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Syrian victims of torture testify in German court

Matthias von Hein
June 5, 2020

Victims of Syrian state torture are taking the stand in a Koblenz courtroom, in the world's first case of its kind. Many Syrians have been waiting for this moment and are hoping for justice.

The accused standing trial in Koblenz
Image: DW/M. von Hein

Feras Fayyad is the first victim to tell the Koblenz courtroom of the frankly unimaginable horror of the Al Khatib detention center in Damascus. The 35-year-old Syrian director, hair prematurely gray, spoke on the 10th day of the trial of two alleged torturers at the upper regional court in Koblenz. After a string of investigators, experts and law enforcers, he is the first witness with personal experience of the torture rather than stories and reports.

Fayyad recalls the cynically-named "welcome parties" for prisoners — in which they are sometimes beaten for hours, often also with rifles. He says they were then taken to a dungeon where they were forced to strip. There, the torture continued — lashings, clubbings and dousings in ice-cold water.

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Fayyad speaks of overcrowded communal cells, where people would try to sleep on their feet. He says he saw some inmates and could no longer tell whether they were still alive. He even saw a child in the prison operated by the infamous Branch 251, the Damascus internal security segment of Syria's General Intelligence Directorate. In court, Fayyad declines to try to put into words the screams he had heard, but the director says via his interpreter: "One day I will try to describe it in my films."

Film director Feras Fayyad talks on his phone
Film director Feras Fayyad was the first torture victim to testifyImage: DW/M. von Hein

He struggles to remember everything, telling the court that doing so can cause phantom pains. In his arms and legs, for instance, when thinking of being strung up by his hands in such a way that his feet barely touched the floor. Or recalling being lashed with cables. Fayyad also recounts that he was raped. He subsequently required an operation in Turkey as a result of the injuries.

He recalls being interrogated several times at Al Khatib, blindfolded and forced to kneel on the floor. Nevertheless he had some awareness of his surroundings, including of the man he refers to only as "the interrogator." The man was not very tall and tended to dress smartly, in a white shirt and tie. Fayyad estimates he is "70% sure" that this interrogator is indeed the senior Syrian intelligence officer on trial. Fayyad says that hearing Anwar R.'s voice would go a long way toward a more positive identification. But Anwar R.'s lawyer has made it clear his client will not provide a sample recording.

Crimes against humanity

Just a few meters away from Fayyad sits the man accused of causing him all this harm. Anwar R. was once a high-ranking member of Syria's dissident repression machinery.The colonel led Branch 251, responsible for the security of the capital, Damascus. He stands accused of crimes against humanity, of overseeing 58 counts of murder and at least 4,000 cases of torture, rape or sexual abuse.

Germany: The trial against Assad's torturers

Anwar R. is the first member of Bashar Assad's regime to face charges of crimes against humanity anywhere in the world. Germany's so-called "Völkerstrafgesetzbuch," a 2002 addition to domestic law introduced to bring it in line with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, explains how it is even possible to try a Syrian national on German soil for alleged crimes against another Syrian committed in Syria. It empowers German courts to try alleged breaches of international law, even when not committed in Germany or not involving Germans.

Read more: How Assad's family filled its European coffers

Global interest in Koblenz case

The Koblenz trial is therefore significant not just for the main defendant Anwar R. and the second accused man, Eyad A. In a sense, the entire repression apparatus of the Assad regime is in the dock. The interest reflects this: international media have descended on hearing room 128 and the viewing gallery is packed with spectators, primarily refugees who have fled Syria. Many of them have traveled far, like Wafa Mustafa, who lives more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) away in Berlin.

The Syrian activist is sitting on the ground in front of the courthouse, surrounded by 61 photos of people, each adorned with a white rose. They are images of men, women and children who have disappeared from Syrian prisons.

On her lap, she holds a photo of her own father. He was arrested on July 2, 2013, she recalls, a day that changed her life. She has never heard from her father since and does not even know if he still lives.

Speaking to DW, she singles out the work of the UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). According to the SNHR's conservative estimates, incorporating only the documented cases, the number of disappeared and imprisoned people is approaching 130,000.

"Right at this moment, people in Syria are being held captive and tortured by the Assad regime," Mustafa stresses. She says her most important message is for the loved ones of those missing, abused or killed: "You are not forgotten."

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