German court finds Syrian colonel guilty of crimes against humanity

By Jenny Hill
BBC News Koblenz, Germany

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Watch: Wassim Mukdad on his time in the Syrian prison known as 'Hell on Earth'

A German court has sentenced a Syrian colonel to life in prison for crimes against humanity in a historic trial.

Anwar Raslan, 58, was linked to the torture of over 4,000 people in Syria's civil war in a jail known as "Hell on Earth".

The trial in Koblenz is the world's first criminal case brought over state-led torture in Syria.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet praised the conviction as a "landmark leap forward" in the pursuit of truth.

It's hard to imagine what the men and women incarcerated in Syria's notorious Al-Khatib prison had to endure.

At the heart of it, Raslan was accused of being a high-ranking security service officer under President Bashar al-Assad as mass anti-government protests were violently crushed in 2011.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Syrians stood outside the court in Koblenz clutching photos of victims of the civil war

Many protesters and others suspected of opposing the regime were rounded up and detained in the Al-Khatib facility in Damascus where, prosecutors say, Mr Raslan directed operations.

He was charged with 58 murders as well as rape and sexual assault, and the torture of at least 4,000 people held there between 2011 and 2012.

The ruling is significant, especially for those who survived Al-Khatib and gave evidence during the trial. A criminal court has now formally acknowledged that crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the Assad regime against its own citizens.

Universal jurisdiction

Raslan was arrested in Germany in 2019 having successfully sought asylum there. He denied all the charges against him, saying he had nothing to do with the mistreatment of prisoners and that he actually tried to help some detainees.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The court in Koblenz ruled that Anwar Raslan's face should not be recognisable in media coverage

His trial was extraordinary for several reasons. It was unprecedented in taking on Syria's state-led torture and it was prompted by the arrival in Germany of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who'd fled their own country.

Many of the almost 800,000 Syrians who now live in Germany brought with them terrible stories of what happened to those who opposed the Assad regime, and German human rights lawyers took up their cause, using the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring the case to court. This allows serious crimes committed in one country to be tried elsewhere.

What happened at Al-Khatib?

  • The underground detention facility is part of "Branch 251" of the General Security Directorate (GSD), one of Syria's four main intelligence agencies
  • It consists of two buildings in central Al-Khatib area of Damascus, according to witnesses and defectors
  • Anwar Raslan was alleged to have overseen torture of detainees as head of Branch 251's investigations section from April 2011, a month after the uprising began against President Assad, until his defection in September 2012
  • Syrian journalist Amer Matar, held in April 2011, told the trial people were "being tortured without any logic" and that Raslan ripped off his blindfold during one interrogation, swore at him and hit him in the face

Wolfgang Kaleck, head of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights which has led the case, says it's hard to talk about justice given that hundreds of thousands of people have been tortured and tens of thousands have died as a result.

Wolfgang Kaleck
BBC
International criminal justice, universal jurisdiction always comes too late and it's never enough but… I would say it's an important step forward
Wolfgang Kaleck
European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights

But perhaps most importantly the trial gave a voice to those whom the Assad regime tried to silence. Fifty survivors have given evidence to the court in Koblenz; 24 are co-plaintiffs in the case.

Screams of torture

Their stories are horrifying. The court heard how detainees were beaten and doused in cold water. Others were raped or hung from the ceiling for hours on end. Torturers tore out their fingernails and administered electric shocks.

One survivor told me that he could hear the screams of people being tortured all day, every day. Another that his attackers had used special "tools' and that they had appeared to enjoy what they were doing.

Raslan now faces life in prison and prosecutors sought to bar any possibility of probation after 15 years.

Prosecutors were encouraged by the conviction last year of another Syrian official as part of the same trial. Eyad-al-Gharib, who helped to arrest protesters who were later tortured and killed, was jailed for four and a half years for complicity in crimes against humanity.

Lawyers are preparing cases against a number of other suspects but, ultimately, they'd like to bring to justice those right at the top of the chain of command.

Bashar al-Assad has indicated that he's following the trial, but he and his government have repeatedly denied accusations of torturing or forcibly "disappearing" hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.

This trial serves another purpose too: to build a body of evidence for use in future proceedings. In addition to witness testimonies, prosecutors in Koblenz have relied on the "Caesar files" - gruesome photographs smuggled out of Syria by a regime whistleblower which show the dead bodies of thousands of people who are believed to have died in detention facilities - many of whom appear to have been tortured.

And it's a reminder of the ongoing plight of many Syrians.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Twenty-four survivors were co-plaintiffs in the case including Wassim Mukdad (L) and Hussein Ghrer (R)

Wassim Mukdad, who was first detained in 2011 and now lives in Germany, gave evidence to the trial and returned to the court for the verdict.

"For me, this is the first step in a very long way towards justice," he has told the BBC.

There are many stories that have not been heard, he says: "Either because they are still detained now - while we're talking, they're suffering torture and horrible situations in the detention centres. Or because they were murdered."

And then, he adds, there were those who died as they tried to reach Europe, drowning at sea or freezing on Europe's borders.

Media caption,
Artist Sami told the BBC's Lina Sinjab of the horror of prison in Syria (video from 2015)

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