International human rights organisations have praised as a “beacon of hope” charges for crimes against humanity brought against two Syrian security agents in Germany.
The two men, suspecting of being members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s notorious secret service, will now stand trial for torture, murder, sexual assault and other crimes committed against Syrian opposition activists during the country’s bloody civil war.
The pair, charged by prosecutors in the southeastern city of Karlsruhe were arrested in Germany earlier this year under “universal jurisdiction laws”, which allow for the prosecution of crimes against humanity regardless of jurisdiction.
"The move by German prosecutors to charge two former Syrian officials for serious crimes is a critical part of the long march to justice by victims who have endured years of unchecked atrocities," senior counsel for Human Rights Watch Balkees Jarrah told The National.
“With other avenues currently blocked, criminal cases in Europe are a beacon of hope for those who have nowhere else to turn. As the one of the first countries to hold trials and convict people for atrocities in Syria, Germany is putting perpetrators on notice that they will have to pay for their crimes," she added.
The principal suspect in the case, identified as Anwar R., was charged with 58 murders and multiple sexual assaults in a Damascus prison where at least 4,000 opposition activists were tortured.
The 56-year-old, prosecutors said, oversaw interrogations at the facility and is suspected of involvement in crimes against humanity between 2011 and 2012. He left Syria in 2012 and arrived in Germany in July 2014.
Eyad A., the second suspect, was charged for his part in the torture of at least 30 members of the Syrian opposition after the brutal government crackdown on anti-Assad demonstrations in Douma near Damascus in 2011.
The pair worked in an intelligence unit led by Anwar R. Both men applied for asylum in Germany and, according to Deutsche Welle, were arrested in the regions of Berlin and Rhineland-Palatinate.
“This trial is a landmark moment and will create hope and momentum for the millions of Syrians affected by the years of barrel bombing, gas attacks, imprisonment, torture and killing,” Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK’s Syria campaign manager said.
“We’d like to see other countries following Germany’s lead,” he explained. “The timing of the trial’s announcement is also important, sending a clear message to officials currently meeting in Geneva that there can be no ‘peace’ or ‘stability’ in Syria if the Syrian people are denied justice”
Victims of the atrocities carried out by the Syrian regime and their legal representatives have tried numerous times to persuade the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to take action on crimes carried out by the Assad regime from the mass murder of detainees to the use of chemical weapons.
However, The Hague has refused to accept jurisdiction to act over Syria which is not a signatory to the Rome statute that established the international war crimes tribunal. Russia and China have repeatedly blocked attempts by the United Nation’s Security Council to set up a special ICC mandate over Syria.
Human rights lawyers have increasingly looked to European jurisdictions for legal movement against members of Bashar al-Assad’s regime including the Syrian leader himself. Last year German prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for the head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Human rights lawyers in Europe have been collecting testimonies from survivors among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have sought refuge, mainly in Germany and Sweden, to prosecute members of the regime in Damascus.