Germany convicts Syrian intelligence officer in world's first prosecution over Assad regime torture

Eyad Al Gharib jailed for four and a half years after victim tells court of 'the torture and the trauma'

CORRECTION / Syrian defendant Eyad al-Gharib, accused of crimes against humanity in the first trial of its kind to emerge from the Syrian conflict, arrives to hear his verdict in the court room on February 24, 2021 in Koblenz, western Germany. Eyad al-Gharib, 44, former Syrian intelligence service agent was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for complicity in crimes against humanity in the first court case over state-sponsored torture by the Syrian government. / AFP / POOL / Thomas Lohnes

A former Syrian intelligence official on Wednesday became the first person to be convicted over state-sponsored torture by the government of President Bashar Al Assad.

Eyad Al Gharib was sentenced to jail for four and a half years by a court in Germany, the first conviction in the world related to the repression of protesters after the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Gharib, 44, was found guilty of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity as a low-ranking member of the intelligence service.

He helped to arrest at least 30 protesters and delivered them to the Al Khatib detention centre in Damascus after a rally in Duma, north-east of Syria's capital, in the autumn of 2011.

He hid his face from the cameras with a folder as the verdict was read out.

Feras Fayyad, who gave evidence during the case after being tortured at the detention centre, said: "I’m really happy about this. I can’t cry, I wish I could cry but I can’t because of the torture and the trauma.

"I’m not the only one who testified but I'm part of this entire nation that has been tortured and I’ve had the opportunity to get my testimony out."

Gharib is the first of two men on trial since April 23 to be sentenced by the court in Koblenz, after judges decided to split the proceedings in two.

The second defendant, Anwar Raslan, 58, is charged with crimes against humanity, including overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000.

The trial of Mr Raslan, who denies the charges, is expected to last until the end of October. He was arrested after being spotted in a shop in Germany by Anwar Al Bunni, a prominent Syrian lawyer who spent five years in one of Syria’s notorious jails.

The lawyer said that Wednesday's conviction of Gharib was a landmark moment for those seeking justice in Syria.

“This is not about one person,” he said. “He belonged to a systematic policy from this evil machine that arrested people, was involved in disappearances, torture, killed people and hid their bodies.

“His crimes followed orders from high-ranking officers. When they charged him, they charged all of this group.

“We are asking Europe to ban these criminals from being part of our future in Syria and the future of humanity.”

The two men were being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity, including war crimes and genocide, regardless of where they were committed.

Other such cases have sprung up in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrians who sought refuge in Europe turn to the only legal means currently available to them.

Prosecutors in Koblenz sought five and a half years for Gharib, who defected in 2012 before finally fleeing Syria in February 2013. After spending time in Turkey and Greece, Gharib arrived in Germany on April 25, 2018.

He has never denied his past and the stories he told German authorities in charge of his asylum application eventually led to his arrest in February 2019.

Prosecutors accused him of being a cog in the machine of a system where torture was practised on an "almost industrial scale".

Presiding judge Anne Kerber (L) stands before handing the verdict to Syrian defendant Eyad al-Gharib (R, hidden under a folder), accused of crimes against humanity in the first trial of its kind to emerge from the Syrian conflict, waits to hear the verdict in the court room on February 24, 2021 in Koblenz, western Germany. Eyad al-Gharib, 44, former Syrian intelligence service agent was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for complicity in crimes against humanity in the first court case over state-sponsored torture by the Syrian government. / AFP / POOL / Thomas Lohnes

During the trial, Gharib wrote a letter read out by his lawyers in which he expressed his sorrow for the victims.

With tears streaming down his face he listened to his lawyers call for his acquittal, arguing that he and his family could have been killed had he not carried out the orders of the regime.

But Patrick Kroker, a lawyer representing the joint plaintiffs, said that Gharib could have been more forthcoming during the trial, rather than keeping silent throughout the hearings.

Mr Kroker said people like Gharib "can be very important in informing us about the Syrian officials we are really targeting, but it is something he chose not to do".

During the trial, more than a dozen Syrian men and women took the stand to testify about the appalling abuses they endured in the Al Khatib detention centre, also named Branch 251.

Some witnesses were heard anonymously, with their faces concealed or wearing wigs for fear of reprisals against their relatives in Syria.

The trial was the first time that photos from the so-called Caesar files were presented in a court of law.

The 50,000 images taken by the Syrian military police defector known as Caesar show the corpses of 6,786 Syrians who were starved or tortured to death in the Assad regime's detention centres.

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