Koblenz trial: A shining light in Syria's dark sky
Loudspeakers boomed with the verdict in Arabic at 10am, 13 January 2022: a life sentence for Anwar R., a former colonel in the Syrian General Security Service and head of the Investigation Unit at military intelligence facility Branch 251, also known as Al-Khatib.
Anwar R., a 58-year-old ex-intelligence officer, came to Germany in 2014 with his family and sought refuge after defecting from the Syrian regime in 2012 and actively participating in the opposition.
Live footage from court on the day of the verdict showed him in handcuffs, and with a strange smile on his face, following his indictment on several charges - including crimes against humanity - for the murder of 27 people, the torture of 4,000, unlawful detentions, and several counts of physical and sexual violence between April 2011 and September 2012.
Koblenz, a small city in the west of Germany, was the stage for this historical event; the first criminal trial of Syrian officials in the Assad regime for crimes against humanity committed since the revolution started in 2011.
"Anwar R.'s trial wouldn't have seen the light of day without the relentless, courageous work of the 80 witnesses who appeared in Koblenz court, former detainees in Branch 251, as well as human rights lawyers"
Two in one
The prosecution of Anwar R. was one of two cases that took place simultaneously in the trial, which began in April 2020. The other case was against a member of the 40th subdivision of Branch 251, Eyad A., who, on the 24 February 2021, was convicted on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in the form of torture and the gross deprivation of liberty in 30 incidents, for which he received a sentence of four and a half years in prison.
Eyad A. is now in the process of appealing his sentence. His conviction received mixed responses among Syrians at the time, ranging from relief about a first worldwide conviction of a former Syrian regime official, no matter the size of the punishment, to anger towards how minor his sentence was. Many also felt he was not the right person to be held accountable, since he was a low-level officer who defected early.
The trial of Anwar R., which started on the same date, lasted for almost two years and 108 days, nearly three years since he was arrested on the 12th of February, 2019.
The trial took place amid uncertain and challenging circumstances due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which rendered public attendance almost impossible and imposed social distancing procedures and restrictions, such as wearing face masks.
But the particularity of the trial came not only from its timing, but also due to its jurisdiction.
The German Federal prosecutor managed to arrest and put on trial both Anwar R. and Eyad A. based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Universal jurisdiction means that Germany can prosecute the gravest international criminal offences, most notably crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, committed anywhere against anybody, irrespective of the geography of the crimes and the nationality of the perpetrators or the victims.
This is because those who commit crimes against humanity are considered enemies to all humankind. This jurisdiction was included in Germany's Code of Crimes Against International Law and became effective in 2002.
The trial took place in a small city away from the capital Berlin, where many Syrians now reside. This made public attendance of the trial and coverage by journalists more challenging, given the strict rules of Covid-19.
But moving the trial to Koblenz from Berlin assumingly also sped up its proceedings, in contrast with what could have been the case in the capital given the busy schedule of the Berlin judicial system.
Apart from the earlier launch of proceedings and the announcement of the two judgments, media coverage of what was a milestone trial in modern Syrian history was minimal. Only a few news outlets covered the proceedings throughout the two years of the trial, and even fewer in Arabic.
The fact that the court had no strategy for communicating with the Syrian public caused a lot of frustration. The court even refused multiple requests to provide Arabic translation throughout its proceedings so that the only language to follow the trial in was German.
Except for the press releases regarding the judgments, there were no summaries, even in English. That made following the court proceedings, pleas, and statements very difficult for non-German speakers, whether journalists or other interested parties such as NGOs and the Syrian diaspora.
It was not easy for non-accredited journalists to report on the trial, as only accredited journalists were provided with translation devices. The accreditation period ended a couple of weeks before the trial started.
That changed on the day of the verdict, when the two translators of the trial were allowed to announce the verdict simultaneously through microphones to the public who attended the court session. In Eyad A.’s case, the decision was also announced in Arabic at the time.
"What next? What about people left in prisons? How can we release the detainees? What can we do for them?"
“The media coverage was a little bit disappointing. I would have expected more because it was such an important historical trial. And usually, in big trials, there are court reporters from bigger newspapers who attend, which was not the case here,” Hannah El-Hitami, a freelance journalist and reporter for the Branch 251 Podcast, told The New Arab.
“Some media only came for the first and last days. I developed the impression that you really need to be there over a long time to understand more than just the superficial story of this trial and to really understand all the deeper lying issues”.
El-Hitami attended nearly 100 days of proceedings and reported on it for The Branch 251 Podcast, which brought Arabic audiences into the heart of the trial. Her reporting made the trial’s updates accessible in both Arabic and English.
The podcast, created by Fritz Streiff, a human rights lawyer, provided updates and context, with the team working tirelessly to research, report, and fact-check information.
As in the case of Eyad A., the verdict of Anwar R. triggered a range of emotions. Most people welcomed the life sentence and saw it as an opportunity to renew their demands for freedom for the Syrian people, the forcibly disappeared, and detainees in Assad’s prisons.
Noor H, a former detainee in the Air Force Security Branch, was pleased with the verdict since he witnessed the extent of the torture, and the inhumane way detainees were treated. He believes that the sentence Anwar R. got is an essential step in the long road ahead for justice for Syrians.
Nevertheless, he remains shocked that so many more regime members who committed atrocities are still out there and urged that they be held accountable for the crimes they have committed.
Majdi, a former detainee in many military jails, including Branch 251, looked at what happened differently. “Everybody in Syria is oppressed [...] We live in an environment that has brought the worst of people. It is traumatising, unsafe, and full of abuse and neglect,” he told TNA.
"Detention centres and security branches in Syria are black holes, they suck the life out of people, and even if detainees are released they have been changed forever, never feeling at home again in this world"
“All [armed] parties committed violations, and this understanding prevents me from feeling any Schadenfreude towards convicted jailers or getting my revenge, which is not a solution to the Syrian conflict. Still, I was relieved with this sentence as it is a step towards transitional justice that will comfort the families of the detainees but not the detainees themselves,” he added.
“I am happy that Anwar R. will not endure the torture he exercised on detainees. He will not lose his mind, become someone else or even die. He got a fair trial, and he will be treated as a human in prison,” Majdi said.
“What next?” he added. “What about people left in prisons? How can we release the detainees? What can we do for them? There is no clear way of moving forward”.
Anwar R.’s trial wouldn’t have seen the light of day without the relentless, courageous work of the 80 witnesses who appeared in Koblenz court, former detainees in Branch 251, as well as human rights lawyers and organisations.
They have been fighting tirelessly for justice and a systematic approach to hold accountable whoever committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.
Detention centres and security branches in Syria are black holes, they suck the life out of people, and even if detainees are released they have been changed forever, never feeling at home again in this world.
Echoing Majdi’s words of ‘what next?’, it is vital to salute the Syrians who haven’t forgotten, who continue to fight tirelessly so that Assad and his regime are brought to justice, and for the hope that loved ones will one day come back and justice is served.
They are the shining light in the dark reality of Syria today.
Naya Skaf is a Syrian Journalist, Researcher and Co-Host of Branch 251 Podcast
Follow her on Twitter: @NayaSkaf