War crimes in Syria, trial in Germany
This article was originally published in German in Zenith Magazine and in English in Syria Direct and has been cross-posted here with the author's permission.
By Hannah El-Hitami
Syrian defendants Anwar Raslan (L) and Eyad al-Gharib (R), wait in the courtroom in Koblenz, western Germany, before the start of an unprecedented trial on state-sponsored torture in Syria, 23/4/2020 (AFP)
KOBLENZ — Something doesn’t seem right about the group of people standing together in front of the court in Koblenz. They have gathered for a demonstration on the green area on Karmeliterstraße, but their upright bodies appear lifeless. With her arms raised rigidly, a young woman is frozen mid-run. As we approach, it is noticeable that the demonstrators’ hands are missing, their faces gaping open like megaphones. The installation is called “The Muted Demonstration", which Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh set up in front of the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz on a Wednesday in July of last year.
The demonstrators are mannequins, they wear the clothes of activists from Syria. They stare in silence at the window of room 128, where the two defendants take their seats at half past nine: Anwar R., former head of investigations in the Damascus Secret Service Branch 251, and Eyad A., a lower-ranking official, who allegedly arrested demonstrators on behalf of Branch 251. “These guys had all the power in the world over the prisoners, but now they themselves are powerless,” says Barakeh, who started construction at six in the morning in the hope that the defendants would drive past the figures on their way to the court. “They should see that they are still here. The trial is a continuation of what people started on Syria’s streets in 2011.”
Barakeh has set up his figures in front of the court in order to represent all those who cannot be there: because the drive to Koblenz is too far or they do not even live in Germany; because they were killed for participating in demonstrations in Syria or disappeared in one of the many underground prisons. Actually, this trial is for them: For the first time worldwide, Syrian state torture will be brought to justice. The two defendants, Anwar R. and Eyad A., are charged with crimes against humanity. During their time with the Syrian secret service in 2011 and 2012, they are said to have been jointly responsible for 58 killings, 4,000 cases of torture and two cases of rape or sexualized violence.
Almost ten years ago the protest movement known as the “Arab Spring” migrated from North Africa to West Asia and, in March 2011, reached Syria. The regime responded to mass demonstrations across the country with often deadly violence - on the streets as well as in the prisons, where tens of thousands of Syrians have been arbitrarily detained and tortured over the years, where many have died or disappeared forever.
The Federal Prosecutor’s Office sees these actions as an extensive and systematic attack against a civilian population and thus the prerequisite for a crime against humanity. However, the International Criminal Court cannot take action because Syria is not a member and Russia is blocking a decision by the UN Security Council.
However, the German judiciary can use the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring criminal offenses that violate international law to court without any direct relationship to Germany. While there is no end in sight for the war in Syria, Germany has issued international arrest warrants against high-ranking members of the regime, opened the world’s first legal proceedings in Koblenz and has already arrested other suspects. Many Syrians in exile, victims and their families, hope that the perpetrators of the Assad regime will finally be called to account for their crimes. Others fear that a trial far away from Syria and without the participation of the population does not offer a real chance for justice.
"Beaten on the back and in the groin area with cables,” “could then no longer walk,” “threatened with rape,” “hung from the ceiling by tied hands” — these are just excerpts of what is said to have happened in Branch 251 of the General Secret Service in Damascus according to the indictment.
While Khaled Barakeh’s characters stand silently accusing outside, a former inmate testifies inside on this July day. His name is public, like all the information from the courtroom, but since several witnesses have reported threats against their families abroad, his name will not be mentioned again here. In the summer of 2012, the 30-year-old from Damascus spent around forty days in prison in Branch 251, also known as the Al-Khatib Division.
He trembles when he testifies about the conditions in the scorching, overcrowded cells. “We were up to 800 people in about 50 square meters. People were lying on top of each other, corpses between them,” recalls the former hotel owner, who was arrested after offering families fleeing Homs a place to sleep. The cell in the Al-Khatib prison was completely closed like a bottle - without air, without light. “Nobody there cared whether we were guilty. They just wanted to destroy all the people,” said the witness.
During the course of the trial, the statements of former inmates and employees will paint an increasingly clearer picture of the branch, which is located in the middle of a residential area in the center of Damascus. The cells smelled of blood and mold and the prisoners’ screams could be heard in the inner courtyard belonging to the staff cafeteria. Sweat lay inches deep on the cell floor, and many prisoners were naked except for their underpants. There was hardly any food, and the prisoners couldn’t swallow the occasional piece of bread or potato due to extreme thirst. They were regularly beaten and taken to the interrogators’ offices, who they had to kneel in front of, blindfolded and handcuffed.
If the charges are right, one of these officials could have been Anwar R., who deserted in 2012 and joined the Syrian opposition in exile in Jordan. Two years later, he and his family landed by plane in Berlin-Tegel. The German embassy in Amman had issued them visas for entry into Germany as part of the humanitarian admission program - even though the former secret service official had never made a secret of his professional past. His resume, which he had sent to the German embassy during the admission process, began with the words: “I am Colonel Anwar R. [name shortened by the editors].”
It is thanks to Riad Seif, one of the most prominent Syrian opposition members, that the accused, his wife and five children received places in the limited contingent of the federal admission program. The now 73-year-old businessman had been a close confidante of the German diplomatic mission in Syria for many years and had used these contacts to recommend R. for admission. Seif also knew that R. had been a high-ranking employee of the secret service - he had helped R. on the advice of his son-in-law, because he had hoped for information from the defector-colonel, according to Seif’s testimony at the end of August.
He also knew what holding such a position must mean: “There was no secret service department without torture, and anyone who claims the opposite is lying,” said Seif via video call, as his health did not allow him to travel from Berlin. Nevertheless, he was remorseful towards the judges in Koblenz: “If I had known anything negative about him at that time, I would not have supported him.” Then, however, the trial in Koblenz might never have taken place.
However, the defendant initiated the investigation against himself. Thinking that he was being followed by the Syrian secret service, he turned to the Berlin police for help in 2015, revealing to them his professional past. On the basis of this information, his file eventually ended up with the Federal Criminal Police Office (FCPO) and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, which has been collecting evidence of international law crimes in Syria in several structural investigations since 2011. The files of the second defendant, Eyad A., were also forwarded to the FCPO. At his asylum hearing, A. spoke too openly about his activities in Syria. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees is obliged to report to the FCPO if asylum seekers speak of crimes under international law in their home country.
Anwar R. and Eyad A. are certainly not the most important figures in the Syrian security apparatus. However, it has not yet been possible to arrest high-ranking regime members such as the former head of the Air Force Intelligence Service, Jamil Hassan, against whom several international arrest warrants have been issued. For the prominent Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni, however, the trial is a milestone on the way towards transitional justice. “It is not our aim to condemn two small cogs in the machinery of hell that continues to kill people,” the lawyer said in advance of the trial, in which he has since testified. “Rather, we want to use these cogs to prove the existence of the machinery and the extent to which it is hellish.”
Al-Bunni knows this machinery inside and out. When, little by little, three of his siblings and many of his friends were arrested in the 1970s, the then 21-year-old decided to go back to university to study law. “They were all political activists - I wasn’t, so I decided to become a lawyer to defend them,” says the now 61-year-old, who has dedicated his life to defending political prisoners in Syria.
After fleeing Syria in 2014, he founded the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research in Berlin and has been preparing lawsuits against the henchmen of the Assad regime ever since. Al-Bunni is not admitted to the bar in Germany, but he has a huge network within the Syrian exile community at his disposal, some of whom were already his clients in Syria.
On the day of Al-Bunni’s testimony in early June 2020, the auditorium was full for the first time since the trial began. Prominent opposition figures such as Mazen Darwish and Dschumana Seif as well as representatives from Adopt a Revolution, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center and other exile organizations have come to hear the testimony of the man who has defended political prisoners for more than twenty years until he himself was imprisoned for five years in 2006. “Arrest, enforced disappearance, torture - that is what the Assad regime is based on,” Al-Bunni told the court in Koblenz. “If it weren’t for these three pillars, they couldn’t even have stayed in power for one year.”
Al-Bunni experienced the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 through the telephone receiver in Adra prison. He regularly spoke to friends and colleagues about the events and sent statements from the cell to the outside world. He believes that justice - or rather its absence - was a root of the revolution. “The regime’s control was based on withholding justice,” he explains a few weeks after his testimony in his office in Prenzlauer Berg, where it smells of wood and e-cigarettes and there is always some activist or lawyer sitting on the couch. According to the constitution, the Syrian president cannot be prosecuted and the security forces have also granted Assad immunity. “The feeling of injustice was so great among Syrians because the regime could kill and arrest without worry.”
The trial in Koblenz shook the foundations of the Assad regime: “A criminal from Bashar’s system will be brought to justice, without immunity and without special protection.”
For many victims and their relatives, the trial in Koblenz finally means recognition and reappraisal of what they have been through. For others it has a bitter aftertaste. According to a former prisoner in a series of statements recorded by the MENA Prison Forum, “That a foreigner brings us justice, far from the crime scene, the victims and their families” makes him sad. Another said on record, “Since I found out about the trial of Anwar R. I have hope again that the crimes against the Syrian people will be punished. But I would have wished for the Syrian people to bring him to trial. Because that would have meant that the revolution would have triumphed and achieved its goals.”
In Koblenz, trial days are scheduled almost every week until the end of the year - parties involved in the trial estimate the duration of the proceedings at several years. A certain routine has now been established. While the defendants listen to the interpreters through headphones, Anwar R. fills A5 sheets with narrow handwriting and Eyad A. sits with his face in his hands, Luna Watfa is always sitting at the back of the auditorium.
The 39-year-old from Damascus has lived with her family in Koblenz since 2015 and is the only journalist who regularly reports on the proceedings for the Arab media. It is of personal concern to her: Before fleeing to Germany, she was imprisoned for more than a year in 2014 for researching the poison gas attacks in Eastern Ghouta in Syria. She spent a month in the Al-Khatib division, where she was physically and mentally abused.
The trial in Koblenz is an important step for the victims and their relatives, Watfa is convinced of that. However, she does not believe that it can have any influence on the situation in Syria. “This trial should have taken place after the regime was overthrown and it should have been the beginning of a transitional justice process,” she says over a cigarette at the end of another day of the trial. Instead, it is only about individuals, while people continue to be tortured in the secret service divisions.
Accordingly, there is little interest in the trials in the Arabic-speaking world, including among Syrians. This is not only because the trial is taking place in German without translation for the public. “Despair prevails because the regime is still in power,” says Watfa. “But one day, when the regime falls, this and other trials will prove the systematic nature of torture.” When and how should that happen? She shakes her head unknowingly.