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Syrians seek war crimes justice in European courts

November 17, 2020

Left with no other options, Syrians in Europe have taken local chemical companies, overseas banks and technology firms to court, as well as senior Syrian officials and members of terror groups.

(FILE) Aleppo 2016
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Imageslive/O. Jumaa

Syrian refugees in Europe are using creative legal approaches to find justice through European courts. The cases have ranged from going after companies that shipped chemicals to Syria that could be used to make nerve gas, to prosecuting actual members of terror groups.

One of the most recent cases to make headlines saw Syrians taking on those they see as funding a proxy war in their homeland. The long-running Syrian civil war began in 2011, after the government headed by Bashar Assad started to arrest anti-government protesters. But since then, other countries — including Iran, Turkey and Russia — have supported fighters on the ground and prolonged the civil war.

In July, eight Syrians announced they would sue Qatar-based financial institution Doha Bank in London courts. The Syrian refugees, who now live in Europe and who have remained anonymous for security reasons, allege the bank channeled funds from wealthy Qatari businessmen to the Nusra Front in Syria, an al-Qaeda associated anti-government group.

McCue and Partners, the British law firm representing the Syrians, tells DW they have identified a further potential 330 Syrian plaintiffs who could eventually be added to the lawsuit.

The militant group Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaida, has also been targeted in the courtsImage: Reuters/A. Abdullah

No international alternatives

Syrians are seeking justice in European courts because, despite mounting evidence of war crimes over the past nine years, the conflict has never been appraised by the International Criminal Court. Syria is not a signatory to the Netherlands-based court — so any case needs to be referred there by the United Nations Security Council. Members of the Security Council, however, include China and Russia, which have vetoed any attempt to do that. Russia, in particular, is an ally of the Syrian government.

But as more Syrian refugees establish themselves in Europe and enlist local NGOs and human rights lawyers, the number of cases before European courts has grown. There are simply more victims, witnesses and insiders, as well as perpetrators in Europe now, says Jennifer Triscone, a lawyer at Trial International, a Swiss organization fighting impunity in international crimes.

There are ongoing cases in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Austria, France and the United Kingdom. Legal cases have also been pursued in Italy, Spain and Belgium.

"With other avenues for justice blocked, criminal prosecutions in Europe offer hope for victims of crimes in Syria who have nowhere else to turn," Balkees Jarrah, associate director in the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement.

Read more:Refugees in Germany: Fleeing Syria and Bashar Assad's henchmen 

European companies accused

Court cases have targeted a wide variety of players in the conflict. Many cases have tried to confirm the crimes of senior officials in the Syrian government. The most recent complaint submitted to the German federal prosecutor's war crimes unit in October involved tracing the line of command within the Assad regime for chemical weapons attacks in 2013 and 2017 where sarin gas was used. The Open Society Justice Initiative, one of the organizations behind the complaint, told DW the German prosecutor was investigating.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. 

One of the cases considered most important is underway in Koblenz, Germany, where a senior member of Syrian security services, who initially sought asylum in the country, is accused of complicity in torture and murder.

Other cases have focused on Syrians in Europe, including those who fought on the anti-government side in the war for extremist groups like the Nusra Front or the "Islamic State" (IS). 

A handful of cases have accused European companies of involvement in the conflict, including one Italian firm under investigation for  allegedly supplying telecommunications equipment that could be used for surveillance of protesters.

In Belgium, three firms were found guilty of exporting chemicals — which might have been used to produce lethal nerve agents in attacks — without appropriate licenses, resulting in company fines and jail terms for top executives. 

In one case, French construction company Lafarge faces an investigation into the charge of financing a terrorist enterprise, after allegedly paying terror groups, including IS, to keep its cement factory in Syria running in 2013 and 2014. Lafarge, which was taken over by the Swiss company Holcim, said in a statement in 2019, "LafargeHolcim deeply regrets the unacceptable errors committed in Syria."     

UN inspectors
The UN investigated a chemical attack in August 2013 in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, and found "clear and convincing evidence" sarin gas was used. "This is a war crime," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a month later Image: Reuters

Sexual violence underreported in legal cases

"I think it's particularly important to think creatively about these cases," says Trial International's Triscone. For example, she says, "looking at financial crimes can lead to asset seizures or limit the sources of funding." Although it can be difficult to prove cases where companies are, for example, accused of exporting dangerous chemicals, the fact that prosecutors get a look at internal company documents could help gather evidence on previously unknown individuals with links to the Syrian regime, the Geneva-based legal investigator explains.

Another legal avenue could be the prosecution of crimes of sexual violence. However, it is difficult to obtain proof and there are social repercussions for victims, says Triscone.

Read more:Displaced Syrians look for way out of a Lebanon in conflict  

Syrian refugees flee
Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring Turkey to escape the violent conflict Image: Reuters

Approach distorts perceptions of Syrian war

Some see problems with the piecemeal approach. As Uğur Üngör, a professor at the Amsterdam-based NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, has argued, focusing on former rebel commanders from groups like IS can be a problem.

"In a nutshell, there are not enough cases against the regime," Üngör said in an interview with Swiss non-profit, Fondation Hirondelle. Partially this is because it's easier to arrest rebels in Europe, where they have often sought asylum. Senior members of the Assad government don't travel here, he says. But linking terrorism and war crimes leads to the perception that a low-level crime is the same as state-sanctioned mass torture, he noted.

Germany: The trial against Assad's torturers

Trials in Europe have had mixed success, many are ongoing and some decisions — such as the French Lafarge one — are being appealed. "But given the enormity of criminality and that the vast majority of people most responsible for the crimes are still in power, I think the justice project for Syria is really only just getting started," says Steve Kostas, lead project officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative's Syrian accountability project.

It is also possible that national court cases could influence opinions on larger international efforts. For example, in September, the Dutch government announced it was planning to try to take Syria to the International Court of Justice, at the UN, for war crimes.

And, as Kostas tells DW, at the end of this month, European nations could also use an Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons conference to refer "accountability for Syrian chemical weapons attacks to the UN General Assembly."

"[That] could even lead to discussion of a possible treaty-based tribunal for Syria, similar to the Nuremberg model," Kostas says, referring to the special tribunal that tried Nazi war criminals in Germany after World War II.

Idlib fears new offensive by Assad's forces

This article has been updated to clarify that sexual violence crimes could be prosecuted outside of cases of war crimes. 

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