Syrian 'torturers' switched sides, German court hears in landmark crimes against humanity trial

Syrian 'torturers' switched sides, German court hears in landmark crimes against humanity trial
Anwar Raslan, who oversaw one of Syria's most notorious prisons, told a German court that he had defected from the regime and fled Syria to join the opposition in exile.
3 min read
24 April, 2020
Anwar Raslan charged with overseeing the torture of thousands at Syria's Al-Khatib prison [Getty]
The main defendant in the first trial on state-sponsored torture in Syria sought police protection in Germany because he felt threatened by Bashar al-Assad's intelligence service after he 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 centre 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 intelligences services to join the opposition.

Both men had also admitted to their past links to Assad's regime when questioned by German authorities.

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

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 on his past.

'A stark warning'

Interrogated twice by criminal police, he provided "vast and varied information" about what he did, the court heard.

He explained how within his division 251 where 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 practised 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 Rights 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 he was finally arrested in February 2019 along with Gharib, who was sitting next to him in the dock.

'Just obeying orders'

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.

Click to enlarge

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 the Syrian president'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' jail before parole is considered.

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram to stay connected