German court convicts Syrian man of crimes against humanity

13 January 2022, 11:34

From left, Syrian women Samaa Mahmoud, Mariam Alhallak and Yasmen Almashan hold pictures of relatives who died in Syria, before the verdict in front of the court in Koblenz, Germany
Germany Syria Torture Trial. Picture: PA

Prosecutors alleged Anwar Raslan supervised the ‘systematic and brutal torture’ of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012.

A former Syrian secret police officer has been convicted by a German court of crimes against humanity for overseeing the abuse of detainees at a jail near Damascus a decade ago.

Anwar Raslan is the highest-ranking Syrian official so far convicted of the charge.

The verdict was keenly anticipated by those who suffered abuse or lost relatives at the hands of President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria’s long-running conflict.

The Koblenz state court concluded that the defendant was in charge of interrogations at a facility in the Syrian city of Douma known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, where suspected opposition protesters were detained.

People line up in front of the court in Koblenz, Germany
People line up in front of the court in Koblenz (Martin Meissner/AP)

The court sentenced the 58-year-old to life in prison.

His lawyers asked judges last week to acquit their client, claiming that he never personally tortured anybody and that he defected in late 2012.

“This day, this verdict is important for all Syrians who have suffered and are still suffering from the Assad regime’s crimes,” said Ruham Hawash, a survivor of Branch 251 who gave evidence at the trial.

“This verdict is only a beginning and we have a long way to go – but for us affected people, this trial and today’s ruling are a first step towards freedom, dignity and justice,” she said.

German prosecutors alleged that Raslan supervised the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of at least 58 people.

A junior officer, Eyad al-Gharib, was convicted last year of accessory to crimes against humanity and sentenced by the Koblenz court to four-and-a-half years in prison.

Both men were arrested in Germany in 2019, years after seeking asylum in the country.

Victims and human rights groups have said they hope the verdict in the 19-month trial will be a first step towards justice for countless people who have been unable to file criminal complaints against officials in Syria or before the International Criminal Court.

Since Russia and China have blocked efforts for the UN Security Council to refer cases to The Hague-based tribunal, countries such as Germany that apply the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes will increasingly become the venue for such trials, experts say.

“We are starting to see the fruits of a determined push by courageous survivors, activists and others to achieve justice for horrific atrocities in Syria’s network of prisons,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

“The verdict is a breakthrough for Syrian victims and the German justice system in cracking the wall of impunity,” she added.

“Other countries should follow Germany’s lead and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”

The trial is the first of its kind worldwide and other courts may cite the verdict and evidence heard in Koblenz, said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.

The group represented 14 victims who under German law were able to take part in the proceedings as co-plaintiffs.

“The goal remains to bring senior Assad associates, such as former air force intelligence chief Jamil Hassan, to justice for their crimes,” said Mr Kroker.

Germany issued an international arrest warrant for Hassan in 2018, but bringing him and other senior Syrian officials to trial will be difficult, as the country does not extradite its citizens.

Syrian woman Yasmen Almashan holds the pictures of her five in Syria died brothers before the verdict in front of the court in Koblenz, Germany
Syrian woman Yasmen Almashan holds the pictures of her five brothers who died in Syria (Martin Meissner/AP)

Still, the European Union’s judicial co-operation organisation Eurojust said the ruling “will leave a lasting mark on international criminal justice”.

It noted that photographs of alleged torture victims smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer, who goes by the alias of Caesar, were a key part of the evidence against Raslan.

Human rights experts said it was significant that the Koblenz court had deemed the allegations of sexual violence to be among the crimes against humanity Raslan was convicted for.

However the judges did not convict him over the enforced disappearances, meaning those will have to be prosecuted separately in future proceedings.

Conservative estimates put the number of those detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria at 149,000, more than 85% of them at the hands of the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Most disappeared or were detained soon after peaceful protests erupted in March 2011 against Assad’s government, which responded to the rallies with a brutal crackdown.

The Syrian government denies it is holding any political prisoners, labelling its opposition terrorists.

After battlefield wins, it has negotiated limited prisoner exchanges with various armed groups, which families say offer partial solutions for a very small number of people.

Raslan’s lawyers can appeal against the verdict.

By Press Association

Latest World News

See more Latest World News

George Floyd case

Jury selected in US federal trial over killing of George Floyd

Joe Biden

Biden issues new warning to Russia over invading Ukraine

Covid Austria

Austrian parliament approves universal vaccine mandate

Capitol riot investigation

Capitol investigation committee requests interview with Ivanka Trump

Entrance to Auschwitz

UN approves resolution to condemn denial of the Holocaust

Afghanistan women's protest

Woman activist arrested by Taliban in raid on her home in Kabul

Antony Blinken

US warns of ‘swift, severe’ response if Russia invades Ukraine

Scene of Liberia stampede

At least 29 people die in stampede at religious festival in Liberia

Novak Djokovic is reportedly preparing to sue the Australian government.

Novak Djokovic 'to sue Australian government for £3m' over deportation

Liz Truss will urge Mr Putin to engage in "meaningful discussions" about the situation in Ukraine

Putin must 'step back' from war and free world will 'stand its ground', says Foreign Sec

Antony Blinken and Annalena Baerbock

US and European diplomats meet in Berlin to discuss Ukraine situation

Former Pope Benedict failed to act on child sexual abuse

Pope Benedict 'failed to act' in four child sexual abuse cases, report finds

Audio footage has been obtained from the final conversation between the Texas synagogue attacker Malik Akram and his younger brother Gulbar, who urged his sibling to surrender.

'Think about your kids': Brother's desperate phone call with Texas synagogue attacker

Russian Sukhoi 30 jet

Russia accuses the West of ‘plotting provocations’ over Ukraine

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Former Pope Benedict criticised over handling of sexual abuse claims

Tina Turner at Wembley

Tina Turner and husband buy £56m estate on shore of Lake Zurich