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German court hands down historic Syrian torture verdict

February 24, 2021

A former member of the Syrian secret police has been sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for being an accomplice to crimes against humanity in his homeland. The trial in Koblenz is the first of its kind worldwide.

A man covers his face with a file in court
Hearings in the case against Eyad A. began in the western German city of Koblenz last year Image: Matthias von Hein/DW

A German court on Wednesday sentenced former Syrian secret service agent Eyad A. to four-and-a-half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.

The 44-year-old is accused of rounding up people following anti-government demonstrations in the Syrian city of Douma in 2011 and delivering them to a detention center where they were tortured.

The verdict in the western German city of Koblenz marks the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on state-sponsored torture by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Human rights campaigners hope the decision will set a precedent for other cases.

Syria torture trial in Germany

What was Eyad A. accused of?

Prosecutors alleged Eyad A. had taken at least 30 anti-government protesters to a secret prison near Damascus known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, to be tortured in 2011.

The 44-year-old was working for the Syrian secret services at the time.

Prosecutors were seeking a five-and-a-half year prison sentence.

The defense pleaded for acquittal, arguing that the accused could have been killed had he not followed orders.

The defense also said that while Eyad A. had helped detain people protesting against the Syrian regime, he did not ultimately carry out his superior's orders to shoot them.

Torture in Syrian prisons

Why is the trial happening in Germany?

Eyad A. defected in 2012 and fled Syria a year later. After spending time in Turkey and Greece, he arrived in Germany in 2018 where he was recognized by his alleged victims, several of whom had come to Germany as refugees.

He was arrested in 2019, along with a more senior ex-Syrian official, Anwar R., who is also on trial in Koblenz.

In bringing the case, German prosecutors invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction in international law, which allows war crimes committed by foreigners to be prosecuted in other countries.

'Historic verdict' hailed by rights groups

During 10 months of hearings, more than a dozen Syrian men and women testified about the appalling abuses they endured in the Al Khatib detention center.

The court also reviewed thousands of photographs that were smuggled out of Syria by a police officer, showing alleged victims of torture.

"This momentous decision, through the efforts of incredible Syrians, is the beginning of a path to fuller justice in Syria," Sara Kayyali, Syrian researcher with Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.

Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Lynn Maalouf, urged other countries to follow Germany's example by investigating and prosecuting individuals suspected of war crimes. 

"Today's historic verdict ... is a resounding victory for the tens of thousands of Syrian torture survivors and victims of enforced disappearance," she said.

"It also sends a clear message to the Syrian government that those responsible for horrific violations will be brought to justice." 

Germany: Assad's Henchmen on Trial

DW perspective from the courtroom

DW reporter Matthias von Hein said it was clear the case was not just about Eyad A.

The judge, Anne Kerber, "talked at great length about the system of torture in Syria as a system of oppression, the system that Bashar Assad had installed to keep his iron grip on the country," von Hein said. "That's what's on trial here today."

He added that such a courtcase would have ideally been held in Syria itself, "but that's not possible because the perpetrators — the main perpetrators — are still in charge there."

Second suspect on trial

The trial of Anwar R. is still ongoing and is expected to last until October.

The 58-year-old was one of Eyad A.'s superiors, and was also arrested in Germany in 2019.

He is facing charges of crimes against humanity for overseeing the abuse of prisoners at the Al Khatib detention center between 2011 and 2012. He stands accused of supervising the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners, resulting in the deaths of at least 58 people.

*Editor's note: DW follows the German press code, which encourages protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and refraining from publishing full names in such cases.

Syria torture trial in Germany

nm/msh (AP, dpa, AFP, epd)