Fraud allegations taint efforts to prosecute war crimes in Syria

EU investigation finds financial wrongdoing in legal project but does not name guilty parties

Syrian defendant Eyad al-Gharib (L) hides himself under his hood prior to 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.
 / AFP / POOL / Thomas Lohnes
Powered by automated translation

Allegations of financial wrongdoing have cast a cloud over efforts to prosecute war crimes in Syria and in particular the first such case to be brought against henchmen of the Syrian regime.

The European Union's Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) recommended in March that the European Commission seek to recoup 1.9 million euros in funding from entities connected to the Syria Rule of Law project, an EU initiative that began around 2013.

Authorities in the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium should “consider prosecuting the involved project partners for possible offences of fraud and forgery”, Olaf said in its investigation report.

“The partners were actually committing widespread violations themselves, including submission of false documents, irregular invoicing, and profiteering,” it said.

Olaf did not name the entities involved but a report last month in the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw linked the investigation to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (Cija), formerly named the Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability. The report did not say specifically how it made the link.

A nonprofit organisation that does not disclose its headquarters in Europe for security reasons, Cija has supplied evidence in the ongoing trial in Germany of two Syrians accused of involvement in the torture and killing of thousands of civilians.

Syrian defendant Anwar R. arrives at a court for the first trial of suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's security services for crimes against humanity, in Koblenz, Germany, April 23, 2020. Thomas Lohnes/Pool via REUTERS

Nerma Jelacic, head of external relations at Cija, told The National on Monday that "no grants it received from the EU or other donors were ever under investigation by Olaf, nor has Cija been informed of any charges."

“It is a farcical situation,” Ms Jelacic said. “How do you prove a negative?”

The press office of Olaf said in a statement to The National that Olaf cannot disclose more details "given the requirements of investigative and potential judicial secrecy in such matters."

Cija, founded by Canadian lawyer William Wiley says it seeks to build case files to a “criminal law-standard of evidence” in response  to allegations of war crimes in Syria and elsewhere.

Mr Wiley is a former Canadian army officer who worked in the Yugoslavia and Rwanda war crimes tribunals.

The controversy has provided fodder for proponents of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Europe who say allegations that his regime massacred and tortured its own people are a conspiracy to justify regime change.

US-and European-funded Cija has been gathering and digitising thousands of documents from the security branches of the Syrian regime. It submitted several of these documents to the trial of two former Syrian regime operatives that opened in Koblenz, Germany, in April.

Anwar Raslan, 57, and Eyad Al Gharib, 43, are being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of crimes against humanity outside of the country in which they were committed. The two men acknowledged that they worked for the Syrian regime, but deny war crime charges.

Mr Raslan, a former secret police colonel, is accused of overseeing the killing of 58 people and torture of 4,000 others in Damascus in 2011 and 2012.

Mr Al Gharib was allegedly tasked with arresting anti-government protesters and delivering them to a jail run by Mr Raslan.

Mr Wiley has specialised in evidence on the side of victims of crimes against humanity while working for the Department of Justice in Canada, as well as his work on behalf of the prosecution in the Rwanda and former Yugoslavia cases.

He also worked at the liaison office in Baghdad, set up by the US government to finance the trial of Saddam Hussein and ensure just proceedings. Mr Wiley said the former Iraqi government of Nuri Al Maliki subverted the efforts to ensure a fair trial for the late Iraqi dictator.

Some Western diplomats and Syrian human rights advocates who know him said they disliked Mr Wiley's somewhat brash style, while acknowledging that he had gathered a top team of lawyers and other staff.

"A lot of the Syrian documents Wiley obtained are routine correspondence between security agencies," a source who was involved in preparing for the Koblenz trial told The National.

“But a significant proportion is damning to the regime. No investigation into finances that could be related to Wiley should distract from that.”