Syrian Prison Torturer and Murderer Convicted in Germany

Murder, Torture, Rape: A Landmark Conviction on State Violence in Syria

The New York Times

January 13, 2022

By Ben Hubbard and Katrin Bennhold


A German court found a former Syrian intelligence officer guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison — a first after a decade of war.


Anwar Raslan, a former officer at a Damascus detention center, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison.Credit...Pool photo by Thomas Frey To view video click here.


When detainees arrived at the security office in Syria, it “welcomed” them with an hour of whipping or beating, they told a German court.


They were held in packed, sweltering cells and fed potatoes that tasted like diesel. They drank from toilets. One recalled passing dead bodies in a hallway. A woman said interrogators inflicted electric shocks on her hands, legs and chest during questioning.


In the world’s first trial prosecuting state-sponsored torture in Syria, the German court, in Koblenz, on Thursday convicted the former intelligence official in charge of that security office, the notorious al-Khatib unit in Damascus, of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison.


The ruling said the former officer, Anwar Raslan, 58, oversaw the torture of prisoners and the killing of at least 27 people, in addition to sexual abuse and “particularly grave rape” of detainees.


Human rights lawyers and Syrian survivors hailed the verdict as a landmark in the international quest to hold accountable those who committed war crimes during nearly 11 years of war in Syria. It also set a precedent reaching far beyond Syria: It was the first to target atrocities by a government that is still in power, said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany.


“This was a very important verdict,” Ms. Bock said. “The signal is: There is no safe haven for war criminals. It’s a clear sign that the world will not stand by and do nothing.”


But the conviction also highlighted the stark limitations of international efforts to bring war criminals from countries like Syria to justice. Mr. Raslan, who served as a colonel in a Syrian intelligence service, was ultimately just a cog in the extensive machinery of repression in Syria.


Many Syrians far more powerful than Mr. Raslan — accused not only of committing more extensive crimes, but of crafting policies that resulted in mass civilian deaths — are still living freely in Syria, including its autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad.

Holding pictures of Syrian civil war victims outside the courthouse where Mr. Raslan was on trial on Thursday in Koblenz, Germany.Credit...Bernd Lauter/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


“My question is: Is this the type of justice we’re looking for?” said Lina Mouhmade, who testified about being detained in Mr. Raslan’s center in 2012. “Honestly, the justice I am looking for is prosecuting Bashar himself and his collaborators, who are still committing horrifying crimes.”


Mr. Raslan left Syria in 2012, in the war’s second year, and joined the political opposition, which helped him secure a visa to Germany in 2014. The war continued to rage for several more years, with Syrian forces using poison gas, imposing starvation sieges on rebellious communities and reducing residential neighborhoods to rubble through bombing campaigns.


Both the rebels who tried and failed to oust Mr. al-Assad, and jihadists from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State who took advantage of the conflict’s chaos, also committed war crimes.


But only a few perpetrators on all sides have been prosecuted.


One reason, experts say, is that unlike leading Nazis after World War II or Rwandan officials who were convicted of the atrocities they committed, the Syrian government, whose military and security services are responsible for the bulk of the violence in the country, remains in power, preventing the apprehension of its leaders and officers.


Mr. al-Assad and his senior advisers and military commanders rarely travel abroad. When they do, they go only to countries they can count on not to arrest them, like Russia, a staunch supporter of Mr. al-Assad.


Other potential avenues for justice have also been blocked. Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and Russia and China have used their vetoes on the United Nations Security Council to prevent Syria from being referred to the court.


As a result, victims of the Syrian government and human rights lawyers have focused their efforts in countries that accept “