French court clears way for Syrian war crimes trial

Spokesman for Jaish Al Islam has been accused by rights groups of recruiting child soldiers and complicity in torture

Fighters from Jaish Al Islam patrol the front line in Jobar, on the eastern edge of the Syrian capital, in 2016. AFP
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A French court has cleared the way for a former spokesman of an extremist rebel group to stand trial for war crimes in France over the kidnapping and torture of civilians in Syria.

Majdi Nema – who was known as Islam Alloush while spokesman of Jaish Al Islam – could stand trial under the principle of universal jurisdiction following his arrest in 2020 after he travelled to France for his studies.

A court on Monday reversed a previous decision that will allow prosecutors to pursue people accused of the most serious international crimes even if they have no links to France. The ruling is expected to be appealed by lawyers for Mr Nema.

Jaish Al Islam, one of a number of rebel factions fighting the Syrian government, was active in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, where it was regularly accused of committing crimes against civilians who lived under its rule from 2011 to 2018.

The group is accused of kidnapping and torturing four human rights activists – known as the Douma Four – who have not been seen since they were snatched in 2013 in Douma.

“We now hope that a trial can be held in France that can shed light on the fate of the Douma Four and provide justice to the Syrian victims,” said Mazen Darwish, director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), which has worked with other groups to secure evidence and witnesses.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and SCM filed a legal complaint in 2019 identifying about 30 members of Jaish Al Islam to try to put them before a court if they turned up in Europe.

It identified crimes including torture in prisons that the group controlled and disappearances of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, said the organisation. The group, said to number more than 20,000 fighters, lost control of the area in 2018.

The case is still under investigation but rights groups say they expect a decision on whether Mr Nema will be brought to trial later this year. He claimed to have left the group after its founder was killed in an air strike in 2015. He was studying politics in Turkey and France, where he was arrested.

The case is still under investigation but rights groups say they expect a decision on whether he will be brought to trial this year.

“This would be the first trial for war crimes committed in Syria but not by the regime,” said Clemence Bectarte, a lawyer for FIDH.

The case is one of a number in Europe in which victims and lawyers have worked to bring cases against those behind brutal crimes during the war in Syria.

France in 2018 issued arrest warrants for three high-ranking Syrian officials accused of complicity in the torture and death of a father and son after their detention five years earlier in a notorious regime prison.

The three accused include a senior lieutenant of the Syrian president, reflecting French judicial views that responsibility for the deaths of Mazen Dabbagh, 58, and his son Patrick, 20, went to the top of the Assad regime. No arrests have been made.

In Germany, former Syrian intelligence officer Anwar Raslan was convicted in January of crimes against humanity.

He was sentenced to life in prison for overseeing the murder of 27 people and the torture of 4,000 others at Al Khatib detention centre in Damascus in 2011 and 2012.

It was the first case to find a senior official in the regime of Bashar Al Assad guilty of crimes against humanity.

Updated: April 05, 2022, 2:44 PM