The trial, involving charges of crimes against humanity against an alleged former Syrian intelligence officer, is the first anywhere in the world for state-sponsored torture in Syria. Human Rights Watch issued a question-and-answer document and a feature article to provide context and highlight the main issues surrounding the trial. “These prosecutions are an increasingly important part of international efforts to 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,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “This trial is a reminder that Germany will not shelter war criminals and that those responsible for atrocities will be held accountable.” In April 2020, a German court in the city of Koblenz began hearings in a trial of two alleged former Syrian intelligence officials, Anwar R. and Eyad A., on charges of crimes against humanity. Over 80 witnesses, including former Syrian detainees, experts in Syrian affairs, police investigators, and a forensic doctor, have testified before the court. 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 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.” Eyad A. was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity on February 24, 2021. Eyad A.’s defense counsel appealed the judgment.
The appeal remains pending.
The trial of Anwar R. and Eyad A. is possible because Germany’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction over some 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. Germany has several elements in place to allow for the successful investigation and prosecution of grave crimes in Syria; above all a comprehensive legal framework, well-functioning specialized war crimes units, and previous experience with the prosecution of such crimes.
The issues at stake in the trial offer a glimpse into the Syrian government’s atrocities committed against its own people between 2011 and 2012, and the case has provided victims and their families an otherwise elusive chance to see at least some justice done. 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. 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.
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, Human Rights Watch said. Like any criminal proceeding, the trial is about individual criminal accountability, but its significance is likely to extend far beyond the innocence or guilt of the two defendants. “The trial in Koblenz is a message to the Syrian authorities that no one is beyond the reach of justice,” Jarrah said. “Countries with universal jurisdiction laws should bolster efforts to investigate and prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”.
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