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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

German court finds Syrian colonel guilty of crimes against humanity


A German court has sentenced a Syrian colonel to life in prison for crimes against humanity in a historic trial.

Anwar Raslan, 58, was linked to the torture of over 4,000 people in Syria’s civil war in a jail known as “Hell on Earth”.

The trial in Koblenz is the world’s first criminal case brought over state-led torture in Syria.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet praised the conviction as a “landmark leap forward” in the pursuit of truth.

It’s difficult to imagine what the men and women imprisoned in Syria’s notorious Al-Khatib prison had to go through.

Raslan was accused of being a high-ranking security service officer under President Bashar al-Assad during the violent suppression of mass anti-government protests in 2011.

Many protesters and others suspected of opposing the regime were apprehended and detained at Damascus’ Al-Khatib facility, where prosecutors claim Mr Raslan directed operations.

He was charged with 58 murders, rape, and sexual assault, as well as torturing at least 4,000 people detained there between 2011 and 2012.

The decision is significant, particularly for those who survived Al-Khatib and testified during the trial. A criminal court has now formally acknowledged that the Assad regime committed crimes against humanity against its own citizens.

Universal jurisdiction

Raslan was apprehended in Germany in 2019 after successfully seeking asylum there. He denied all of the charges levelled against him, claiming that he had nothing to do with the mistreatment of detainees and that he actually tried to help some of them.

His trial was unusual for a number of reasons. It was unprecedented in confronting Syria’s state-led torture, and it was prompted by the arrival in Germany of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Many of the nearly 800,000 Syrians who now live in Germany brought with them horrific stories of what happened to those who opposed the Assad regime, and German human rights lawyers took up their cause, bringing the case to court using the principle of universal jurisdiction. This enables serious crimes committed in one country to be prosecuted in another.

What happened at Al-Khatib?

  • The underground detention facility is part of “Branch 251” of the General Security Directorate (GSD), one of Syria’s four main intelligence agencies
  • It consists of two buildings in central Al-Khatib area of Damascus, according to witnesses and defectors
  • Anwar Raslan was alleged to have overseen torture of detainees as head of Branch 251’s investigations section from April 2011, a month after the uprising began against President Assad, until his defection in September 2012
  • Syrian journalist Amer Matar, held in April 2011, told the trial people were “being tortured without any logic” and that Raslan ripped off his blindfold during one interrogation, swore at him and hit him in the face

The head of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, Wolfgang Kaleck, says it’s difficult to talk about justice when hundreds of thousands of people have been tortured and tens of thousands have died as a result.

But, perhaps most importantly, the trial gave a voice to those who had been silenced by the Assad regime. Fifty survivors have testified in Koblenz’s court; 24 are co-plaintiffs in the case.

Screams of torture

Their tales are harrowing. Detainees were beaten and doused in cold water, according to the court. Others were raped or hung from the ceiling for long periods of time. Torturers ripped out their fingernails and shocked them with electric shocks.

One survivor told me that he could hear people being tortured screams all day, every day. Another claim was that his assailants had used special “tools” and appeared to enjoy what they were doing.

Raslan now faces life in prison, with prosecutors attempting to bar any possibility of parole after 15 years.

Prosecutors were encouraged by the conviction of another Syrian official in the same trial last year. Eyad-al-Gharib was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity after assisting in the arrest of protesters who were later tortured and killed.

Lawyers are preparing cases against a number of other suspects, but their ultimate goal is to bring those at the top of the chain of command to justice.

Bashar al-Assad has indicated that he is paying attention to the trial, but he and his government have repeatedly denied allegations of torturing or forcibly “disappearing” hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.

This trial also serves another purpose: it creates a body of evidence to be used in future proceedings. Prosecutors in Koblenz have relied on the “Caesar files,” gruesome photographs smuggled out of Syria by a regime whistleblower showing the dead bodies of thousands of people believed to have died in detention facilities, many of whom appear to have been tortured.

It also serves as a reminder of the ongoing plight of many Syrians.

Twenty-four survivors were co-plaintiffs in the case including Wassim Mukdad (L) and Hussein Ghrer (R)

Wassim Mukdad, who was arrested in 2011 and now lives in Germany, testified at the trial and returned to the court for the verdict.

“This is the first step in a long journey towards justice for me,” he told the BBC.

Many stories have gone unheard, he says, “either because they are still detained now – while we’re talking, they’re suffering torture and horrible conditions in the detention centres.” Or because they were assassinated.”

Then there were those who died attempting to reach Europe, drowning at sea or freezing on the continent’s borders, he adds.

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