Syrian defendant Anwar Raslan arrives at court in Germany for an unprecedented trial on state-sponsored torture. (Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images)
BERLIN — The German town of Koblenz, which straddles a confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, lies some 2,000 miles from Syria. But on Thursday, its regional court began to hear a landmark case against two alleged former Syrian regime officials.
German prosecutors used the principle of “universal jurisdiction” — which allows the prosecution of serious international crimes committed in another country — to bring charges against the two Syrian nationals who had claimed asylum in Germany.
Anwar Raslan, 57, alleged to have been head of investigations at a branch of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, has been charged with crimes against humanity, 58 murders, rape and sexual assault.
Another defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, 43, is charged with aiding a crime against humanity. Indictments were read Thursday, but neither defendant made statements or entered pleas.
But for those who have been fighting to hold the Syrian regime to account, the significance of this case extends far beyond the crimes of two individuals. It marks the first time an independent court will issue findings on President Bashar al-Assad’s tools of suppression during the mass demonstrations of 2011 and the civil war that followed.
After nine years of conflict, monitoring groups estimate that the death toll is more than 380,000 people, not including 88,000 they say have died in regime jails. Thousands more remain missing.
“It’s a big moment,” said Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer who is due to testify. “It’s a real court, and no one can question its independence. Its decision will be seen by the whole world.”
The trial against two Syrian defendants opens in Germany. (Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images)
It was a chance encounter in 2014 that set the trial in motion. Bunni, who had claimed asylum in Berlin, says he recognized a man at his refugee center but at first could not place him. It was only after a friend told him a former regime official had arrived that he made the connection. Raslan, he says, is the man who arrested him outside his home in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafr Souseh in 2006, leading to the five years he spent in prison.
They saw each other around the center several times, says Bunni, who now runs the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research from Berlin.
“He recognized me for sure,” he said. “I don’t feel anger. My enemy is not a person. My enemy is the regime, the whole structure.”
Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni will testify in the Germany case. (John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)
Bunni says at the time he was not aware of the possibility to pursue people such as Raslan in Germany.
The principle of international jurisdiction is one of the few avenues available for prosecuting serious international crimes committed in Syria, and rights groups and advocates say it is increasingly important in ensuring perpetrators cannot escape justice.
Syria is not a party to the treaty that established the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and China and Russia have vetoed setting up a special tribunal for the Syrian regime.
Raslan is accused of crimes that took place between April 29, 2011, and Sept. 7, 2012, when Syria was gripped by revolution. Prosecutors say his crimes happened “in the context of an extensive and systematic attack on the civilian population.” They argue that the unit Raslan headed at Branch 251 tortured at least 4,000 detainees during that period, using methods including beatings and electric shocks.
At least 58 people also died under his command during that time, they say, adding that inmates were denied food and medical care. Prosecutors argue that Raslan, as head of the investigative unit, knew of the extent of torture at the facility.
‘I still have nightmares’: Voices from inside Assad’s torture network in Syria
Gharib is accused of being a subordinate who also was aware of the systematic torture in Branch 251. Prosecutors say that in 2011, he searched the streets of Damascus for people fleeing a demonstration that had been violently dispersed. Eventually, 30 people were arrested, they say, with the defendant accompanying them on a bus to where they would be detained.
“The detainees had already been beaten on the way to the prison and upon arrival in prison,” the prosecution said in a release. “In prison, they were brutally abused and tortured systematically.”
In court Thursday, Gharib’s attorneys argued against the use of evidence he gave under questioning to German authorities, as he was informed he was a witness at the time rather than a suspect.
Assad was asked about the case during an interview with the RT news broadcaster in November. “We don’t have torture units,” he said. “We don’t have a torture policy in Syria.”
He said the Syrian government has “all the information,” so it has no need to extract it through torture, but that “individual incidents” may happen.
The trial, expected to stretch for months, will be the first time Syrian victims have faced an alleged perpetrator in court. “That’s a really significant milestone for the rule of law in the conflict in Syria,” said Steve Kostas, a senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which is representing six former prisoners of the branch.
The trial also will be a test for evidence gathered by justice groups. The nonprofit Commission for International Justice and Accountability has collected more than 800,000 Syrian government documents it hopes can be used in these prosecutions and others.
“To show that the evidence that they have been collecting in Syria can be used in a court of law and lead to a conviction would be an extremely significant accomplishment,” Kostas said.
He said several of the individuals who were detained in Branch 251 at the relevant time appear within a trove of more than 50,000 photographs smuggled out of Syria by a military defector code-named “Ceasar.” That evidence was passed on to German law enforcement, Kostas said.
Raslan announced his defection in 2012, which has made his prosecution a subject of debate in some circles. “There were many arguments among the Syrians,” Bunni said.
“But justice is justice,” he said. “Crimes against humanity and war crimes are not small crimes. It can’t mean he has immunity.”
While accountability for more-senior regime figures remains out of reach, Bunni expects there will be more trials such as the one in Koblenz. He and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights have submitted complaints to German prosecutors against six other people they accuse of being high-level Syrian intelligence officials.
“It’s the first time,” Bunni said of the case. “It will not be the last time.”
Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.
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