When Patrick Kroker (a lawyer from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights) called me, it was February 2019, in Berlin. I arrived to find him there with two Syrian lawyers who have played central roles in our country’s quest for justice: Anwar Al Bounni and Ibrahim El Kassem.
Patrick told us: “German police have arrested Colonel Anwar Raslan.”
Germany may bring criminal charges for war crimes or crimes against humanity based on the universal jurisdiction principle. This applies even though the crime occurred outside Germany. Raslan was a top Syrian intelligence officer who led the investigation at Damascus’s Branch 251 facility. Following his arrest, he became the main defendant in the world’s first criminal case dealing with state-led torture in Syria.
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Raslan was sentenced by the German city of Koblenz to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. His systematic torture of thousands of pro-democracy protestors rose up in 2011 and were subjected to extortion. He was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. This is a start for justice for Syrians. It is possible to understand how this happened and plan for greater justice in the future.
Syria: Torture survivors
My organization, the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Berlin was energized by that Berlin meeting. For the first time in Syria’s history, victims of atrocities would have the chance to confront a once powerful suspect before an independent judiciary. In Syria, torture survivors were allowed to testify before the international community about the authenticity of their stories of death and inconceivable suffering.
It was personal. Three times I was held in Syria. Once briefly in 2011 and again in 2012. The third time, in 2012, was for three years. My crimes were protesting against the government, and then documenting, through SCM’s work, that government’s violent crackdown.
Our investigation began by reaching out to torture victims, who were detained at Branch 251 in 2012 and 2011. They were easy to find. They were many people we knew personally. SCM documented more than 400 000 cases of torture in Syrian prisons since 2011.
The ECCHR helped us connect victims who were willing to give their testimony with Open Society Justice Initiative and the ECCHR. Lawyers organized victim representation during the Raslan case. It would have been impossible to achieve this without the perseverance and determination shown by those who survived. They would be merely legal proceedings. But now we could build a vivid, legal narrative of torture and extrajudicial killings, which were, and still are, pillars upon which Syria’s brutal regime has remained in power for more than five decades. In September 2020, I was able to testify in my capacity as a torture survivor.
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The key insider information was provided by defectors of the Syrian security apparatus as well as former military personnel and civilian hospital workers. These witnesses testified to intelligence structures and chain of command, particularly Branch 251. We provided the court with names and addresses of many officials working at Branch 251 during the period the defendant was there, thanks to their help. Regime defectors gave the coordinates for four mass graves close to Damascus. The testimony of an individual who was charged with the burial of corpses between 2011 and 2017 supported this.
Syrian bureaucracy also recorded its crimes. A military defector codenamed “Caesar,” and “Sami,” a relative who assisted him, smuggled thousands of photos out of Syria showing mutilated, tortured, and emaciated corpses strewn across the floors of Syrian government detention centers. Information leaked from security services including those given by Fathi Bayoud founder of Zaman Alwsl, An article on a Syrian news portal provided evidence to support the systematic and heinous abuses of prisoners from the time they were arrested through their torture death, followed by their burials by the military police. They showed that this happened with the full knowledge of Syria’s National Security Office, which reports directly to President Bashar al-Assad.
The court was provided with leaked hospital documents that proved torture and ill-treatment at Branch 251 caused death. One memo was submitted by Branch 251 to its head. It documented a disagreement between the staff of the military hospital and the forensic medicine officers at the military hospital who became overwhelmed with the sheer number of bodies they received.
Justice for the victims of Syria’s regime
Branch 251’s register of deceased people included the name of the detainee Dr. Hayan Mahmoud, who had been missing since his arrest by the branch in 2012. He was remanded to the Koblenz Court by his family. The family and others had the opportunity to hold the mid-ranking official who caused their pain to court in a case that proved to be a crucial step towards ending impunity in Syria for grave criminal acts. Germany’s application of universal jurisdiction succeeded in transferring the issue of accountability from the framework of human rights statements and ethical condemnations to a practical and applied remedy.
However, the victory at Koblenz was not enough. The fate and whereabouts of loved ones in Syria are unknown to hundreds of thousands of families. Organisations such as mine will continue building cases against those responsible for the deaths of Syrians. At the time of Raslan’s arrest, Kroker and I had been working to bring to justice one of Syria’s most notorious war criminals, director of air force intelligence Major General Jamil Al Hassan. In 2018, a German court issued an arrest warrant, but Hassan still remains untouchable in Syria.
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It is important that other countries use their legal systems in order to provide justice for the Syrian population after the Koblenz trial. The Nuremberg precedent should be followed by states to establish Syria war crime tribunals. To find a political solution for the Syrian crisis, international pressure must be maintained and the Syrian regime held accountable.
The regime continues torture and killing thousands of Syrians. The perpetrators must be brought to justice if there is going to be any kind of sustainable peace in Syria. While the journey to Koblenz is not an easy one, it was only one of many steps on my long road toward justice.