The hunters chasing down Syrian war criminals in Europe

Syrian torture survivors demand justice after finding themselves living next to their oppressors in Europe

Salwa's Story: seeking justice for Syrian refugees

Salwa's Story: seeking justice for Syrian refugees
Powered by automated translation

Salwa Al Homsi was only 24 when she was jailed by Syrian intelligence agents in Aleppo in 2012, during a regime crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

After incarceration in the city's notorious prison, Salwa fled for Germany, where she has lived with her husband and two young daughters since 2014.

She is one of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who sought refuge in Europe.

But many soon found themselves living alongside their former oppressors, who also came to Europe as refugees.

Salwa told The National  that a friend discovered she was living in the same street as a member of a shabiha, Syria's state-sponsored militia groups.

“There are ex-regime individuals in the country and around the European Union,” she said.

“Many of them continue to intimidate those of us who supported the opposition, and even threaten us in public places.

“I have a friend who was living somewhere in Germany on the same street as a member of a shabiha who she knew was participating in repressing the peaceful protesters, and he is a refugee here.

“This is a despicable situation for someone who escaped from such hostile people and such a dangerous environment to end up seeing them daily.”

A long-running campaign to win justice for the victims of war crimes in Syria is gathering strength and raising hopes among torture survivors that the tide is turning against their oppressors.

The landmark Koblenz trial

Former colonel Anwar Raslan was put on trial in Koblenz, Germany, in a watershed moment for the war crimes prosecution of officials in the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Raslan is accused of involvement in the murder of 58 protesters and the torture of about 4,000 people in a Damascus detention centre in 2011.

He is being tried alongside a fellow former intelligence officer under universal jurisdiction, which allows states to prosecute crimes against humanity regardless of where they were committed.

A handout satellite image released by The French national Space study centre (CNES) and the ASTRIUM, the aerospace maufacture subsiduary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and received from Amnesty International on February 7, 2017 by shows the military-run Saydnaya prison, one of Syria's largest detention centres located 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of Damascus.

The United States on May 15, 2017 accused Syria of building a prison crematorium to destroy the remains of thousands of murdered detainees, putting pressure on Russia to rein in its ally. Warning Moscow it should not turn a blind eye to Bashar al-Assad's crimes, the State Department released satellite images that it said backed up reports of mass killings at the Syrian jail.

 / AFP PHOTO / AFP / Handout
A satellite image shows the Damascus detention centre where Anwar Raslan is alleged to have committed war crimes. AFP

The men were arrested in Germany last year after being seen in a shop by one of their former victims, Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni.

Mr Al Bunni, who gave evidence in the trial last month, told The National  that his fellow activists and lawyers had faced significant hurdles.

“The difficulties that we are facing now to chase the war criminals have been diverse and legally challenging,” he said.

“Gathering the case itself is quite difficult. Many of these witnesses have their families and relatives in Syria.”

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, speaks to the media in front of pictures of victims of the Syrian regime, during a protest outside the trial against two Syrian alleged former intelligence officers accused for crimes against humanity, in the first trial of its kind to emerge from the Syrian conflict, on June 4, 2020 in Koblenz, western Germany. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes / AFP)
Human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni is at the forefront of attempts to bring Syrian regime officials to justice. AFP

The campaigners are also short-staffed and under-resourced.

“As human rights defenders and lawyers, we are still short on the expertise and personnel needed to uphold these cases,” Mr Al Bunni said.

He said he was working on legal proceedings against alleged war criminals in Germany, France, Norway, Spain and Switzerland, where Rifat Al Assad, brother of former president Hafez and uncle to Bashar, is being prosecuted.

Momentum builds with doctor’s arrest

The recent arrest of a Syrian doctor in Germany, suspected of crimes against humanity at a jail run by the regime’s intelligence service in the western city of Homs, was also hailed as a significant moment in the pursuit of justice.

The suspect, Dr Alaa Mousa, is accused of having tortured detainees at the prison before starting a new life in Germany in 2015.

Another Syrian doctor, Muaaz Alghajar, who worked alongside the suspect as a surgeon at a hospital in Homs in 2011, said he had witnessed some of Dr Mousa’s crimes.

That March the hospital stopped receiving patients except for protesters injured in clashes in the city.

“Many even refused to treat patients, saying ‘I don’t treat terrorists’ even though they were only young protesters,” Mr Alghajar said.

He is now in Turkey and gave evidence to Germany’s public prosecutors that led to Dr Mousa’s arrest.

An investigator for the Syrian opposition newspaper Zaman Al Wasl  said the arrests and trials would also deter other regime figures accused of crimes from seeking refuge in Europe.

"Exposing some of those perpetrators will prevent the arrival of more criminals," they told The National. "They are in Syria and thinking of escaping to the EU."

Seven other Syrians who said they suffered or witnessed rape and sexual abuse in government detention centres submitted a criminal complaint to prosecutors in Germany.

The four women and three men were held in various detention centres in Damascus, Aleppo and Hama between April 2011 and August 2013, said the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, in Berlin.

They have named nine senior government and air force intelligence officials, including top Syrian intelligence officer Jamil Hassan.

Doubts remain over effectiveness of legal action

But there are some among the Syrian diaspora who are not convinced that the campaigns to hold regime figures accountable for their crimes will bear fruit.

Feras Fayyad, a Syrian film director who was the first witness to testify in Koblenz, told the court he was tortured nearly to death by Anwar Raslan in a Damascus detention centre in 2011.

Mr Fayyad, who became the first Syrian nominated for an Oscar, for his 2017 documentary Last Men in Aleppo, hopes for a snowball effect with initial trials leading to more evidence and more suspects.

Co-plaintiff, Syrian Oscar-nominated filmmaker Feras Fayyad answers journalists' questions outside the courtroom during a break in a trial against two Syrian defendants accused of state-sponsored torture in Syria, on April 23, 2020 in Koblenz, western Germany. - Two alleged former Syrian intelligence officers go on trial, accused of crimes against humanity in the first court case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by Bashar al-Assad's regime. Prime suspect Anwar Raslan, an alleged former colonel in Syrian state security, stands accused of carrying out crimes against humanity while in charge of the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus between April 29, 2011 and September 7, 2012. Fellow defendant Eyad al-Gharib, 43, is accused of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity, having helped to arrest protesters and deliver them to Al-Khatib in the autumn of 2011. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes / AFP)
Oscar-nominated Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad testified that he was tortured to the point of death in Damascus in 2011. AFP

“We can’t say that the trials of the smaller fish do nothing to bring justice to Syrians," he said. "The opposite is true.

“For instance, Raslan gave up 15 high-ranking intelligence figures and security personnel he worked with who gave orders to kill and torture prisoners."

Mr Fayyad praised the rigorous nature of the European trials.

“The quantity and quality of information obtained through the trials of ex-regime figures living in the EU and Turkey have a priceless value for the pursuit of justice for Syria and for the victims,” he said.

Mr Fayyad said the prosecutions would provide a framework for future trials in Syria and could form a crucial part of the peace process after the war ends.

Syrian journalist Luna Wafta, who reported the trial in Germany, echoed Mr Fayyad’s sentiments, saying European prosecutions would serve an important role in post-war Syria.

“When the Syrian regime falls, these trials will have significant political and legal weight as they not only prove the involvement of those accused in war crimes, but also demonstrate the regime’s use of torture as a tool to extract confessions by force,” Ms Wafta said.

She said the trials were “a condemnation of the entire system, and not just individuals”.

A new front opens in Germany

At least 100,000 people have died from torture or as a result of the horrific conditions inside Syrian government prisons, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

Half a million people have gone through Syrian jails since 2011, the monitoring group says from Britain.

With pressure mounting on Assad regime officials in Europe, survivors such as Salwa have found themselves on a new front line.

Germany, having taken in more than 700,000 Syrian refugees since the conflict began, has become a battleground for those from both sides who fled the fighting.

But the recent successes enjoyed by the campaigners have given survivors, and Syrians, a new focus.

“It is our role to push for their prosecution wherever they are and make them well aware that they will not escape their crimes or be able to hide any more,” Salwa said.

“At least here in Germany, we can try to hold some of the perpetrators accountable.

“If I ever have the opportunity to witness against those who tortured me in Syria, I would do it.”

Mr Alghajar said he believed that supporting the prosecution of human rights breaches was an “essential task” for all Syrians.

Regime officials living in Europe pose a “critical risk” to Syrian refugees, he said.

Mr Alghajar believed that “one day, criminals in Syria will be brought to justice”.