For the first time over the course of the decadelong Syrian civil war, former Bashar Assad regime officers are going on trial in Germany for crimes against humanity, paving the way for the regime's victims to finally find justice.
Prime suspect Anwar Raslan, an alleged former colonel in the Syrian regime's security services, stands accused of carrying out crimes against humanity while in charge of the Al-Khatib detention center in Damascus.
The 57-year-old has been charged with overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the prison between April 29, 2011, and Sept. 7, 2012.
Fellow defendant Eyad al-Gharib, 43, is accused of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity, having helped arrest protesters and deliver them to Al-Khatib in the autumn of 2011.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, the two men both fled their country, applying for asylum in Germany, where they were arrested in February 2019.
"This trial is the first occasion in which (victims) are speaking out, not only in public but before a court, about what happened to them and what is still happening in Syria," said Wolfgang Kaleck, founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based legal group supporting the plaintiffs.
Raslan and Gharib are to be tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity.
The German attorney general says the trial, which is taking place in the city of Koblenz, constituted the "first criminal trial worldwide of members of the Assad regime for crimes against humanity."
Such atrocities can be tried in Germany even if they have taken place outside the country and the victims were not German.
According to the German Judges' Association, the attorney general is currently investigating 100 suspected crimes against humanity, including in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Mali, Nigeria, the Gambia, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"War criminals find no shelter in Germany," association head Sven Rebehn told German Press Agency (DPA) when discussing the case.
The Syrian regime has been accused of various crimes during the conflict that started in 2011, including torture in prisons, summary executions and the use of chemical weapons.
This is the only way to bring the perpetrators of Syrian regime crimes to justice, as the International Criminal Court is hamstrung by vetoes from Russia and China, the ECCHR claimed.
Everything started when Anwar al-Bunni crossed paths with fellow Syrian national Anwar Raslan in a DIY store in Germany five years ago, and recognized him as the man who had thrown him in jail a decade earlier. The two men arrived in Berlin within two months of each other and crossed paths when they were briefly staying in the same center for asylum-seekers. For Bunni, speaking to Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Berlin, the trial will send "an important message" to the Assad regime: "You will never have impunity, so think about it!"
While Bunni will not be one of the plaintiffs in Thursday's trial, he is a respected figure in Germany's 700,000-strong Syrian community and has convinced numerous victims to come forward.
In 2016, when he started working with local lawyers, Bunni learned that German investigators already had their eye on Raslan, who was arrested in February 2019.
The court is expected to hear testimonies from victims who survived what prosecutors say were "inhuman and degrading" conditions at Al-Khatib, before later escaping to Europe.
The prison's inmates, many of whom were arrested for taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations during the Arab Spring in 2011, were beaten with "fists, wires and whips" and subjected to "electric shocks," prosecutors claimed.
Others were "hung by their wrists so that only the tips of their toes were touching the ground" and "continued to be beaten in this position" or else "deprived of sleep for several days."
Such "brutal acts of psychological and physical abuse" were intended to extract "confessions and information about the (Syrian) opposition," the charge sheet added.
Some have suggested that Raslan was not just a pawn of the regime, noting that he reportedly defected to the opposition in 2012 before arriving in Germany two years later
Yet ECCHR's Kaleck insists that the 57-year-old was not "any old prison guard," but rather someone who, according to prosecutors, had a position of authority in the apparatus of the Syrian regime.
Previously, a former Syrian army photographer known by the pseudonym "Caesar" fled the country in 2013, taking with him some 55,000 photographs documenting abuse and torture.
The photos Caesar brought out of Syria show people with their eyes gouged out, emaciated bodies, people with wounds on their backs or stomachs, and also a picture of hundreds of corpses lying in a shed surrounded by plastic bags used for burials.
The dossier is being used by international bodies, including the United Nations, as part of an investigation into the regime's role in "mass torture."
If convicted, Raslan faces life imprisonment. Gharib could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity.
Raslan and Gharib's lawyers declined to give a comment ahead of the trial, which is expected to last until at least August.
Assad himself, however, defended Raslan against the accusations when he was asked about the trial in an interview with Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT.
"We never believed that torture could make the situation better as a regime, very simple. So we don't use it," said the Syrian regime head, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 20 years.
Yet according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have been killed under torture or as a result of the terrible conditions in Assad's detention centers.
The trial has been described as a pivotal moment in the effort to bring Syrian officials accused of crimes to justice.
“With other avenues for justice blocked, criminal prosecutions in Europe offer hope for victims of crimes in Syria who have nowhere else to turn,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The trial in Koblenz shows that courts, even thousands of miles away from where the atrocities occurred, can play a critical role in combating impunity,” she said.
Last year, five Syrian torture survivors living in Norway filed legal complaints against senior officials of the regime. The complaint filed by the Syrian nationals documented crimes committed by 17 senior officials connected to the regime's Military Intelligence, General Intelligence and Political and Criminal Security divisions.
Lawyers asked the Norwegian prosecutors to investigate these 17 intelligence officials and issue international arrest warrants.
One of the plaintiffs, who was detained by the Syrian General Intelligence and subjected to various torture techniques, said he wanted to see those responsible for Assad's torture system to stand trial.
Already in 2012, Human Rights Watch said Syria was holding tens of thousands of detainees in a "torture archipelago."
It documented 27 detention facilities nationwide used to hold people swept up in the government's crackdown on protesters.
Witnesses described torture, including beatings, the use of electricity or car battery acid, sexual assault and mock executions.
Back in June 2019, the Syrian Human Rights Network (SNHR) announced that over 14,000 civilians have died of torture since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011.
"Some 14,227 individuals (including 177 children, 62 women) have died due to torture at the hands of main parties to the conflict in Syria from March 2011 to June 2019," according to the SNHR report, which marks the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, falling on June 26.
Torture by the Bashar Assad regime forces made up 14,070 of this number, including 173 children and 45 women. The report stressed that the figures consisted of only those that can be identified and that the real death toll is much higher.
In February 2016, U.N. investigators said: "The mass scale of deaths of detainees suggests that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination."
A year later, Amnesty International said as many as 13,000 people were hanged between 2011 and 2015 at the notorious Saydnaya military-run prison near Damascus.
This came on top of the 17,700 people it had already estimated as having perished in regime custody since the start of the conflict.
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