On January 13, a court in the small German town of Koblenz sentence Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian intelligence official, sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. The verdict will not bring justice to all Syrians, but it is nonetheless an important achievement.
For thousands of survivors like me, who were unjustly detained, interrogated and brutally tortured at the al-Khatib state security branch in Damascus, which he headed between 2011 and 2012, it was a day we thought we would never see. During the time he was in charge, more than 4,000 people were tortured there, at least 58 were reportedly killed as a result.
I was detained twice – once in 2011 and then in 2012 after a raid on the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression where I worked, which advocated free speech. I was first taken to al-Khatib State Security Branch – commonly known as Branch 251 – for questioning, where I was secretly detained, beaten and tortured. The second time I was taken to an air force intelligence branch.
Back in Syria, we could only dream that one day we would see one of the regime’s criminals in court standing trial for their crimes.
While Anwar Raslan is just one of hundreds of members of Bashar al-Assad’s security and intelligence apparatus responsible for state-sponsored torture and numerous other atrocities over the past 10 and a half years, his individual conviction carries a much wider meaning. It is a damning legal indictment of the Syrian regime as a whole.
Under international law, the definition of crimes against humanity is that it constitutes a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population. This individual conviction provides concrete evidence of the atrocities committed by the regime on a mass scale.
For any state considering re-establishing ties with al-Assad or forcing refugees to return to Syria, it is an important reminder of what the Syrian regime is capable of.
Yet part of my sadness remains. It’s hard to welcome the news when there are tens of thousands of people who are less fortunate than me who are still disappearing by force, detained in al-Assad’s infamous prisons. For them, justice is nowhere in sight.
Nothing can really describe the abomination of disappearing in Syria. Syrian intelligence officials call it “disappearing behind the sun”. The phrase means to live in darkness; to be banished from life. It’s a living death.
After a few days of being locked up in a small dark place, you no longer know if it’s night or day. Light and darkness become meaningless. It’s almost as if you no longer exist at all. You forget the small details of life – what trees look like or what flowers smell like.
After my release in 2015, I fled Syria mainly because of the terror I experienced through the hands of security and intelligence officials, including Raslan. I left Syria because I feared I would be caught again and did not want my family to be plagued by the endless uncertainty about my fate, and wondered forever: is he dead or alive? Are they torturing him right now? Is his body hanging from a noose somewhere?
I might have forgiven Raslan’s crimes against me if he had shown a hint of remorse. Yet, in court, I felt he gave off an air of arrogance and there was a look of contempt in his eyes. He denied that there was systematic torture in al-Khatib branch, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
True justice for Syria can only be achieved when al-Assad, members of its security forces and all armies and members of armed groups in Syria are held accountable for war crimes.
When I decided to testify at this trial, I was not sure what role it would play in the search for justice. But I know if another opportunity arises to tell a court of law what happened to me, I would jump on it. We can only hope that such hearings will encourage further prosecution of Syrian war criminals and bring us one step closer to a different future for Syria.
I had the chance to see my martyr tried – a chance that so many other Syrians were cruelly denied. I can only hope this ruling paves the way for wider justice for all Syrians.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.