Syrian colonel’s plea of innocence in murder trial rejected by accusers

Rights group says Anwar Raslan was allegedly deeply involved in the torture of protestors

Syaian defendant Anwar Raslan, 57, arrives at court for an unprecedented trial on state-sponsored torture in Syria, on April 23, 2020 at court in Koblenz, western Germany.  Two alleged former Syrian intelligence officers go on trial in Germany on April 23, 2020 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.  / AFP / POOL / Thomas Lohnes
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Syrian campaigners have rejected claims by a senior former Assad regime intelligence official that he had no role in torture and mistreatment in state prisons as he faces trial in Germany for crimes against humanity in his homeland.

Anwar Raslan, 57, is alleged to have overseen the murder of 58 people and torture of some 4,000 others in the Al Khatib detention centre in Damascus, Syria, in the wake of protests in 2011 and 2012 against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

He appeared in a German court on Monday and rejected the claims, saying he “never acted inhumanely” and had in fact “helped to free” detainees. He insisted that he did not condone the acts of the Syrian government and felt “regret and compassion” for the victims.

Mansour Omari, a Syrian activist, expressed his dismay at the proceeding. "Anwar R's denial is just another abuse of his victims and their families. It shows that he does have remorse or regret for torturing human beings and killing them under torture."

The  45-page account, read out by his lawyers, was the defendants first statements to the court in Koblenz since the trial began last month.

But his plea of innocence has been rejected by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), an activist group that is supporting 17 torture victims, including seven who are joint plaintiffs in the case.

Mr Raslan and fellow defendant Eyad al-Gharib, 43, are being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity.

The group, which is monitoring the trail, said the 90-minute statement amounted to a blanket rejection of all allegations facing the defendant. Woflgang Kaleck, a director of ECCHR, rejected Mr Raslan’s claim that he was of little importance.

“Anwar R is obviously trying to downplay his role by saying he obeyed orders and that Subdivision 40, led by Hafez Makhlouf, exercised the factual power in the Al Khatib detention centre. That is common practice in such trials,” Mr Kaleck said.

“But he allegedly issued, not merely received and followed, orders in his department. We do not believe he played a minor role,” he added.

Hafez Makhlouf was a former chief of Syria’s notorious intelligence service and cousin and confidant of Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Kaleck claimed that Mr Raslan was a long-time “who made his career in Assad’s government even before 2011”.

Prosecutors say Mr Raslan, who rose to the rank of colonel, oversaw rape and sexual abuse, "electric shocks", beatings with "fists, wires and whips" and "sleep deprivation" at the prison.

Referring to accusations made by witnesses, in court on Monday he repeatedly denied any responsibility, particularly in the case of an alleged rape. "It is against our morals, against our religion," he said.

"I distance myself from such acts if they have been committed," he added.

Mr Raslan fled Syria at the end of 2012 and arrived in Germany in 2014. His case has given hope to torture survivors that senior figures from the Syrian regime may one day face trial for their alleged crimes. It forms part of a wider series of criminal complaints filed in courts in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway.

The victims are expected to give evidence in July.