Koblenz, Germany – Syrian victims and human rights observers prepare for the verdict in the world’s first criminal trial on state-sponsored torture in the war-torn nation.
The verdict will be handed down on Thursday in a court in Koblenz, a southwestern German city, almost two years after German federal prosecutors arrested the main accused.
Former Syrian colonel Anwar Raslan, 58, sought asylum in Germany in 2014, and is the highest-ranking former government official tried for atrocities committed in Syria.
Prosecutors accuse him of complicity in crimes against humanity.
Although Raslan was not accused of directly torturing or killing, they say he headed an office of the infamous Syrian secret service, branch 251 in Damascus, and its adjoining prison in 2011 and 2012 before crossing over and leaving the country.
Consequently, they say Raslan was responsible for the torture of at least 4,000 people, sexual assault and at least 30 deaths due to abuse at Branch 251 during that period.
The German federal prosecutor has demanded that Raslan be sentenced to life in prison.
Wassim Mukdad, a survivor of Branch 251 who testified, said at an online press conference in Berlin on Monday: “We want proof that our suffering counted for something. I hope I, and many others,” could give a voice to those who could not share their stories. ”
Eyad al-Gharib, a former Syrian intelligence official who was lower in rank, is also an accused. He arrived in Germany in 2018 as an asylum seeker and allegedly detained more than a dozen protesters in 2011 and delivered them to Branch 251, where they were tortured.
Since the trial began in April 2020, the High Court in Koblenz has held 106 trials, with more than 80 witnesses from across Germany and Europe testifying.
The testimony given by witnesses – about torture, threats and sexual abuse, as well as inhumane prison conditions – caused a disturbing listen.
The case is also the first time that a trial the so-called Caesar Photos.
In 2013, a Syrian military defector codenamed Caesar provided more than 53,000 photos showing his government’s bureaucratic efforts to document deaths in its prisons.
According to Eric Witte, a senior project manager of the Open Society Justice Initiative, who supported several witnesses in the case, the trial has international significance for several reasons.
First, it reminds the world of “the brutality of the al-Assad regime and of the most heinous atrocities of our time,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It is also important for the Syrians, who participated in the trial as witnesses, and those who were involved in difficult efforts, to document the systematic nature of these crimes.”
Germany is able to prosecute crimes that have taken place in Syria due to a legal principle known as “universal jurisdiction”.
This means the German police and prosecutors can bring cases before local courts, regardless of where crimes were committed.
TRIAL International, a Switzerland-based organization fighting against impunity for international crimes, says universal jurisdiction.
In 2015, it recorded three hearings using universal jurisdiction. Today there are 30 continuous trials.
As the first of its kind, the Koblenz case was a test run for investigators and prosecutors, said Patrick Kroker, senior legal adviser at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), who supported nine Syrian witnesses.
“It is a learning experience. And although the verdict is of course not binding on anyone else [universal jurisdiction] cases, it will be noticed, ”he said.
In Germany, an accused who receives a life sentence can usually expect to leave prison after 15 years.
However, in exceptional circumstances, some of the accused may not be released on probation, a Koblenz court spokesman told Al Jazeera.
In their last arguments last week, Raslan’s state-appointed lawyers described the trial as “political”.
They say their client has never personally tortured anyone and have actually tried to help arrested opposition activists – arguing that he should be released.
In a final, personal statement given last Thursday, Raslan said he was ready to accept German justice.
After Thursday’s ruling, the court will hear an explanation for the decision.
Imprisonment is likely; Kroker, ECCHR lawyer, suggested it could be 20 years.
A final appeal is also likely.