The first criminal trial worldwide on Syrian state torture began Thursday in Koblenz, a city on the banks of the Rhine in western Germany.
The pandemic has led to delays for many cases across the country, but the court deemed this too urgent to postpone.
Anwar Raslan, a former colonel, and Eyad al-Gharib, a former security officer.
The two Syrian defendants, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, were arrested early last year — one in Berlin, the other near Frankfurt. Both are believed to have been officials in President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus before defecting from their positions and arriving in Germany as refugees, in 2014 and 2018, respectively.
The accused face charges of crimes against humanity commited between 2011-2012 — including murder and rape. Raslan, a former colonel and the more senior of the pair, is suspected of complicity in the torture of at least 4,000 people, 58 of whom died as a result, at a detention center in Damascus known as al-Khatib — or Branch 251. Gharib is accused of assistance to torture and murder.
The indictment from the court states prisoners of Branch 251 are believed to have suffered psychological and physical abuse — including beatings, electrocutions and being hung from their wrists — as well as inhumane and degrading conditions.
As joint plaintiffs, six Syrians who were detained and tortured at Branch 251 have the right to appear in court.
“They want to reveal the truth about this whole system. They want to make clear that everybody hears not only what has happened to them, but to others. They know there are so many others that cannot speak anymore because maybe they are afraid or still in detention, or have disappeared and died under torture.”
“They want to reveal the truth about this whole system,” said Patrick Kroker, the lawyer representing witnesses and co-plaintiffs in the trial. “They want to make clear that everybody hears not only what has happened to them, but to others. They know there are so many others that cannot speak anymore because maybe they are afraid or still in detention, or have disappeared and died under torture.”
Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of legal nonprofit European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin, says putting two Syrian officials on trial is an important milestone.
“It is very significant because so far Western European countries did only arrest and prosecute those who were fighting in the various militias such as ISIS and others,” Kaleck said. “But to cover the magnitude of what happened in Syria in the last 10 years, we need to investigate the torture regime of President Assad.”
Alongside a network of European partners, civil society organizations and public prosecutors, Kaleck’s organization ECCHR has spent years gathering evidence and testimonies on Syrian state crimes.
The ongoing conflict and no prospect for justice in Syria itself were the main obstacles to prosecutions so far, Kaleck explained. In addition, efforts to put Syrians on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague have failed. Syria is not a signatory to the ICC, and Russia and China have blocked attempts to refer Syrian crimes to the court.
Universal jurisdiction, a legal principle that allows states to prosecute certain crimes even if they are committed elsewhere, has provided an alternative route to justice.
Germany enacted universal jurisdiction in 2002, and it is under this that the Koblenz trial is taking place. Universal jurisdiction is also behind a number of other ongoing criminal complaints regarding Syrian state torture across Europe.
Yet, the Koblenz trial shows Germany to be at the forefront of this legal wave, something Kaleck ultimately credits to the presence of a large Syrian community in the country.
Mariana Karkoutly, law student and member of nonprofit Adopt a Revolution, is one of many Syrians in Germany who have worked extensively over recent years to gather evidence of torture in state detention centers.
“There is a sense of [a] kind of justice that people can feel that can be delivered,” Karkoutly said. “I feel we are witnessing a historic moment.”
Karkoutly says Syrians like her living in Germany will be watching the trial very closely.
“Today, there’s an acknowledgment that this happened, and this is still happening. So, in this sense, I feel like it’s a moment of hope. ... this could be the beginning of a long road towards justice.”
“Today, there’s an acknowledgment that this happened, and this is still happening,” she said. “So, in this sense, I feel like it’s a moment of hope. For lots of Syrians who I interviewed, it was a moment of, ‘Yes, but this is not the justice we’re looking for. We want to establish justice in Syria.’ But this could be the beginning of a long road towards justice.”
As a Syrian human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni has spent the last three decades fighting on behalf of victims of state detention and torture. Now based in Berlin, he has worked alongside ECCHR in recent years. He believes the Koblenz case will go beyond the individual alleged crimes of the defendants and help build evidence of how torture has been used systematically.
“It’s not just justice for the people, it's justice for Syria,” Bunni said. “These people here that are arrested are parts from the whole machine.”
Syrians back home will be carefully following events in Koblenz, he added: “I think all the Syrians now look for what happened against these criminals: many [are paying] attention; many questions we have.”
Kaleck hopes the Koblenz trail is just the beginning.
“We hope that the upcoming trial will be like an icebreaker,” Kaleck said. “[It] will put a new dynamic on the perpetrator, as well as on the victims side, so Syrians should see that the impunity will not be forever and President Assad and his regime will not be untouchable forever.”