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

Prosecuting Assad's henchmen must be the start of holding Syria's torturers to account
Comment: Assad's torturous regime prevails, but the trial in Germany that puts his accused henchmen in the dock is a step closer to justice for Syrians, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
22 Apr, 2020
Assad's regime used mass torture, murder and rape as terror tactics to quell dissent [AFP]
One of the many questions that arises from the nine-year-long Syrian civil war, is whether Assad's victims will ever see justice served. 

This week, in a case that is unprecedented in the history of the conflict, two henchman of Assad's torture and his murderous state are set to stand trial in Germany. 

Of all the 700,000 Syrians living in Germany, five years ago the noted Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni ran into another Syrian - a face he grimly recognised.

It was that of Anwar Raslan. The name will be unfamiliar to most people, but among Syrians like Bunni, it could send a shiver down their spine. Though now an asylum seeker like Bunni, and indeed at that point both men were staying at the same temporary accommodation in Berlin, Colonel Raslan was once head of the investigations team of the notorious Branch 251 (also known as Al-Khatib), a much feared mukhabarat (intelligence services) prison in Damascus. 

Within its walls, hundreds of political prisoners could be tortured on a daily basis. Its name, among Syrians, became synonymous with the brutality of the Assad regime. 

One of its victims was Bunni, who was arrested by Raslan in 2006 for signing the Beirut-Damascus declaration, which called for human rights and democracy. Bunni spent the next five years in a Baathist dungeon, where Amnesty International and even then US president George W. Bush named him as a prisoner of conscience. 

Bunni was released in 2011 during the revolution, while Raslan officially defected from the regime in 2013, under the false promise of releasing tens of thousands of files on detainees who had been, or were being held in Assad's dungeons. His cooperation with the Syrian opposition didn't last long, and he fled to Germany in 2014, the year of his chance encounter with Bunni.

This trial proves that Europe is no safe haven for these criminals

Raslan isn't being put on trial for his crime against Bunni, who is keen to highlight his own motivation in aiding in the prosecution of Raslan is "not about revenge", but about "exposing the truth". And while many of Raslan's crimes were committed before the Syrian revolution, the fact remains that he was still one of Assad's key henchmen during a two-year phase that saw Assad implementing a policy of genocide. 

In this respect, Raslan's charges relate to the period between April 2011 and September 2012, during which Raslan's branch of the mukhabarat oversaw and carried out the torture of an astonishing 4,000 detainees, causing 59 deaths, and at least one case of rape. 

This was at a stage when the regime, overwhelmed with protests, was using mass torture, murder and rape as terror tactics to quell dissent. Raslan, and other figures like him, were key to its implementation. Though some might see his defection in 2013 as an act of contrition, it was more likely akin to a rat deserting a sinking ship, with the world momentarily rounding on Assad for using chemical weapons at Ghouta, and the rebels making key gains.

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As Bunni himself commented, "If he defected or if he changed his political views, that does not give him amnesty", adding that "he is a criminal, and I don't care about a criminal's political position."

Now, for the first time, victims of the Assad regime, that's to say some of those 4,000 people who Raslan had a part in torturing, will be able to testify against their torturers.  Families of those who never made it will hopefully be able to see justice visited upon one of the men responsible for committing acts of depravity that are too graphic to be described here. 

The prosecution of Raslan may offer some form of closure for the victims, as well as shining more light onto the horrors that Assad carries out in the darkness of his dungeons and prison camps.

Moreover, as Bunni has fastidiously researched, thousands more mid-to-high level Baathist torturers and murderers are roaming free across Europe. This trial proves that Europe is no safe haven for these criminals, and sends an ominous message to those currently engaged in crimes on behalf of Assad.

There's nothing, no apparatus or no coalition, that can do anything about stopping Assad's crimes

But as good as prosecuting these henchmen is, the reality is that these instances of justice will always be incomplete.

As long as Assad remains in power, the kind of crimes that Raslan committed continue an equally 
grotesque level. There's nothing, no apparatus or no coalition, that can do anything about stopping Assad's crimes - never mind holding his regime to account for crimes they have already committed. 

And the same can be said for most of the crimes against the Syrian people carried out by Assad-Iran-Russia that have been highlighted over almost a decade.

Read more: Syrians face their torturers in German court, in huge step towards justice for Assad's victims

Perhaps the most notable of these is the Caesar photos, which documented the systematic murder of 11,000 Syrian detainees in Baathist dungeons over two years. These photos led to the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, which is yet another case of US Congress recognising the crimes of Assad-Iran-Russia, without taking the kind of adequate action that even comes close to stopping such crimes. 

As I recently wrote, the OPCW's new powers to attribute blame to Assad for chemical weapons atrocities and counter Russian disinformation are welcome, but they're ultimately too little, too late. At the beginning of the month, a UN Commission directly blamed Assad and "his allies" (they refused to reference Russia directly) for deliberately targeting hospitals. But the report was, in the words of HRW's Kenneth Roth, "mealy mouthed" and effectively a failure, due to its limited focus on only seven attacks and its unwillingness to mention Russia, which has carried out many of the attacks on hospitals during the war. 

Justice for Syrians can only truly be accomplished when the main criminal is no longer in a position where he can continue to commit crimes. 

Yet despite recent exposures of Assad's culpability in chemical atrocities, mass torture, murder, rape and the targeting of hospitals and schools, not only is he firmly secure in power, under the patronage of Russia and Iran, but he's determined to wage his genocidal war, with the last liberated province of Idlib firmly in his sights. 

These instances of justice will always be incomplete

In fact, the United Arab Emirates, which itself ought to be held to international account for stoking Assad's genocidal attacks on Idlib earlier this year, is now looking to regionally rehabilitate the genocidal monster.  

The position Syrians find themselves in now is watching these mass crimes unfold, and simply hoping one day that the criminals face a reckoning. 

The Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal once said on his motives that to let Nazi criminals go would be to give a reprieve to the current criminals in the world carrying out genocide. 

Bunni has a similar yet more direct reflection on those who will testify against Raslan, saying their motives are to "make it clear what this means for many others who perhaps can't be here, either because they are still imprisoned, because they have to be afraid … or because they died under torture."

No one can now claim ignorance about the nature of Assad's crimes. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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