Judges in Germany will begin hearing evidence on April 23, 2020 in the first trial about torture by state agents during Syria’s nearly decade-long brutal armed conflict. Illustration © 2017 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Berlin) – The start of a landmark trial in Germany of two people alleged to be former Syrian intelligence officials on crimes against humanity charges is an important chance for victims to see justice done, Human Rights Watch said today. Judges in the city of Koblenz will begin hearing evidence on April 23, 2020 in the first trial about torture by state agents during Syria’s nearly decade-long brutal armed conflict.

“This trial is a watershed moment for victims determined to see justice for the crimes they suffered in Syria,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Today’s proceedings should serve as an important reminder that more is needed to ensure accountability for the conflict’s horrific atrocities.”

The two accused in the case are Anwar R. and Eyad A., an alleged former intelligence officer and a lower ranking subordinate at Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, one of the country’s four main intelligence agencies commonly referred to collectively as the mukhabarat. The full names of the accused have been withheld by German officials in line with national privacy laws. Their trial in Germany is possible because the country’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction over certain of the most serious crimes under international law, allowing 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 cases are an increasingly important part of international efforts to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable, provide justice to victims who have nowhere else to turn, deter future crimes, and help ensure that countries do not become safe havens for human rights abusers, Human Rights Watch said.

Both men were arrested in Germany in February 2019 as part of a joint investigation with French judicial officials. The investigation that led to the arrests was also a result of a series of criminal complaints filed by the German human rights organization, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), together with Syrian lawyers, activists, torture survivors, and their relatives. Testimony from witnesses supported by ECCHR contributed to arrest warrants for Anwar R. and Eyad A. Other groups also provided the authorities with relevant material for the investigation. 

 

Anwar R. is the most senior alleged former Syrian government official to be put on trial in Europe for serious crimes in Syria. German prosecutors accuse him of overseeing the torture of detainees between April 2011 and September 2012 in his alleged capacity as head of the investigations section at the General Intelligence Directorate’s al-Khatib detention facility in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251.” Prosecutors allege that his subordinates tortured at least 4,000 people during interrogations at the facility, including with beatings and electric shocks. Anwar R. has also been charged with 58 counts of murder, as well as rape and aggravated sexual assault.

The second suspect, Eyad A., an alleged lower-ranking official at the same intelligence agency, is charged with aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. Prosecutors allege that he detained protesters in 2011 and delivered them to the al-Khatib detention facility, where they were later tortured.

Both defendants are believed to have defected in 2012. German authorities said that Anwar R. and Eyad A. entered Germany as asylum seekers in July 2014 and April 2018, respectively. If convicted, Anwar R. could face up to life in prison, while Eyad A. faces between 3 and 15 years in prison.

Germany’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Due to the large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees in Germany, previously unavailable victims, witnesses, material evidence, and even some suspects are now within the reach of the judicial authorities there. Criminal justice authorities in several other European countries, including Sweden and France, are also investigating people alleged to have committed serious crimes in Syria.

The case in Koblenz should serve as a stark warning to those who are currently committing abuses in Syria that no one is beyond the reach of justice, Human Rights Watch said. 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. Thousands have died in Syrian government custody from torture and horrific detention conditions.

The Syrian government continues to detain and mistreat people in areas under its control. In areas recently retaken from the anti-government groups, Syrian security forces have arrested hundreds of activists, former opposition leaders, and their family members, although they had all signed reconciliation agreements with the authorities guaranteeing that they would not be arrested.

Comprehensive justice for these and other unchecked atrocities in Syria has been elusive. In 2014, Russia and China blocked efforts at the United Nations Security Council to give the International Criminal Court a mandate over serious crimes there. Two years later, UN member countries responded by setting up a new international mechanism, to gather, analyze, and secure evidence of serious crimes for future prosecutions. The mechanism’s work, along with other documentation efforts, will be critical to future domestic accountability processes in Germany and elsewhere. Governments committed to justice in Syria should support and bolster these efforts, Human Rights Watch said.

Beyond crimes committed in Syria, over the past two decades, the national courts of an increasing number of countries have pursued cases involving war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions committed abroad. Human Rights Watch reporting in various countries shows that the fair and effective exercise of universal jurisdiction is achievable where there is the right combination of appropriate laws; adequate resources; institutional commitment; such as dedicated war crimes units; and political will.

“With other avenues for justice blocked, criminal prosecutions in Europe offer hope for victims of crimes in Syria who have nowhere else to turn,” Jarrah said. “The trial in Koblenz shows that courts – even thousands of miles away from where the atrocities occurred – can play a critical role in combating impunity.”