A verbatim transcript of Koblenz trial is a must for Syrian justice

A verbatim transcript of Koblenz trial is a must for Syrian justice
Comment: The Koblenz trial is of national interest to Germany. Denying that, is to also deny Syrians a valuable, formal archive of Assad's crimes against humanity, writes Mansour Omari.
6 min read
26 Feb, 2021
Participants of the Syria war crimes trial in Koblenz, Germany speak to media [AFP]
For years, with passion and hope, Syrians read and studied other nations' experiences in justice, and how it was served after years and even decades. It was always the fruit of resilience, courage and resolve. All this inspired Syrians who have been striving for justice for years.

Last week, on 24 February, they experienced a taste of justice first-hand, when Koblenz court in Germany sentenced a former Syrian intelligence officer to four years and six months in prison. To add to the uniqueness of this historic verdict, it is rare for state-level perpetrators of crimes against humanity to be held accountable while their regime is still in power, and still committing the same crimes of which they are convicted.

Though this sentence against Eyad AlGharib was considered not enough by some Syrian victims, the Koblenz verdict is of huge significance, reaching far beyond this particular case: A court in one of the fairest justice systems in the world established torture and crimes against humanity by the Assad regime.

Unfortunately, the past sessions in this case were not fully transcribed by the court, denying Syrians a formal archive of the first international trial on Syrian state torture of its people. But the proceedings are not over. Anwar R., AlGharib's commander is still on trial. AlGharib himself could also appeal the sentence and go into another round of unrecorded sessions.

Reading past trial records and understanding verdict precedents is vital for legal systems

It's important to note that trials in Germany are not recorded or transcribed fully unless they are deemed of national interest. According to the Koblenz court, its proceedings are in accordance with Section 271 of the Germany's Code of Criminal Procedure, which does not provide for a verbatim protocol as a standard, but reflects the course and the results of the main hearing.

A verbatim transcription of this trial would, however be highly valuable in any transitional justice process for Syrians to understand and address their state extermination machine and its detailed process. Not least, so that Syrians can ensure this will never happen again.

Official documentation could also be beneficial in legal processes in local courts in Syria once the war has ended, or in future international or hybrid courts. Moreover, there are several similar cases now under way in other EU countries and in Germany itself. Reading past trial records and understanding verdict precedents is vital for legal systems.

Such archives have a high academic value not only for Syrians but for other nations, as they provide a unique source of information for scholars, historians, and other researchers.

The Koblenz trial is of national interest to Germany

At the 16 September 2020 UN Security Council meeting on Syria, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, Germany's Representative to the United Nations, invoked the Koblenz trial to support German opposition to lifting sanctions on the Syrian government.

The German ambassador started his speech saying: "I am speaking now in my national capacity", and went on:

Read also: 'Only God can help us': Hunger and despair wreak misery in Syria's Rukban camp 

"I would like to take you on an excursion in the city of Koblenz in Germany, on the Rhine river. And in Koblenz I want to take you to the higher regional court, in this higher regional court, two Syrian intelligence officers stand trial, they are accused of having committed crimes against humanity." 

He spoke for six minutes, five of which described the Koblenz trial, telling harrowing details of  how the Assad regime hid the bodies of his victims. In the last minute, the ambassador concluded his speech by explaining why Germany will not remove sanctions against Syria. He ended by quoting Nelson Mandella on lifting the sanctions on the Apartheid regime in South Africa: "If sanctions were terminated today, it would be a stab in the back of the liberation movement."

In his address, the German ambassador also spoke about the Koblenz trial in the context of responding to Russian accusations against Germany. He blamed Russia for supporting Assad who is killing his people, with reference to the atrocities as told by witnesses in Koblenz.

And so, the trial in Koblenz provides Germany with a basis for its arguments at the UN Security Council, and to support its attitude towards sanctions against the Syrian government, as well as to counter accusations by Russia.

On 24 February, Heiko Maas, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, welcomed the judgment against Eyad AlGharib and added that the court decision "has a high symbolic meaning for many people, not only in Syria."

This makes the Koblenz trial of a national interest to Germany on the grounds of foreign policy, which in turn triggers the requirement to create a full transcript or audio tapes of the trial under German law.

This makes the Koblenz trial of a national interest to Germany on the grounds of foreign policy, which in turn triggers the requirement to create a full transcript

The impact of Koblenz trial on German political attitudes and decisions

The Koblenz trial provides the first court documentation of Assad atrocities and the responsibility of the Assad government for crimes against humanity. It will undoubtedly impact German political attitudes towards the Syrian regime and decisions on how to interact with the Assad government.

Armin Laschet, the German politician who was recently elected as the Leader of the Christian Democratic Union, and became a candidate for leading Germany after Angela Merkel, expressed baseless views on the Assad regime. His tweets tried to exonerate Assad from the use of chemical weapons in Douma in 2018, and he wrongly asserted that the majority of Syrians were killed by the opposition, when in fact they were killed by Assad.

Whether this misinformation was a result of lack of knowledge, or deliberate fabrication of the facts to support Assad, the leader of the largest political party in Germany - and potentially its next Chancellor - is not likely to deny and counter his own legal system and justice. Instead, his attitudes towards Syria are more likely to be based on the facts presented by trials such as Koblenz.

Such a role and impact played by the Koblenz trial makes it of national interest to Germany, and therefore the Court should waste no more time and begin verbatim transcription of the trial.

The corpses of Syria's state torture victims have already been disappeared, and now, to add salt to the wound, their families are being deprived of their right to official records of how it took place.

Mansour Omari is a Syrian journalist and Syria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, and holds an LLM in Transitional Justice and Conflict

He is the author of Syria Through Western Eyes: In-depth look on the Western reporting on Syria in 2013-2014. He has written for publications including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Apostrophe and several Syrian media outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @MansourOmari

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.