Assad’s regime is on trial for crimes against humanity. The court is about to rule on the most senior official yet

Anwar Raslan, a senior regime official, headed the investigation unit at a notorious detention center in Damascus known as Branch 251. He is accused of complicity in at least 4,000 cases of torture, dozens of murders, and three cases of sexual assault and rape.
The other defendant, Iyad al-Gharib, a junior officer who also served at the facility, was convicted in February 2021 of aiding and abetting torture and deprivation of liberty as crimes against humanity. He is serving a four and a half year prison sentence.

If convicted, Ruslan may be sentenced to life imprisonment. He would become the most senior regime official to be punished for the torture, extrajudicial killings, and sexual assault that members of the Assad regime are believed to have systematically committed.

Raslan, who defected from the Syrian regime in 2012 and fled Syria, denies all charges against him.

This landmark ruling comes as the Assad regime – accused of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians with conventional and chemical weapons – is repairing diplomatic relations with former regional foes, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The United States and the European Union criticized its Arab allies for bringing Assad into the regional fold, but said they could do little to stop the rapprochement.

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The court in the German town of Koblenz drew nearly 100 testimonies, according to lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Several torture survivors stood in Branch 251 and came face-to-face with their alleged persecutor. They gave detailed accounts of physical and psychological abuse, as well as overcrowded cells where they were denied food, water, and medical treatment.

An unnamed witness described how she was interrogated while she was naked, as well as being beaten in the detention centre. She explained the details of her meeting with Raslan after she was taken to him in her torn clothes from the assault, saying that he ordered the blindfold to be removed from her eyes, and he offered her coffee. The next day, according to a summary of her interactions with Raslan by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, she was transferred to another region and released.

Co-prosecutor Wassim Miqdad, a Syrian musician who lives in Berlin, said he was beaten on the soles and heels of his feet and on his knees during interrogation. “They knew exactly how to inflict maximum pain,” he told the court.

In their closing statements, prosecutors gave moving speeches praising the court and reprimanding Raslan for denying the charges. More than 100,000 people are believed to have been kidnapped, detained or gone missing in Syria, the United Nations said, and one prosecutor criticized the judicial process for excluding enforced disappearances from charges.

The prosecutor, Hussein Gharir, noted that his captors in the detention center said he would “disappear behind the sun”. He told the court that to his loved ones he was like Schrödinger’s cat, appearing both alive and dead at the same time. He said he was “banished from life without actually dying.”

“No matter how long [Raslan] “He will be imprisoned, and he will have a watch near him, and he will see the sun and know when it rises and when it sets,” Gerer told the court. And he will get medical care when needed, and he will receive visits from relatives who will know how to do, just as he will know how to do.”

In the world first, Germany convicts an officer in the Syrian regime of crimes against humanity

Raslan’s trial is seen as the culmination of nearly a decade of evidence amassed by activists and lawyers seeking to hold the Assad regime responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In the early years of the Syrian uprising that turned into a war, which began in 2011, volunteers known as “document hunters” smuggled hundreds of thousands of documents from abandoned regime facilities. Many said they faced a shooting and rocket attack to smuggle papers that served as evidence in investigations against the regime.

In 2013, a defector named Caesar smuggled tens of thousands of photos showing prisoners allegedly tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. The photographs were also part of the evidence at the landmark trial.
Journalists stand outside the courthouse in Koblenz at the start of the trial in April 2020.

Lawyers and activists vowed to continue to prosecute former and current regime officials implicated in crimes. In Germany, Ruslan and Gharib were arrested under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which gives jurisdiction over crimes against international law even if they did not occur within that country.

The Syrian regime cannot be tried before the International Criminal Court because it is not a party to it. The ICC could investigate Syria if referred by the UN Security Council, but Russia and China have blocked a previous attempt to do so by the UN Security Council.

In July 2021, the German Public Prosecutor filed an indictment against the Syrian regime doctor, Alaa Moussa, accused of burning the genitals of at least one prisoner. His trial began in Frankfurt this month.

“We all agree that this can only be a first step,” Patrick Crocker, a lawyer at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights who represents the joint plaintiffs, said at a news conference on Monday. “There are still international arrest warrants pending against senior officials, and we hope and demand the prosecution of these,” he added.

“There will be no safe haven in the world for these people.”

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