Opinion: German court sends message on Syria war crimes | Opinion | DW | 24.02.2021

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Opinion: German court sends message on Syria war crimes

The verdict of a court in western Germany is the first step toward justice in Syria. It also paves the way for verdicts in war crime trials worldwide, DW's Matthias von Hein writes.

Trial of Syrian regime members in Koblenz

It was the first time that Syrians were tried in Germany for crimes committed in Syria

Wednesday's verdict against a former member of the Syrian secret service in the western German city of Koblenz can safely be described as "historic." It is the first time that a court has ruled that the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity and that President Bashar Assad's regime is conducting an offensive against the population that involves kidnapping, torture and murder. The media are full of reports about injustices carried out by all parties in Syria's civil war. The proceedings in Koblenz show that the evidence can stand up in court.

That evidence that was collected and examined over 60 days of hearings, presented by courageous eyewitnesses and experts. It presents a disturbing picture of a brutal machine of repression, in which torture not only serves to extort information but also as a means of revenge and deterrence. It is evidence that there has been torture and killings on "an almost industrial scale," according to the prosecutors.  

von Hein, Matthias

DW's Matthias von Hein

The significance of Wednesday's verdict goes beyond the trial — and beyond Germany's borders. The evidence presented will have an impact on future cases. The process of coming to terms with crimes against humanity in Syria has begun and is far from over. 

No safe haven

The first message from the trial is that Germany is not a haven for war criminals. The judge Anne Kelber devoted half of her closing remarks to the overall situation in Syria, to describing the system and procedures of repression. It was this entire system that was in the dock: The accused, Eyad A, was only one element, one of the many necessary if such a repressive machine is to function.  

This is perhaps where one of the trial's weaknesses lay: Eyad was only a cog in the machine. Moreover, he turned away from the Assad regime at an early stage, which was considered a mitigating factor by the court — as was the fact that the charges were largely based on his own testimony.  

Of course, it would have been preferable for others to be on trial: the people who continue to order torture and killings today, the heads of the secret service, members of the government. Perhaps they will have learned from the trial in Koblenz that there is no haven for war criminals. The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but they grind consistently. Last summer, a 93-year-old was convicted for crimes committed during the National Socialist era, over 75 years ago, when he was a concentration camp guard. Thus, it is clear that the concept of universal jurisdiction works and enables the German judiciary to prosecute war crimes that were neither committed in Germany nor by or against German citizens. 

But, if Germany wants to be a credible torch of justice, it will have to use this instrument in all directions. After all, it still maintains close relations with certain states whose representatives are also suspected of committing war crimes. 

This commentary has been adapted from German.