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German court finds Syrian ex-colonel guilty

January 14, 2022

A German court has found a Syrian former army colonel guilty of crimes against humanity, handing him a life sentence. It was a landmark trial to examine state-sponsored torture during the Syrian civil war.

Anwar Raslan, right, stands in the courtroom before being found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany
Raslan (right), is the highest-ranking Syrian official found guilty of crimes against humanityImage: Thomas Frey/AP Photo/picture alliance

State-sanctioned Torture on Trial

A German court convicted a former Syrian colonel of crime against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison on Thursday.

Anwar Raslan was found guilty of 27 counts of murder, rape and sexual assault carried out at the Al-Khatib detention center near  Damascus.

The former intelligence officer was tried under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of crimes in one country even if they happened elsewhere.

He is the highest-ranking Syrian officer so far convicted of crimes against humanity.

"This trial cast a much-needed, renewed spotlight on the kinds of sickening torture, cruel and truly inhuman treatment — including abject sexual violence — that countless Syrians were subjected to in detention facilities," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.

She urged other states to prosecute international crimes using universal jurisdiction.

What was Raslan accused of?

The 58-year-old former colonel had denied committing torture or giving instructions for others to commit torture.

Prosecutors said Raslan was responsible for the torture of at least 4,000 people in the notorious Al-Khatib prison in the Syrian city of Douma, in 2011 and 2012 — during the early stages of the Syrian Civil War.

They said he supervised interrogations including "electric shocks," beatings with "fists, wires and whips," rape and sexual abuse, and sleep deprivation.

The mistreatment had served to coerce confessions and obtain information, the prosecution said.

The court sentenced him to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years.

Raslan's lawyer said he would appeal the verdict.

More than 80 witnesses testified during the trial about the "catastrophic conditions" in the detention center.

They took the stand despite "great fear of the Syrian regime, whether for themselves or for their families," said judge Anne Kerber. "I owe them my full respect."

Rights groups welcome verdict

The trial could set a precedent for future proceedings against Syrian officials who committed crimes during the war in Syria.

"Despite all the shortcomings of international criminal justice, Anwar Raslan's conviction shows what the principle of universal jurisdiction can achieve and that such trials are in fact feasible in Germany and Europe," said Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of the independent rights group the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

Whitney-Martina Nosakhare of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told DW that Thursday's conviction was "a watershed moment for survivors of torture."

"This is a moment that means so much for torture survivors because it's one of the few tools that is left to see some justice happen." 

Nosakhare noted that "courageous and determined victims have been the cornerstone of making this trial happen." 

She added another trial would take place in Frankfurt next week involving a Syrian doctor accused of torturing people at a hospital in Damascus. 

Germany's justice minister, Marco Buschmann, called on other countries to follow what he called the "pioneering work'" performed by his country's legal system.

"Crimes against humanity must not remain unpunished. No matter where they are committed, no matter by whom," said Buschmann.

Executive Director for Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth told DW that Raslan's sentencing under universal jurisdiction was a 'truly historic moment.'

"The Assad government in Syria has pursued this war really through a war crimes strategy," Roth said.

 "They have deliberately bombed hospitals, schools and marketplaces, they've used chemical weapons against their own people, they've used starvation as a method of war."

"The issue here in this trial was the pervasive use of arbitrary detention, torture and thousands of executions."

Roth told DW that Syria never joined the International Criminal Court, and China and Russia have "blocked" access to the court through the UN Security Council through their veto.

For this reason, "a number of governments, Germany included, helped to circumvent the veto in the UN Security Council by going to the UN General Assembly and getting it to create what's known as the International Independent Impartial Mechanism [IIIM]."

Another Assad agent imprisoned

Last February the same court in Koblenz sentenced a former low-ranking Syrian intelligence officer, Eyad A., to four and a half years in prison for aiding and abetting a crime against humanity.

He was found guilty of helping to bring 30 anti-government demonstrators to the al-Khatib prison.

Raslan and Eyad belonged to Bashar Assad's regime and were arrested in Germany in 2019 after fleeing Syria.

Syria torture trial in Germany

At the UN Security Council, Russia and China have vetoed attempts by Western powers to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court.

The result is that survivors of torture and chemical weapons attacks have been left with limited options to seek justice until now.

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, at least 60,000 people have been killed under torture or as a result of the terrible conditions in Syrian detention centers.

lo, jsi, rc/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP, KNA)