunni was detained by the Syrian regime himself due to his legal work and activism, finally escaping Syria in 2014. It was on the streets of Berlin, where he now lives, that one day he saw a familiar face passing by bringing him back to his time in detention.
"I looked at him and he looked at me and I ignored him. I couldn't remember who he was, but later a friend told me that Anwar [Raslan] is in Berlin and at that moment I recognised the guy," Al-Bunni told The New Arab.
Al-Bunni said that Anwar was the same security official who arrested him in 2006 after he signed a petition calling for democratic reforms.
Anwar Raslan as an alleged head of the notorious Al-Khatib detention centre - aka Branch 251 - in Damascus is accused of overseeing the torture, rape and sexual assault of at least 4,000 detainees and the murders of 58 prisoners. He reportedly deserted the Syrian security forces in 2014 when the tide of the war was turning against the regime and fled to Germany.
The former military intelligence colonel was assigned to the same refugee centre as Al-Bunni, which is how the two Syrians crossed paths that day. When a case was filed against Raslan, it was said to be the first time an alleged member of Syria's notorious security forces had been brought to trial and a chance for Al-Bunni to meet his former jailer in court.
Al-Bunni helped prosecutors build a case against Raslan but the lawyer stresses the trial is not about bringing one perpetrator to justice but holding the entire regime to account for inflicting mass terror on the Syrian population.
"I don't care about him as a person, I care about the regime. For me, the trial is an opportunity to put light on the systematic use of torture at this branch and detention centres across Syria," said Al-Bunni.
"We are not charging him as an individual but as the head of the investigation division in the most important [security] branch in Syria. We are charging the whole of the regime, not just one person."
|We have information that many security leaders have obtained new passports with new names and some of them have changed their appearance, shaving their moustaches or beards
- Anwar Al-Bunni, Syrian lawyer
The impact of this trial in Syria is significant meaning that at least some who have enabled the regime's decades-long use of torture will finally face legal repercussions.
With another trial beginning in Germany of a doctor charged with torture, there is the prospect that more Syrian regime officials living clandestine lives in Europe will be brought to justice. Some are reports that some have fled Europe for Turkey and Lebanon in a bid to escape investigators.
"The regime is so worried by this trial. They didn't mention the trial in their media and people who support the regime haven't on social media, inside or outside Syria," said Al-Bunni.
"We have information that many security leaders have obtained new passports with new names and some of them have changed their appearance, shaving their moustaches or beards. They are so afraid, not just worried."
Al-Bunni's Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research are working with other lawyers in Europe, Turkey and Lebanon to hold Syrian security officials to account. The campaign is a team effort, he said, which is helped by activists and organisations, such as Families for Freedom, who have helped bring the horror of some 140,000 Syrians disappeared in regime detention centres to wider audience.
"It's not my work personally, it's the work of the centre. Activism is another track, they support us and bring more attention to our work," said Al-Bunni.
Families For Freedom
Wafa Mustafa, a Syrian journalist and activist, holds a silent vigil outside the courthouse in Koblenz in a solemn and dignified act of remembrance for the tens thousands of Syrians who have been disappeared and the families who are still waiting for answers.
She holds a portrait of her father, Ali Mustafa, who was detained by Syrian security forces in 2013 and has not been heard of or seen since.
"We as survivors and families of detainees are one of the reasons that this trial could actually happen," Mustafa told The New Arab. "We are not only victims waiting for the international community to bring us justice and accountability. Even if my dad wasn't arrested by the regime, I would have done the same thing for other detainees."
Accompanying the image of her father are portraits of missing activists and figures. Among them is Father Paolo, kidnapped by the Islamic State group in 2013, and lawyer Razan Zaitouneh who disappeared in Jaish Al-Islam-held Eastern Ghouta the same year. Most are of Syrians disappeared by the regime after pro-democracy protests broke out in 2011.
"I come from this quite liberal, and I would also say political, family. Education was the most important thing for my dad. He had his political stances and opinions. He always talked, even though everyone in Syria knows that the walls have ears," Mustafa told The New Arab.
In part due to the level of fear in Syria, the Arab Spring came later to the country than other parts of the region with small protests breaking out only in March 2011, after the falls of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes.
The moment of truth came for many Syrians came when security forces in the south detained and tortured a group of boys aged between 10 and 15 for allegedly writing anti-regime slogans on a school wall.
Later, 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khateeb was detained following a protest in Daraa province and tortured to death. His mutilated body was cruelly handed back to his family and a chilling posthumous video of the schoolboy sparked shock and horror in Syria and beyond.
"I grew up knowing that where we live is not a democratic or free country. When the revolution started and the schoolboys were arrested it was a moment I didn't need to think about, I just reacted. It was obvious to me what needed to be done," said the journalist and activist.
|We are not only victims waiting for the international community to bring us justice and accountability
- Wafa Mustafa, Syrian journalist
Mustafa, then aged 21, was detained several times by security forces and barred from continuing her studies at Damascus University due to her suspected political activity.
"I am not only a daughter of a detainee, and my dad is not only a detainee, I am an activist and demanding justice, freedom, accountability and a state of law. [It] is something we wanted even before my dad was arrested and it is something I would want even if my dad was here with me," Mustafa said.
"This trial means the regime is scared, they should be scared, and even if not it means that in the future people like [security chiefs] Jamil Al-Hassan and Ali Mamlouk cannot be part of Syria's future in any way because they are considered war criminals by European authorities, even if they cannot be prosecuted here."
A sign that Germany might lead the fight in Europe against Syrian regime's human rights abuses was the 2018 arrest warrant for Jamil Al-Hassan, one of Syria's most notorious security chiefs. France has also issued a notice for Ali Mamlouk, another regime official linked to war crimes.
These arrest warrants and the cases in Koblenz sends out a clear signal to the Syrian regime that its goal of normalisation with European countries will not happen, so long as Assad and the security state remain in power, said Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer at Guernica37 and founder of the Syrian Legal Development Programme.
"The Syrian regime officials who are on trial are quite senior and it is the first time this has happened, so it is an opportunity to get out evidence in an open court. But it could also trigger further cases, consolidate evidence, and get things out in the open that would be useful for future prospects against individuals that have a link to these activities," Olabi told The New Arab.
"This case is encouraging more people to come forward and make complaints to the police with regards to crimes they may have been subjected to. Thirdly, in a time when there is increasing normalisation with the Syrian regime, such a case sends a message to political normalisation actors… that this regime is not acceptable to a lot of the Western powers."
As some European countries assess whether Assad-controlled areas are "safe" for refugees to return to, the torture case could also confirm that doing so would be a death sentence for many Syrians, particularly anti-regime activists.
The fact that it was Germany that issued the arrest warrant for Hassan makes it difficult for the Assad regime to dismiss the move - and the Koblenz trials - as politically motivated, due to Berlin having little direct involvement in the Syria war and a lack of history in colonial activities in the country.
|This is an important first step and other countries need to follow suit, more needs to be done to fight impunity
Ibrahim Olabi, lawyer at Guernica37 and founder of the Syrian Legal Development Programme
The regime might use the case to send a message to security and military officials that if they defect or flee the ranks to Europe they could eventually be hunted down and held to account for their crimes, Olabi said.
"I'm sure that the regime would not be happy if a genuine German court convicted these individuals on charges of systematic torture in regime cells. It is the highest legal authority that we have had so far," said Olabi.
"This is an important first step and other countries need to follow suit, more needs to be done to fight impunity."
Al-Bunni said that bringing Syria's torturers to court was something he always knew would happen and that other members of the regime's security forces will one day face justice.
"I saw this from a long time ago, I knew this would happen. It's my whole life, it's not what I hoped would happen, it's something I believed would happen," Al-Bunni said.
"I knew all these criminals would end up in jail, including Bashar Al-Assad himself so it's not hope it's fate."
For the families waiting to hear from fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, one can only hope that this justice will be combined with being reunited with their loved ones.
Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin