For the first time anywhere, Syrian intelligence officers are facing trial — in Germany. The court aims to probe the defendant's alleged crimes as well as cast light on Bashar Assad's system of torture and oppression.
It's going to be tough in Koblenz at the city's Higher Regional Court, located close to the majestic Rhine River. So very, very far away from the horrors of Syrian torture chambers. It's going to be tough for the handful of observers, who, despite restrictions linked with the coronavirus pandemic, manage to occupy one of the few seats available in the courtroom.
It's going to be much, much tougher for the witnesses. They will be called on to recount the torture, the moments of anguish and agony, that they would rather forget — if they only could. They will have to talk of the kind of pain that goes beyond the imagination of anybody who has never experienced such horror. They will have to report on inconceivable humiliation and dehumanization that they have suffered at first hand. From this Thursday, and for many months to come, the focus is on the monstrous excesses of a system of control and persecution that was set up with just one purpose: to maintain the Assad clan's grip on power — at any price.
A colonel and his henchmen
A senior member of the Syrian president's apparatus of violence and persecution was 57-year-old Anwar R. He is the principle defendant. With the rank of colonel, he was the man in charge of Branch 251 of the Syrian secret service and as such responsible for security matters in the capital, Damascus. The other defendant, Eyad A., also worked at Branch 251, but further down the ranks. Branch 251 was located right next to a prison.
In the court's charge sheet, it was in this prison, and under Anwar R.'s leadership, that at least 4,000 prisoners were tortured over a period of around 500 days between April 2011 and September 2012. The prosecution has listed rape, serious sexual assault, beatings and kicking, as well as subjection to electric shocks. It's estimated that at least 58 prisoners died as a result of the abuse. Eyad A. is charged with complicity to torture in at least 30 cases.
Landmark trial against regime
This is the first time worldwide that members of the Syrian regime are facing charges of crimes against humanity. The fact that German prosecutors are pressing these charges in a German court against Syrians accused of torturing and murdering other Syrians in Syria is made possible by Germany's Code of Crimes Against International Law, which came into force in June 2002. This code includes what's known as the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows German courts to prosecute crimes against international law even if they were not committed in Germany and neither the perpetrator nor the victim are Germans.
Although the scene of the crime is a long way away, the body of evidence collected is substantial. There are witnesses. Many of them came to Europe as refugees, and many of them came to Germany. Sixteen women and men expected to deliver testimony at the trial are being supported by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). Nine of them are joint plaintiffs in the case against Anwar R.
Lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck was the founder of the ECCHR, a Berlin-based human rights organization. He is well aware how important the investigation into the Syrian system of violence and persecution is for victims of torture. Kaleck told DW what one of the alleged torture victims had to say about the trial: "I came here as a refugee in 2015. As somebody without any rights, without any kind of existential security. This trial will give me back agency over my own life."
The body of evidence is also good because Syria, as Kaleck puts it, is an "orderly dictatorship." "There is no rule of law, but the country does function according to certain rules," he explains. "When somebody has a certain function, like the principle defendant, who was in charge of what was called an 'investigation unit' — that is, a unit that was involved in severe torture — then we can assume that we can to a certain extent hold him responsible." Kaleck says the trial against Anwar R. is the "beginning of the systematic coming to terms with the crimes of the Assad government — and above all the systematic torture."
It is worth noting that German authorities have been investigating the crimes of the Assad regime since 2011. That was when federal prosecutors in Karlsruhe began what was termed a "general investigation." Whenever prosecutors believe they have collected enough evidence against a certain suspect, they launch a preliminary investigation against that person. So far, such proceedings have been opened against some 20 senior officials in the Syrian apparatus.
The most prominent among them is the former head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directive, Jamil Hassan, for whom an international arrest warrant was issued in 2018. That warrant resulted from a case built by the ECCHR, which "caught the attention of both communities," says Wolfgang Kaleck: "Those who have suffered. And those behind the injustices in Syria."
Germany's 'War Crimes Unit'
The evidence is collected by what staffers call the "War Crimes Unit" at Germany's Federal Criminal Office. "Germany must not become a safe haven for war criminals," is the guiding principle for the officials from within their high-security concrete headquarters in the pretty little town of Meckenheim near Bonn.
The investigators got some crucial help from a foundation based in the Netherlands: the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, or CIJA, which had smuggled hundreds of thousands of government documents out of Syria after the war began there. Since then, several dozen analysts have combed through the documents, looking for evidence of potentially criminal acts and collating dossiers — with financial backing from the German government. The German weekly Die Zeit reported that when the investigators looking for incriminating information concerning Anwar R. contacted CIJA, they were told that they already had a file full of material against him.
Torturer turned resistance fighter
The balding, 57-year-old principal defendant is a controversial figure. He had a storybook career in the Syrian security apparatus before becoming master over life and death at the Branch 251 prison in Damascus. But at the end of 2012 Anwar R. turned against the regime and fled the country with his family. He became an adviser to the Syrian resistance and took up a prominent role in the opposition.
In the summer of 2014, the former colonel in the security services came to Germany with his family, applied for asylum, received a resident's permit, and found a new home in the northeast of Berlin. Fearing that he was being trailed by the Syrian intelligence service, he got in touch with the German police. They subjected him to thorough questioning and Anwar R. was more than willing to answer their questions about his time in Syria.
Sources close to the investigation told DW that Anwar R. clearly had not envisaged facing trial. They say he told his story without any apparent sense of wrongdoing. After months of investigation by the Chief Federal Prosecutor's Office, Anwar R. was arrested on February 12, 2019.
Shedding light on how the regime works
The political change of heart by the former secret service man is unlikely to play an important part in the trial, says the lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck. He refers to a legal concept applied in German courts: "We call it post-crime behavior. If someone distances themselves from a crime after they commit it, then that can be viewed as a positive step. But on the other hand, Anwar R. is accused of 4,000 cases of torture and 58 murders. Of course, that can't be made good by changing his tune politically."
Much is expected of the trial in Koblenz. It aims to shed light on the crimes allegedly committed by the two defendants in the context of the Syrian power structure and deliver a better overall understanding of the tyrannical Syrian regime. That might serve as a precedent for other trials in other places. A spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor's Office says: "The evidence we collect can be used for decades to come."