Three senior Syrian security officials accused of complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity will be tried in their absence by the Paris Criminal Court in a four-day trial in May.
This will be the first such trial since the start of the civil war in Syria more than a decade ago, a lawyer involved in the trial told The National.
The trial, scheduled to take place between May 21 and May 24, comes seven years after a dual citizen, Obeida Dabbagh, filed a complaint requesting an investigation into the 2013 arrest in their Damascus home and subsequent death in detention of his brother Mazzen and his nephew Patrick.
“This is a very important court case which is not just about justice for Obeida’s family,” said his lawyer, Clemence Bectarte. “It is also for all the Syrians who, for various reasons, are not able to file a public complaint against their tormentors.”
The reason the trial is taking place in France is because Mazzen, a senior education adviser at the local French high school, and his son Patrick, a psychology student, held French and Syrian citizenship.
Neither were involved in the large-scale peaceful protests that shook the country in 2011 before escalating into a civil war, Ms Bectarte said.
The three accused men are well known in Syria and are widely viewed as being involved in the brutal crackdown by the Syrian government against protesters.
The three, all sanctioned by the European Union, at some point held senior jobs in the air force intelligence, a powerful and feared agency that was once commanded by the president’s father and predecessor, Hafez al Assad.
Since 2011, more than 112,000 people – about 5 per cent of the total population of Syria - have been arrested or forcibly disappeared, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Maj Gen Abdel Salam Mahmoud, director of investigation at air force intelligence, oversaw the detention centre in Mezzeh near Damascus at the time of Patrick and Mazzen’s arrest.
The United Nations has described the mass killings of thousands in Syrian prisons, particularly in the first years of the war, as a state policy of extermination of the civilian population.
The three French judges involved in the case also considered that decisions taken by Ali Mamlouk, a special adviser to President Bashar al Assad on security affairs and director of the national security bureau, played an important role in the repression against civilians, including arbitrary arrests such as those of Patrick and Mazzen.
Maj Gen Mamlouk is the direct superior of the third accused in this case, Maj Gen Jamil Hassan, the air force intelligence agency’s current director.
During their investigation, the judges involved in the case heard the testimonies of 23 Syrians living in the West who had either survived detention in Mezzeh or been confronted by one of the three accused.
Survivors described their living conditions, including routine torture and a high mortality rate.
“It’s important in this type of case to show that there is a pattern of repression,” Ms Bectarte told The National.
The Syrian government admitted to the death of Patrick and Mazzen in 2018 when it issued a large number of death certificates for people who had died in detention in the previous years.
Patrick died on January 21, 2014, and Mazzen on November 25, 2017. They were aged 20 and 61 at the time of their deaths.
The death certificates gave no explanation about how they died and their families never heard from them after their arrests on November 3 and 4, 2013, according to Ms Bectarte.
Men claiming to be from air force intelligence first arrested Patrick before returning the next night to detain his father, claiming they would teach him how to educate his son, according to witnesses.
The recognition of their deaths pushed French prosecutors in November 2018 to issue international arrest warrants for Maj Gen Mamlouk, Maj Gen Mahmoud and Maj Gen Hassan, who was already the subject of a German warrant.
Their trial was announced in April and its date was first reported by French newspaper Le Monde in July.
“It is important that proof is kept of these crimes in the hope that one day, even if it’s in several decades, there will be accountability in Syria,” Ms Bectarte said.
Obeida Dabbagh has been supported in the legal proceedings by the International Federation for Human Rights, the Human Rights League of France and the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, a non-governmental organisation in Paris.