Sat. May 21st, 2022

Koblenz, Germany – The last day of the world’s first criminal trial focused on war crimes in Syria began long before dawn. A small crowd began to gather around 3am at the doors of the courthouse in the southwestern German city of Koblenz, eager to secure their seats inside.

When Merlina Herbach and Hassan Kansour arrived at 04:30 (03:30 GMT), it was still dark outside.

“We have been at the trial every session for the past two years,” Herbach explained. The two are trial observers for the Syria Justice and Accountability Center. “We did not want to miss a seat.”

In 2019, German federal prosecutors accused a former Syrian colonel, Anwar Raslan, of complicity in crimes against humanity. To do this, they used a principle called universal jurisdiction that allows countries like Germany to prosecute war crimes wherever they are committed.

Before crossing into Germany and seeking asylum in Germany in 2012, Raslan was in charge of an office of Syria’s notorious brutal secret service, Branch 251, in Damascus. As such, prosecutors said he was complicit in torture, murder and sexual assault.

He is the highest-ranking official responsible for atrocities committed in Syria.

Raslan’s trial began in April 2020 and this Thursday – 21 months, 108 trials and more than 80 witnesses later – it came to an end.

By the time the sun began to rise, about 50 people, many of them Syrians, were standing in line waiting to enter the courtroom. Women from the Syria Campaign, an advocacy group, stopped photos of loved ones still missing at home and kept a small seat in the cold. About a dozen camera crews filmed the queue and the protesters.

“I was a little worried when I first arrived,” one of the members of the sit-in mumbled. “What if something disappointing happens? How will it feel for all of us, inside and outside Syria? ”

When the court hearing began at about 10:30 (09:30 GMT), the court was packed. All 36 seats in the gallery, separated by clear plastic screens due to the pandemic, were filled by members of the public and journalists. About a dozen Syrian prosecutors and their lawyers were also present.

Judge Anne Kerber, the head of the panel of five judges who heard the case, immediately announced that Raslan would be sentenced to life in prison. The judge then spent the next six hours explaining the reasoning behind the sentencing, with two translators repeating everything in Arabic.

Raslan was “a career man in a totalitarian regime,” Kerber said. “But he was not just a small gear in the regime’s apparatus.”

He knew what was going on in that jail and he accepted it, Kerber told the court.

Accordingly, the judges at the Higher Regional Court found the Syrian man guilty of being an accomplice of the Syrian government in the murder of 27 people and the torture of another 4,000, as well as several charges of sexual and physical violence and illegal detention. . .

However, they did not convict him “under extraordinary circumstances”, which would have meant no chance of parole.

“The crimes took place a long time ago and he has not committed any crimes since,” Judge Kerber explained. “He did help some individuals [get out of the prison] and some others treated well. ”

‘A first step’

The mood in the courtroom after the sentencing was one of relief rather than joy.

“I have been working on this for two years and I am just relieved,” said Joumana Seif, a research fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who supported several of the torture survivors in the case. “Especially when I saw that the survivors were satisfied. It is a legal recognition of their pain and suffering. “

“This is a first step and something we can build on in the future,” said Musallam al-Quwatli, a survivor who is still suffering from psychological problems after being tortured at Branch 251 in 2011.

At a brief outdoor news conference after the court case ended, the attorneys who assisted the survivors also declared themselves satisfied while emphasizing the need for more cases like this. Raslan’s lawyers immediately launched an appeal, as expected.

“I felt it was fair. It has restored my faith in justice, “said Rowaida Kanaan, a journalist who has been jailed in Syria five times and is a co-prosecutor in the case.

Kannan said she was hoping to see some reaction from Raslan himself. Throughout the trial, the light, bald, and mustachioed former commander was mostly relentless, hunched over in his khaki jacket, taking notes for himself and even closing his eyes occasionally. He barely looked around.

“When the judge told him he was responsible for 27 murders, there was nothing. No reaction, “Kanaan said. “It’s almost as if he was still in the same place, back in Branch 251, writing notes.”

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