A former Syrian intelligence officer has been convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison by a German court after a watershed trial laid bare the abuse committed by the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
Anwar Raslan was found guilty of overseeing the murder of 27 people the torture of 4,000 others at the Al Khatib detention centre in Damascus between April 2011 and September 2012.
The trial in Koblenz, in which more than 80 people testified including those previously detained in Syria, was the first to prosecute over Syrian state-sponsored abuse.
Raslan, who fled Syria in 2012, was put on trial in April 2020 along with low-ranking intelligence agent Eyad Al Gharib, who was accused of helping to arrest and transport protesters to Al Khatib. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in February for complicity in crimes against humanity.
“We waited for so long to witness this moment,” said Hussein Ghreir, a torture survivor and joint plaintiff who testified during the trial.
“This individual conviction has not only seen justice served for survivors of torture like me but it also carries a wider meaning. It provides legal confirmation of the systematic nature of the crimes being committed by the Syrian regime.”
Presiding judge Anne Kerber said the Syrian regime had resorted to “the heavy use of munitions” to violently suppress demonstrations that erupted in March 2011. Victims held in the regime's detention centres were not only “tortured but also starved and deprived of air” in unsanitary, crowded cells where they were unable to sit or lie down, she said.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the trial cast a renewed spotlight “on the kinds of sickening torture, cruel and truly inhuman treatment — including abject sexual violence — that countless Syrians were subjected to in detention facilities”. She described it as a “landmark leap forward in the pursuit of truth, justice and reparations” in Syria.
Prosecutors in Germany had accused Raslan of overseeing the murder of 58 people and torture of 4,000 others, but not all of the deaths could be proven.
Mariam Hallak, whose son died while jailed in Syria, said for those who had lost loved ones in regime prisons “we have been wishing for the day when we could see a member of Syria’s security forces being held accountable for their crimes".
“We hope that this verdict paves the way for further trials of perpetrators of war crimes against the Syrian people,” said Ms Hallak, the founder of Caesar Families Association.
“Each violation does not just impact one person, it has a ripple effect that reaches all their family and much of the Syrian population.
“May this verdict send a clear message to every politician, security officer in Syria who is still detaining, torturing and killing people: you cannot escape justice, one day you will be held accountable for your crimes.”
The trial was made possible under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows offences to be prosecuted even if committed in a foreign country.
Part of the evidence presented against Mr Raslan were photographs of alleged torture victims smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer, who goes by the pseudonym Caesar.
Prosecutors alleged that Raslan oversaw rape and sexual abuse, “electric shocks”, beatings with “fists, wires and whips” and “sleep deprivation” at the prison. Witnesses reported electric shocks, cigarette burns and blows to the genitals. Some said they were hung by the wrists, with only the tips of their feet touching the ground.
During the trial Raslan, via a statement from his lawyers, said he had “neither beaten nor tortured” prisoners and had “never acted inhumanely".
Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Lynn Maalouf, said countries “must follow Germany’s lead and initiate similar proceedings against individuals suspected of committing crimes under international law. With domestic criminal prosecutions in Syria inconceivable and no pathway for referring cases to the international criminal court, universal jurisdiction is the only way to achieve justice.”
Legal proceedings have been launched in Austria, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, while a trial of a Syrian doctor accused of torture, murder and crimes against humanity is due to start in Frankfurt this month.
Anwar Al Bunni, a Syrian human rights lawyer who has been involved in the case and was once arrested by Raslan in Syria, said the Koblenz trial was “one step” on a “long road”.
“Our work is also to let the people believe in justice,” he told The National before the verdict.
“There is a peaceful way we can reach our rights.”