Assad's henchmen: The painstaking hunt for Syrian war criminals in Europe

Assad's henchmen: The painstaking hunt for Syrian war criminals in Europe
Former regime officials accused of war crimes are living across Europe, but Syrian activists and the German judiciary are working tirelessly to bring them to justice.
10 min read
30 July, 2020
Germany is leading international efforts for justice in Syria. [Getty]
On 23 April, 2020, the plight of Syrian refugees in Germany returned to the forefront as the trial of two former Syrian regime officials took place in the city of Koblenz. 

The two men, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, stand accused of crimes against humanity, with the accusations against them as extensive as they are horrific.

Germany is one of only a few countries that has chosen to invoke universal jurisdiction - the principle that any nation can try an individual for serious crimes against international law, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, regardless of where the crime took place, or the nationality of the accused. 

Countries choose whether or not they implement universal jurisdiction, and Germany's decision has not been overlooked by Joumana Seif, a human rights activist based in Germany who works with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) as a research fellow, with a particular focus on sexualised and gender-based violence. 

"As a Syrian we really appreciate the effectiveness of universal jurisdiction and how it's applied. It's the only path that we can go down for justice. Even if it is limited," she told The New Arab

Although Germany is leading international efforts for justice in Syria, limited resources and knowledge makes conducting investigations difficult. As such, they rely on the efforts of individuals like Seif and Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human right lawyer, who having fled Syria now works in Germany to open the files of war criminals for transitional justice.

Germany is one of only a few countries that has chosen to invoke universal jurisdiction - the principle that any nation can try an individual for serious crimes against international law

"Germany can't conduct the investigations. They don't know Syria. They don't know the victims. They can't press charges without our assistance," Bunni told The New Arab.

Since the start of the trial of Raslan and Gharib began, Zaman al-Wasl, an opposition news outlet, has been conducting investigations of Syrians residing in Germany. These investigations have resulted in Syrians being accused of committing atrocities in the past, and in some instances, continuing to work for the regime to this day. 

Read more: Prosecuting Assad's henchmen must be the
start of holding Syria's torturers to account

Among those accused by the outlet include Romeo Ibrahim, who applied for asylum in Germany in 2015 and now resides in Straubing, Lower Bavaria. Ibrahim has been accused by activists of being a member of the notorious Tiger Forces and committing murder and rape in his native Syria.  

Tarek Hassan Alour, originally from southern Quneitra, now lives in Mönchengladbach. Alour is allegedly a former member of the 220th Intelligence Branch in Sasa town, and responsible for the arrest and detention of dozens of protestors, many of who have since disappeared, or are known to have died while being tortured.

Ahmad al-Arsali applied for asylum in 2015 and now resides in Leipzig. According to reports, Arsali identified himself as an unarmed civilian to German authorities, but his social media pages tell a different story; with images of him carrying weapons and wearing military uniforms.

Hatem Badawi is accused of being a long-time informant for the highly notorious Military Intelligence Division Branch 235, where dozens of pro-democracy activists and peaceful demonstrators were tortured to death or executed. Badawi has also been accused of directly contributing to the arrest of 400 people from the towns of al-Zahra and al-Midin near Damascus, who provided shelter to families who were fleeing the bombing of Homs. 

Germany can't conduct the investigations. They don't know Syria. They don't know the victims. They can't press charges without our assistance
-Anwar al-Bunni

Alaa Moussa worked as a doctor in Syria, before moving to the German town of Bad Wildungen. He has also been accused of beating and torturing prisoners at a military hospital, including one individual who was suffering from an epileptic seizure. 

The most recent and final individual publicly named was Muwafaq al-Dawah. Dawah is said to have been a former commander in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Witnesses have accused Dawah of raping women from Yarmouk camp in the al-Bashir Mosque and firing an RPG at a crowd of civilians who gathered to receive humanitarian aid. 

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, numerous reports have been released documenting the brutal crimes of the regime. For obvious reasons, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has never admitted to using torture. 

By outing individuals who might otherwise have believed themselves to be free, light is being shone on these crimes. The infamous Caesar photos brought the victims of the regime to the forefront; this time it is the perpetrators who are having the spotlight pointed at them. Agency has been taken away from the regime, and their private torture affair is becoming increasingly public and undeniable. 

Syria Insight: German court case sheds light on Assad's campaign of torture

"Revealing the crimes committed by the regime; their methods, the whole truth…For this to be examined is very important," Seif told The New Arab.

In Syria, the prospects for justice are slim to none. Accountability for these crimes starts in the blood-stained prison cells and touches every point of authority all the way to the very top of the Syrian pyramid. Within the regime apparatus, there are very few clean hands. 

In terms of accountability and justice, Germany has been leading the way. The trial of Raslan and Gharib marks a turning point and these efforts have continued. It was recently announced that Alaa Moussa, one of the men named by Zaman al-Wasl, had been arrested and would face trial.

And Bunni acknowledges the important impact these trials have. "It gives [Syrians] hope. After nine years of people not caring about the victims and their suffering, for the first time something is happening. Someone cares about your suffering."

For Syrians who have suffered atrocities at the hands of the regime, the idea that these war criminals may evade justice is an emotionally crushing prospect.

Revealing the crimes committed by the regime; their methods, the whole truth. For this to be examined is very important

"It's not a good feeling to have criminals enjoying asylum, moving free, bringing their families to Europe and given a good life and profession, as if they were merely victims. That doesn't correlate with justice at all," Karim, a pseudonym, who fled Masyaf and arrived in Germany in 2014, told The New Arab

But the recent reports of regime affiliated individuals present a far more concerning prospect than simply the evasion of justice. It has been suggested that some Syrians living in Germany are not as separated from the regime as might be thought. Indeed, some may still be working for the regime, operating as foreign agents for Damascus and sending information back to the security services. 

Bunni claims that regime agents are "spying for the regime, holding demonstrations for the regime, creating propaganda and even committing terrorist acts to create fear and influence the West into supporting the regime. They have their missions. Some take money for their work, others undertake these tasks because they support the regime."

Bunni highlighted the raiding of locations affiliated with Hezbollah and the banning of the group in Germany as a positive step towards hindering efforts of the regime.

Read more: 'Mute': A Syrian protest that is louder than words

One of the men named by Zaman al-Wasl, Hassan Tarek Alour, has reportedly continued his criminal activities in Germany. Before he moved to Germany, Alour worked as an agent for the intelligence branch in Sasa, Quneitra, along with his father and uncles. 

Using these contacts, Alour has been procuring identity documents, in particular passports, for refugees in Germany, in exchange for large amounts of money. This money has allegedly then been illegally sent back to Syria and used to purchase land and real estate in his village. Alour has reportedly visited Syria, in defiance of German law. 

With help from his uncle and father, Alour was able to cross the border from Lebanon into Syria, without getting a stamp in his passport, ensuring that his asylum status in Germany is protected.

Despite the vast number of vulnerable individuals in Germany, who have suffered at the hands of the regime, Alour has reportedly help to organise and coordinate pro-regime marches in Syria; leading processions calling for people to remain loyal to Assad and condemn the opposition. 

It's not a good feeling to have criminals enjoying asylum, moving free, bringing their families to Europe and given a good life and profession, as if they were merely victims

Concerns have also been raised about Ahmad al-Arsali. Arsali was an agent for the Air Force Intelligence in Syria and participated in looting and the torturing and killing of civilians. Since he moved to Germany, activists have expressed concern that Arsali continued his work and collected information on opposition figures who are active in Europe.  

With no access to Syria, convictions are reliant on Syrian refugees coming forward to testify against their fellow countrymen. The presence of Assad supporters, who are still actively engaged in regime activities, has the potential to dissuade individuals from coming forward and providing testimony.

Germany has provided safe refuge for many Syrians fleeing for their lives, but many of those individuals still have family in Syria, and to actively speak out against the regime and their crimes in a court of law could result in their relatives in Syria being threatened or killed. "People are right to feel concerned about their family still in regime areas in Syria. I don't blame them. We have systems for testimonies that keeps them anonymous," Bunni says. 

There is no easy solution to the problem of war criminals hidden among refugees. A swift and broad response denying safe refuge to any more Syrians or returning refugees in Germany back to Syria would have catastrophic results.

Read more: Charting the dramatic collapse of Syria's
national currency

Even as violence in Syria lessens, the threats to the lives of Syrians does not. Returning Syrians face arrest, forcible conscription, or worse. A 2019 report by the Syrian Network for Human Right documented the disappearance of at least 638 forcibly returned refugees, and the deaths of 15 due to torture. "No-one has the right to push the refugee to Assad and the torture system," says Seif. 

It is also difficult to justify returning all those who were once involved with the regime. Former membership to the army is no guarantee of safe passage, as the regime looks very unfavourably on those who have, in their eyes, abandoned the country.

"Even Anwar Raslan and the others were defectors. They themselves were targeted by the regime and are in danger. But before these defections, they committed crimes," Seif says. "No one can forgive them for these crimes, especially the survivors, a lot of whom are in Germany. It is the right of victims to see these people in court and to put forward their case."

For Karim, justice will only be achieved through collective action. "There is a lack of organised Syrian work in Europe. If the Syrians don't take advantage of the freedom they have in Germany to come together…they will not secure decision making abilities, and justice will just be limited to those who face a German court."

While the idea of providing a safe haven for war criminals could be an unpalatable prospect for some, with Germany leading the way in prosecutions, retaining Syrians who may have committed war crimes could be the best opportunity that victims have for justice.

The victims of the Syrian regime should never be forgotten, but neither should their killers. For those who have suffered, it would add insult to injury if those criminals were allowed to slip back into society, with no repercussions.

The efforts of Zaman al-Wasl to name and shame war criminals, and the efforts of Bunni and Seif, together with the German judiciary, to put them in the dock should be applauded. With legal justice, some Syrians could finally close a chapter of a bloody and miserable tale. 

Hugo Goodridge is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @hugogoodridge