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Former Syrian colonel Anwar Raslan was sentenced to life in prison for committing crimes against humanity by a German court on January 13, in a verdict widely celebrated by international human rights organizations and Syrian rights activists.
“This is a momentous trial and a watershed moment for Syria and for the international justice movement,” Sara Kayyali, a senior Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Fanack. “We’ve had over a decade of truly unparalleled atrocities in Syria, [including] mass torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial executions.”
Over 350,000 people have been killed since 2011 in the Syrian War, with another 6.7 million internally displaced and 6.6 fleeing the country as refugees. Tens of thousands are also missing in regime prisons. War crimes have been committed by many parties in the conflict but the indiscriminate killing by the Assad regime in particular has led the United Nations to label their actions as an extermination.
Documentation of the regime’s crimes is unprecedented thanks in large part to the thousands of images taken between 2011 and 2013 by a former military photographer known only by the code name Caesar – whose images were used in the case against Raslan. Caesar smuggled the images out of Syria on memory sticks and handed them over to the Syrian National Movement – a Qatar-backed opposition group.
With such overwhelming evidence of atrocities, the difficulty in seeking justice for Syrian victims comes down to the fact the Assad regime is still in power.
Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. This means a referral for a tribunal would have to go through the UN Security Council which would inevitably be rejected by Assad’s staunch Russian backers.
That’s why a court in the German city of Koblenz used universal jurisdiction to try Raslan, 58, after German officials arrested him and Eyad al-Gharib, another former regime official, in 2019. Universal jurisdiction laws allow a court to prosecute crimes against humanity that have been committed anywhere around the world.
Raslan was a former high ranking intelligence official with Branch 251 in the al-Khatib area of Damascus. Before defecting from the regime in 2012 and eventually resettling in Germany, the branch he oversaw had also been called “Hell on Earth”. Between April 2011 and September 2012, Raslan supervised systematic torture of over 4,000 people – including rape and sexual assaults – that led to numerous deaths. Raslan was found guilty for overseeing the killing of 27 people and sentenced to life in prison after the court heard from over 80 witnesses. It was the first criminal case in the world to try state-sanctioned torture in Syria.
More cases will also be tried in German courts soon, including a trial in Frankfurt against a Syrian doctor suspected of torturing prisoners at a Homs military hospital in 2011 and 2012 and killing one via lethal injection.
Other European countries are also seeking justice for Syrian victims of war crimes. The Netherlands became the first country to officially hold the Syrian government responsible for acts of state torture and in mid-July sentenced a refugee to 20 years in prison for war crimes. Ahmad al-Khedr had filmed himself, in a video that appeared on Youtube, shooting a captured lieutenant colonel from the Syrian Air Force in the head. And in Belgium, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating at least 10 Syrian refugees accused of committing crimes on behalf of the regime.
While activists would rather be holding such trials in Syria, the regime’s durability over the last 11 years means seeking justice in European courts will have to do for the time being.
“[To convict] a component of this sort of machine of repression is really very valuable,” Kayyali said. “It showcases how the international justice efforts around Syria have proceeded. It really is something to celebrate.”
But not everyone is celebrating. While many activists – including some of Raslan’s victims – see the conviction as a positive step in the Syrian struggle for justice, there are also critics who feel the trial set a troubling precedent.
Thomas Pierret, a political scientist who specializes on Syria said the trial and subsequent verdict was meaningful for many Syrians, including some he knew personally who had been arrested and taken to Raslan’s very jail. But the political implications could have a damaging impact in the long term.
“The message it’s sending, I would use the term disastrous,” Pierret told Fanack. “If in ten or twenty years’ time another uprising happens in Syria the message that was just sent is don’t defect. If Raslan had stayed in Syria, he might today be a general driving a fancy Mercedes in the streets of Damascus. Instead, he’ll end his life in a German jail.”
While Raslan is the highest ranking former government official to be tried for atrocities to date, he is still not a central regime figure. Meanwhile, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau and high ranking regime official, Ali Mamlouk took a secret trip to Italy in 2018 – despite an EU travel ban imposed in 2011 – where he allegedly discussed security matters with the then Minister of Interior Marco Minniti. Mamlouk currently has a French arrest warrant out for collusion in torture, forced disappearances, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
“The [war’s main] perpetrators are sitting comfortably in Damascus and probably will die in their beds and not in jail in western Europe,” Pierret said. “I definitely don’t think any high ranking Syrian official will end up behind bars as long as the regime remains in place.”
HRW’s Kayyali however believes that the court’s convictions should be viewed as intelligent in the larger context. While al-Gharib has allegedly expressed remorse for his actions, accounts from Raslan’s trial indicate he has yet to apologize or show regret over his actions since defecting. Raslan pleaded not guilty during his trial and in statements read through his lawyers, Raslan denied the charges against him.
“It’s important to look at both verdicts and compare how the defendants are different and it will give you an indication that it is more balanced,” Kayyali said.
There is also hope that such rulings may one day reach the higher echelons of the Syrian regime. Of course, for that to happen the regime would need to either collapse or lose support from its international backers. Should that happen, Kayyali believes the German court verdicts set a solid precedent for justice. “The trial actually sends a very strong message to the people who are right now in Syria who continue to commit these crimes that they are going to be held responsible for their actions.”