(Berlin) – The conviction of a former Syrian intelligence officer for crimes against humanity by a German court is a ground-breaking step toward justice for serious crimes in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The judgment is a meaningful moment for civilians who survived torture and sexual abuse in Syria’s prisons.
On January 13, 2022, a German court delivered its judgment in the trial of Anwar R., a former member of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, one of the country’s four main intelligence agencies commonly referred to collectively as the mukhabarat. Anwar R. is the most senior former Syrian government official to be convicted for serious crimes in Syria.
German prosecutors accused Anwar R. of overseeing the torture of detainees in his capacity as head of the investigations section at the General Intelligence Directorate’s al-Khatib detention facility in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251.”
The judges found Anwar R. guilty of committing crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison. Following the verdict in the case, Anwar R. has one week to appeal.
“More than 10 years after the violations were committed in Syria, the German court’s verdict is a long-awaited beacon of hope that justice can and will in the end prevail,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Other countries should follow Germany’s lead, and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”
Human Rights Watch issued a question and answer document and a feature article on the trial and how it is situated in the larger context of the Syrian conflict on January 6, 2022. The trial against Anwar R. and Eyad A., who was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in February, began in April 2020 and was the first anywhere in the world for state-sponsored torture in Syria. Eyad A.’s appeal against his conviction remains pending.
Syrian survivors, lawyers, and activists have been central to making this trial a reality, not only pressing for justice but laying the groundwork that makes justice possible, Human Rights Watch said.
More than 80 witnesses testified, including former detainees, former Syrian government employees, German police investigators, and experts in Syrian affairs. The testimony included well-documented accounts of torture and sexual abuse in Branch 251, descriptions of mass graves, and details of Syria’s government policy to violently crack down on peaceful protesters in 2011. Several of the witnesses were able to identify Anwar R. in the courtroom.
One of the major challenges of this trial was witness protection. Several witnesses living in Germany and other European countries canceled their appearance in court out of fear for their lives and safety, or that of their families. Several witnesses, some who were also victims, testified that they feared a risk to themselves and their families given their role in the trial. German authorities should ensure that witnesses and victims are sufficiently informed about their rights to protective measures, including to appear anonymously before the court.
The lack of translation has also marginalized survivor and community participation in the trial. To be meaningful, justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done. The trial took place in German. Non-accredited Arabic language journalists and people from affected communities who spoke Arabic were not given access to translation devices in the courtroom. Although some of the interested Arabic speakers had a basic knowledge of German, it was not easy to follow the court sessions, especially due to the technical language used and the speed of the conversations in the courtroom.
Tens-of-thousands of people have been detained or disappeared in Syria since 2011, the vast majority by government forces using an extensive network of detention facilities throughout the country. The Syrian government continues to detain and forcibly disappear thousands of people.
Many of those detained have died from torture and horrific detention conditions. Comprehensive justice for these and other unchecked atrocities in Syria has been elusive. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. And in 2014, Russia and China blocked efforts at the United Nations Security Council to give the court a mandate over serious crimes in Syria.
The trial of Anwar R. and Eyad A. is possible because Germany’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction over certain of the most serious crimes under international law. That allows for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes no matter where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims. Universal jurisdiction remains one of the few viable pathways to justice for crimes committed in Syria.
Germany has several elements in place to allow for the successful investigation and prosecution of grave crimes in Syria. It has above all a comprehensive legal framework, well-functioning specialized war crimes units, and previous experience with prosecuting such crimes. Countries with universal jurisdiction laws should establish specialized war crimes units within law enforcement and prosecution services, and ensure that such units are adequately resourced and staffed.
“Germany’s trial against Anwar R. is a message to the Syrian authorities that no one is beyond the reach of justice,” Jarrah said. “The Koblenz case has shown that with other avenues blocked, national courts can play a critical role in combating impunity.”