High hopes pinned on first trial in France of senior Syrian officials for war crimes

Trial to act as warning against efforts to re-establish ties with President Bashar Al Assad's government, says lawyer

Demonstrators hold images of Ali Mamlouk during a protest in Beirut in 2012. Reuters
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The trial of three Syrian security officials accused of involvement in crimes against humanity and war crimes opens in France on Tuesday, with lawyers hoping the verdict serves as a warning against efforts to restore ties with President Bashar Al Assad's government after 13 years of civil war.

The four-day hearing will take place at the Paris Criminal Court, with air force director of investigations Maj Gen Abdel Salem Mahmoud, air force intelligence agency chief Maj Gen Jamil Hassan and special presidential adviser on security affairs Ali Mamlouk tried in absentia.

The names of the three men, who are closely associated with the government's repression of a peaceful uprising in 2011 that escalated into a civil war, are widely known by Syrians.

“It's the first time that such high-ranking officials are judged,” said lawyer Clemence Bectarte.

She is representing Obeida Dabbagh, who filed a complaint in France eight years ago and requested an investigation into the November 2013 arrest of his brother Mazzen and nephew Patrick at their home in Damascus and subsequent death in detention.

The death certificates were issued in August 2018, stating that the father and son died in 2014 and 2017. Their bodies were never returned.

Their grim fate is “emblematic of the fate of thousands of other Syrians”, said Ms Bectarte.

“It's important to establish a chain of responsibility at the highest level of the Syrian state,” she added.

Ms Bectarte hopes that the verdict, expected on Friday, will make it harder for France to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Syrian government in the future.

“Diplomacy has a very short-term memory,” said Ms Bectarte. “But it's harder for a country to normalise with [another] if one own's judiciary has sentenced high-ranking officials who are still in place.”

Mazzen and Patrick, who held dual French and Syrian citizenship, were not involved in the protests, she said.

The EU and the US in 2011 imposed tough sanctions against the Assad government in the wake of its brutal repression of the protests, which triggered a displacement crisis that is one of the world's largest.

Since 2011, more than 112,000 people – about 5 per cent of Syria's population – have been arrested or forced to disappear, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Worry over returns

The conflict and ensuing poverty continue to push Syrians to leave for Europe, where they have a high chance of obtaining asylum status. About 90 per cent of Syrians currently live under the poverty line.

The UN says the country remains unsafe for them to return due to human rights offences. However, a number of EU countries, including Denmark in 2019 and Cyprus last month, have signalled their interest in establishing “safe zones”.

This has triggered fears that Europe will re-establish ties with Syria, which was last year reintegrated into the Arab League.

It's important that this evidence be brought to a respectable jursidication with an independent judge
Syrian lawyer Mazen Darwish

The trial will open with statements from expert witnesses, including French researcher Francois Burgat and Catherine Marchi-Uhel, a UN judge overseeing investigations into serious crimes in Syria.

A number of Syrian witnesses, whose names have not been disclosed for security reasons, may testify on Thursday.

Members of the Dabbagh family and Syrian lawyer Mazen Darwish are also expected to appear before the court.

Mr Darwish presides over the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, which has supported Mr Dabbagh in his legal proceedings.

If the three officials are found guilty, the court will issue new international arrest warrants. They have not contacted the court either in person or via a lawyer, meaning there will be no defence during the four-day trial.

Mr Darwish told The National that he would testify about his experience in Syrian prisons from 2012 to 2015, including being subjected to electric torture, after being arrested for what he believes to be his defence of human rights.

“For the first two months, I was tortured for information. After that, I was tortured for the sake of torture,” he said.

“This trial gives an example of how victims themselves can fight for justice. It's important to show that justice is not revenge; it's a tool to secure a sustainable peace in Syria in the future.

“I will also speak about how victims and witnesses fear normalisation and enforced returns. Right-wing political parties in Europe are talking about sending refugees back without a political solution.”

The trial is also important as it will challenge the Syrian government's denials of torture, added Mr Darwish.

“We worry about the narrative. It's important that this evidence be brought to a respectable jurisdiction with an independent judge.”

Lawyer Mohammad Al Abdallah, director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre and another former prisoner, expressed doubts that the trial would affect efforts to restore ties.

“The case can highlight the systematic nature of human rights violation in Syria but I don't believe it's changing the scene on normalisation,” he said, pointing to the secret visit of Mr Mamlouk to Italy in 2018, which was revealed by Lebanese and French media.

“Will it change the future of security agencies in Syria? Is it encouraging Assad to release more people? The answer to all this is no,” Mr Al Abdallah told The National.

Legal proceedings in absentia can take place in France if the suspect's residence cannot be verified or if they leave for abroad and it cannot be established that they received the necessary information.

The Paris court said it was unable to verify the addresses of Mr Mamlouk and Mr Hassan. Mr Mahmoud is believed to live in the Dabbagh family home – after Mazzen's wife and daughter were thrown out – and a simple letter was sent asking him to appear in court.

French authorities were unable to formally summon Mr Mahmoud via a request for international criminal assistance because of the absence of diplomatic relations with Syria.

Mr Mahmoud was, at the time, head of investigations for the air force intelligence agency and based at the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus, where Mazzen and Patrick were detained and where Mr Darwish spent his first month in detention.

Updated: May 20, 2024, 2:27 PM