A German court has sentenced a former Syrian intelligence official to life in prison for crimes against humanity, in the world’s first criminal case for state-sponsored torture in Syria.
The landmark trial could set a precedent for more cases in countries that, like Germany, have accepted the principle of universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction allows a country or organization to prosecute a person who is accused of crimes against international law, regardless of where that crime was committed.
Anwar Raslan was the head of the General Intelligence Unit’s detention facility known as Branch 251 until he resigned in 2012 from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Also called the “Al-Khatib branch”, it was notorious among opposition activists as a site of torture.
As a result of his oversight of that facility, the judge in Koblenz court found Raslan guilty as a co-offender of thousands of cases of torture, as well as 27 murders and cases of sexual assault.
“For the first time, a senior member of the Syrian regime has been convicted of crimes against humanity,” said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who represented some of the plaintiffs. “The verdict today is only a first step in addressing the crimes in Syria – but this first step is often the most difficult.”
Raslan has pleaded not guilty in court, and is likely to appeal his sentence, which his co-accused, Eyad al-Gharib, has already done.
Raslan, in his late 50s, sought asylum in Germany in 2014. His trial, as well as that of al-Gharib, who was convicted last year of facilitating torture, was divisive among opponents of the Syrian regime. Some worry that the prosecution may deter others from going over and coming forward about regime crimes.
One former detainee who testified against Raslan and asked not to be identified for his safety described mixed emotions when he heard of Thursday’s verdict. The middle-aged man, a doctor, was tortured and detained in Branch 251 for 40 days and held in solitary confinement for 30 of them.
“I felt so happy that those of us who were arrested and tortured achieved something that would result in punishment in a fair trial,” he said. “But my father is still missing [after detention.] My wife’s family member is still missing. I have dozens of friends and cousins who are still missing, and justice still seems far away. ”
Torture and forced disappearances were common on all sides of the conflict, but human rights activists say the abuse in government prisons, which preceded the 2011 uprising, was systemic. Since Syria’s 11-year war began, more than 500,000 people have died in the fighting, during which Assad used chemical weapons and bombers. He remains firmly in power and controls most of the country.
The detainee criticized the fact that countries such as the UK and Denmark tried to deport asylum seekers back to Syria while European courts tried regime figures in court.
“We see this normalization happening at the same time that Western courts, with their legal standards, have even convicted low-level regime officials like Raslan of war crimes,” he said.
For human rights defenders, most avenues around charges of possible war crimes have been blocked by Assad’s government. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, Russia and China have blocked attempts to refer Syria to the court through the UN Security Council.
Eric Witte, a senior policy officer at Open Society Justice Initiative, who represented five plaintiffs, said the Raslan trial could be used as a precedent for states with universal jurisdiction to create a court-bound court for Syrian war crimes.
“We think it is legally feasible and it should be politically feasible,” he said. “It is really up to states to determine their level of commitment to justice for the atrocities in Syria.”
But even if such a court were to be instituted, it would be difficult to find suspects to stand trial. Most of Assad’s top-level officials only visit countries that support his government, such as Russia and Iran.
As part of the Raslan trial, Germany’s war crimes unit investigated how the Syrian security and detention system worked, and identified command chains and facilities that allegedly lay behind the systematic use of torture.
This evidence, Witte said, could be used in other cases. Another trial in Frankfurt will already begin against a Syrian doctor who works in a state detention center and is accused of torture. The plaintiff of Raslan’s trial said he hoped he would see more trials: “We want our suffering to have meaning.”