US breaks silence, requests Lebanon extradite suspected Syrian war criminal

Germany has been seeking the arrest of the head of the Syrian air force intelligence, Jamil Hassan, since last year

epa07347512 Newly Minister of Interior Raya Hassan speaks during a handover ceremony at the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities in Beirut, Lebanon, 06 February 2019. Raya Hassan is the first Female Arab Interior Minister in the Middle East.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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Until this week, Germany and Beirut had been refusing to confirm reports that Berlin was seeking the extradition of Syria’s air force intelligence head. Then the State Department publically called on Lebanon to follow through the request and hand over the man who has presided over one of Syria’s most feared security agencies through a long bloody war.

The 66-year-old is thought to be undergoing treatment at a hospital in Lebanon.

The US Department of State said it “would welcome any decision by the Government of Lebanon that would facilitate the lawful extradition of Syrian General Jamil Hassan to Germany.” The press release on Tuesday added that Mr Hassan was “notorious for his alleged involvement in the extensive use of torture in Syrian detention centres”.

The German federal prosecutor as well as the Lebanese public prosecutor have refused to comment on media reports published mid-February alleging that Germany had requested Mr Hassan’s extradition.

"The Federal Prosecutor's office – with the exception of specific cases – does not state whether it is investigating on an individual, has issued an arrest warrant, or requested extradition", the German authorities told The National by e-mail.

The request is highly sensitive in Lebanon where Hezbollah, a strong ally of the Syrian regime, plays an important role in local politics.

Mr Hassan has been targeted since 2011 by US and EU sanctions for his role in the violent crackdown against anti-government protests. In an interview with The Independent news website in late 2016, Mr Hassan said he regretted the regime had not been tough enough against protestors.

The Syrian government is believed to have executed over 10,000 people in military prisons since the start of the war and thousands more were brutally tortured, including at sights run by Mr Hassan’s Air Force Intelligence.

Lebanon’s general prosecutor, Samir Hamoud, declined to answer questions regarding Mr Hassan. The Justice and Interior ministries did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Lebanese Interior Minister Raya Hassan acknowledged she was aware of the case when she told reporters on February 21 that there was no “Interpol request regarding the head of Syrian air force intelligence”, according to the state-run National News Agency.

The reason that Germany's arrest warrant has not been made public by Interpol is because this would require the consent of the Syrian government, Ibrahim Al Kasem, a Syrian lawyer based in Germany, told The National.

Germany’s case would have been stronger if there an extradition agreement existed between both countries.

But this does not stop Germany from asking for extradition through the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, he said. Mr Al Kasem is also the executive director of the Caesar file’s group, named after a military defector who smuggled tens of thousands of photos of killed and tortured detainees in Syrian prisons.

Should Lebanon allow Mr Hassan's extradition, certain conditions would have to be met, such as recognising that what Mr Hassan is accused of in Germany is also punishable by law in Lebanon, added Mr Al Kasem.

In June last year, German prosecutors had already issued an international arrest warrant for Mr Hassan on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The warrant was issued under universal jurisdiction, which allows a limited number of countries such as Germany, Norway and Sweden to prosecute and try crimes committed abroad.

German prosecutors accused Mr Hassan of overseeing some of the most horrific crimes committed by Syrian intelligence agencies, including torture, rape and murder of “at least hundreds of people between 2011 and 2013”, reported Germany magazine Der Spiegel.

A few months later, French prosecutors followed suit when they issued arrest warrants for three Syrian officials, including Mr Hassan, for collusion in acts of torture, forced disappearances, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The other two Syrian officials targeted were Ali Mamluk, National Security Bureau director, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, in charge of the air force intelligence's investigative branch at the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus.

Activists believe there is little chance that Lebanon will extradite Mr Hassan, quoting previous high-profile requests.

“Lebanon never extradited the four Hezbollah-linked suspects in Rafiq Hariri’s killing”, says Mr Al Kasem, referring to the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister in 2005.

However, Germany has made headway recently in arresting Syrians accused of torture and abuse against prisoners. Two suspected former secret service officers, identified as Anwar R., 56, Eyad A., 42, were arrested mid-February on German territory. The operation was coordinated with France where a third suspect, whose name was not revealed, was arrested.