The main defendant in the first trial on regime-sponsored torture in Syria has sought police protection in Germany on the grounds of feeling threatened by Bashar Assad's intelligence services for having switched sides, a German court was told on Friday.
Anwar Raslan, 57, is in the docks charged with overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others while in charge of the Al-Khatib detention center in Damascus.
Fellow defendant Eyad al-Gharib, 43, is accused of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity, having helped to arrest protesters and deliver them to Al-Khatib in the autumn of 2011.
On the second day of the closely watched hearing, a police investigator told the court that both men had fled to Germany after deserting Syrian intelligence services to join the opposition.
Both men had also admitted to their past links to Assad's regime when questioned by German authorities.
For 18 years, Raslan worked in the Syrian intelligence services, a German police officer called to the witness stand told the court.
He had in fact approached the police himself to tell them about his past in February 2015, five months after he arrived in Germany.
He felt "threatened by Syrian secret service agents," said the investigator, adding that Raslan said he had joined the Syrian opposition in exile after deserting the regime.
That triggered German investigators' interest in his past.
Interrogated twice by police, he provided "vast and varied information" about what he did, the court heard.
He explained how within his division 251, in which he was promoted to "the highest rank" in January 2011, soldiers began carrying out arbitrary arrests, the investigator said.
"He said that interrogations were carried out with violence," said the officer, detailing various torture methods practiced in the prison.
Raslan then switched sides, fleeing Syria with his family to join the opposition in exile.
He even participated in peace talks in 2014 in Geneva and finally obtained a visa for Germany.
Germany's foreign ministry had also noted the "apparently active role" of Raslan in the opposition.
Raslan had believed that his past would leave him be because he had joined the opposition, German media and Syrian activists said.
Ahead of the trial, activists including Human Right Watch have said that the case "should serve as a stark warning to those who are currently committing abuses in Syria that no one is beyond the reach of justice."
Raslan was finally arrested in February 2019 along with Gharib, who was sitting next to him in the dock.
Gharib, who arrived in Germany in April 2018, had also not sought to hide his past when he filed his asylum application in May 2018 after deserting the army a few years back.
He provided "information on the activities of Syrian intelligence services" to Germany's Agency for Migration and Refugees, which decides on asylum applications.
Gharib had worked under Hafez Makhlouf, who is Assad's cousin and who counts among Assad’s confidantes.
One of Gharib's contacts, who has been in Germany for many years, defended his actions, saying he was forced to obey orders even if he knew of the torture inflicted on the detainees.
"If he had even whispered a word against it, his life wouldn't have been more valuable than a round of bullets" in a pistol, Zain al-Hussein told Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
Raslan and Gharib are being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity.
The trial is expected to be completed in August at the earliest.
If convicted, both men face up to life in prison, which in Germany usually means 15 years in jail before parole is considered.
Regime crimes against humanity
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.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have been killed due to 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 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, United Nations 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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