German court convicts Syrian regime official of crimes against humanity
A German court convicted a Syrian security official with crimes against humanity on Thursday, marking the first time a high-ranking member of the regime has been held responsible for crimes committed during Syria’s civil war.
The verdict is a landmark decision for victims of the Syrian regime and was considered an important example of the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against humanity.
The 58-year-old security official, Anwar Raslan was charged with torture, murder, rape, and aggravated sexual assault during his time as a commanding officer at the notorious Branch 251 regime prison in Syria from April 2011 to September 2012.
German prosecutors say he oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 people and the murder of at least 58.
He has been given a life sentence and is expected to serve at least 15 years before he is released. The trial took two years and saw almost 50 former detainees of Branch 251 testify against him.
“This shows that evidence collected by Syrian organizations and survivors stands up in court. It proves to prosecutors in Germany and beyond that these cases can be brought to court to won,” Eric Witte, a senior policy officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, told The New Arab.
“These crimes are ongoing. As we speak, tens of thousands of people in Syria remain disappeared and in detention and are being tortured today. It’s important to remind the world that these crimes are ongoing,” Witte said.
He added that the verdict is particularly timely, because it reminds governments which insist that Syria has now become safe that the opposite is true.
Branch 251 – also called “al-Khatib” after the neighbourhood of Damascus it is located in – is notorious for its brutal torture of prisoners.
Accounts by former detainees tell horrific tales of rotten food, prisoners packed into deliberately cramped cells and torture techniques which were creative in their cruelty.
One former detainee – Syrian activist Amer Matar – described how he saw Raslan attend protests to “memorize protesters’ faces.” He later testified in Koblenz that Raslan personally beat him and called him a “son of a bitch” at the al-Khatib prison branch.
Another detainee, Yaser Abdul Samad Karmi, said that he was beaten “all over the body” and shocked with high voltage electricity on his “thighs, shoulders and genitals.”
Raslan, in a statement read out by his lawyers, told the court that he tried to help detainees in Branch 251, but he “no longer had any influence” because he came from an opposition-affiliated region in Homs, Syria.
He also said that he would accept the verdict of the court, because he “believes in German law and justice.”
Raslan defected from the Syrian regime and fled to Jordan in 2012, briefly becoming an opposition activist before being granted asylum in Germany in 2014.
Raslan first came to the attention of German police after filing a report with authorities alleging that he was being followed by Syrian regime officials in 2015. Two years later, Raslan was being interviewed by police regarding an investigation into another Syrian suspected of inflicting violence on protesters.
Throughout the course of the interview, police realized that he might have been complicit in torture through his role as an intelligence officer in Syria and opened up an investigation into Raslan. In 2019, he was arrested along with another former security official, Eyad A, and preparations for a trial began.
The charging of Raslan is possible due to a German law passed in 2002 which affirms the principle of universal jurisdiction. This allows German courts to try individuals for crimes designated in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, even if the crimes were committed outside of Germany.
In Spain, a case was initiated against Ali Mamlouk, Syria’s intelligence chief who is under Western sanction, for “acts of terrorism.” The Spanish National Court dismissed the case however, as Spain does not use the principle of universal jurisdiction.