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'Watershed' first Syrian state torture trial opens in Germany

Tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed under torture [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 April, 2020

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Justice has been elusive for victims of the Syrian regime but human rights experts say the German trial offers hope for those subjected to war crimes and torture.
Two alleged former Syrian intelligence officers went on trial in Germany on Thursday accused of crimes against humanity in the first court case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime.

Prime suspect Anwar Raslan, an alleged former colonel in Syrian state security, stands accused of carrying out crimes against humanity while in charge of the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus. 

The 57-year-old, who appeared in the dock wearing glasses and a moustache, is charged with overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the prison between April 29, 2011 and September 7, 2012. 

Fellow defendant Eyad al-Gharib, 43, is accused of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity, having helped to arrest protesters and deliver them to Al-Khatib in the autumn of 2011. He appeared before the court in a grey hooded jacket, his face partially covered by a mask. 

Like hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, the two men both fled their country and applied for asylum in Germany, where they were arrested in February 2019. 

"This trial is the first occasion on which [victims] are speaking out – not only in public, but before a court – about what happened to them and what is still happening in Syria," said Wolfgang Kaleck, founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based legal group supporting the plaintiffs.

Raslan and Gharib are being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity.

This is the only way to bring the perpetrators of Syrian state crimes to justice, as the International Criminal Court is hamstrung by vetoes from Russia and China, the ECCHR claimed. 

Read more: Prosecuting Assad's henchmen must be the start of holding Syria's torturers to account

Rights group Amnesty International called on other states "to follow Germany’s steps in initiating similar proceedings".

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"The case in Koblenz should serve as a stark warning to those who are currently committing abuses in Syria that no one is beyond the reach of justice," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. 

Universal jurisdiction laws in Germany allow for the prosecution of crimes regardless of where they were committed or the nationality of the suspects or victims.

"This trial is a watershed moment for victims determined to see justice for the crimes they suffered in Syria," said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. "Today's proceedings should serve as an important reminder that more is needed to ensure accountability for the conflict's horrific atrocities."

"With other avenues for justice blocked, criminal prosecutions in Europe offer hope for victims of crimes in Syria who have nowhere else to turn," Jarrah added.

'Beaten with fists, wires and whips'

During the trial, due to last until at least August, the court is expected to hear testimony from victims who survived imprisonment at Al-Khatib, before later escaping to Europe.

Reading from the charge sheet on Thursday, state prosecutor Jasper Klinge said conditions at the prison were "inhumane".

Inmates, many of whom were arrested for taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations during the Arab Spring in 2011, were beaten with "fists, wires and whips" and subjected to "electric shocks", prosecutors said.

Others were "hung by their wrists so that only the tips of their toes were touching the ground" and "continued to be beaten in this position" or else "deprived of sleep for several days".

Such "brutal acts of psychological and physical abuse" were intended to extract "confessions and information about the [Syrian] opposition", the charge sheet said.

Some have suggested that Raslan was not just a pawn of the regime, noting that he reportedly defected to the opposition in 2012 before arriving in Germany two years later.

Yet ECCHR's Kaleck insists that he was not "any old prison guard", but rather someone who, according to prosecutors, had a position of authority in the apparatus of the Syrian state.

If convicted, Raslan faces life imprisonment. 

Raslan and Gharib's lawyers declined to comment ahead of the trial.

Assad himself, however, defended Raslan against the accusations when he was asked about the trial in an interview with Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT.

"We never believed that torture could make the situation better as a state, very simple. So we don't use it," said the Syrian president, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 20 years.

Yet according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, at least 60,000 people have been killed under torture or as a result of the terrible conditions in Assad's detention centres.

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