(Berlin) – Judicial officials in Germany and other countries should redouble their efforts to make justice accessible to victims and survivors of serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said today.
January 13, 2023 is the one-year anniversary of a landmark verdict by a German court in Koblenz in the world’s first criminal case on Syrian state-sponsored torture. To mark this milestone case, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) with the support of Human Rights Watch on January 12 published a compendium of materials, compiling key documents related to the trial and aimed at facilitating greater understanding of the proceedings.
“The Koblenz trial was a small step toward justice for atrocities in Syria and ECCHR’s volume seeks to shed light on what happened in the courtroom” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The volume is a record of how the Koblenz trial unfolded and will hopefully help survivors, practitioners, and scholars understand how serious crimes in Syria were addressed by a court of law.”
Anwar R. is the most senior former Syrian government official to have been convicted for serious crimes like overseeing torture, killings, and sexual assault in Syria. A second defendant, Eyad A., was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in February 2021. Anwar R.´s case is still on appeal.
The trial was possible because Germany’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction over certain serious crimes under international law. This 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. ECCHR’s compilation of victim testimonies and other crucial documents about the trial attempts to give affected communities, the public, and others insight into the Koblenz case, Human Rights Watch said.
ECCHR’s compendium puts key documents in one place to help build understanding of how the trial in Koblenz was conducted. It includes the full indictments of Anwar R. and Eyad A.; summaries of witness testimony; trial interventions; news releases by the court; and the closing statements of Syrian victims. The digest is available in English, German, and Arabic.
The guilty verdicts in the trial of two former Syrian intelligence officials offered survivors, who played a key role in moving the case forward, a glimpse of hope for justice, Human Rights Watch said. Cases brought under the principle of universal jurisdiction remain one of the few viable, though limited, pathways to justice for serious crimes committed in Syria.
In Koblenz, the language of the court was German, so survivors, people affected by the crimes, and others who do not speak German depended on the reporting of those who could physically attend court hearings to follow the trial.
Lack of translation into Arabic of the proceedings marginalized survivor and community participation in the Koblenz trial. Non-accredited Arabic language journalists and people from affected communities who spoke Arabic were admitted to the courtroom but not given access to translation devices.
Courts dealing with universal jurisdiction cases should address this issue by providing interpretation for visitors in the public gallery in relevant languages and by translating news releases and additional case information on their website so that affected communities and others are able to follow developments on a case.
“Criminal cases in Germany and elsewhere can provide a measure of justice for Syrian victims and survivors,” Jarrah said. “National judicial officials should work to ensure that information about these cases is more accessible to those most affected by the crimes.”