A German court sentenced a former Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for crimes against humanity on Thursday in a verdict hailed as a “historic” moment for efforts to seek justice for atrocities committed by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Anwar Raslan was convicted of overseeing a Damascus detention centre between 2011 and 2012, during which time 4,000 people were tortured and 58 killed. Rape and sexual violence were common at the prison, called al-Khatib (but often referred to as Branch 251).
Raslan, who defected in 2013 and fled to Germany in 2014, was arrested in 2019 under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to prosecute certain grave crimes, no matter where they took place. He is the highest-ranking member of al-Assad’s government to be tried for crimes committed during Syria’s near-11-year war, and denied all charges.
A second defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, was convicted in February 2021 of helping Raslan, and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
For one of the Syrian plaintiffs in the case, Amer Mater, the day was nothing short of momentous. “I feel incredible,” Mater, who was detained at al-Khatib in 2011, told The New Humanitarian after the verdict was announced. “I was so excited to see this person, who did a lot of terrible things to me, go to prison. It helps give me back some hope.”
Mater added that the ruling was even more meaningful because he heard it while surrounded by Syrians who had travelled to the small regional court in the German city of Koblenz to watch it read out in person. In a departure from most previous sessions, the verdict was translated out loud into Arabic so all those in attendance could hear.
Most of the trial’s proceedings have been in German, with the exception of testimony from Arabic-speaking witnesses, and the court has been criticised for failing to offer regular translations into Arabic.
“You feel that all those people, they are with you, and standing with you,” Mater said of the mood in court Thursday. “They have the same pain, and you are all in the same place.”
Mater added that the verdict helped ease some of the trauma he has been living with over the past years, and made the “extremely painful” task of reliving his time in detention to give evidence at court even more worthwhile.
Along with the specific allegations against Raslan, over the course of the 21-month-long trial, the court heard details of the wider system of torture and detention in al-Khatib prison, and Syria more broadly. Witnesses described beatings with cables, electric shocks, sexual violence, and the constant sound of screaming.
Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights attorney who worked with German prosecutors to help find witnesses willing to testify, told The New Humanitarian that “today is a historic day for justice and for the victims.”
It was also the first case in which the now-famous “Caesar files” were used as evidence. The files include tens of thousands of photographs and documents copied onto a thumb drive by a military photographer known as “Caesar” before he defected to Europe. They show over 6,000 corpses of detainees who appear to have been tortured to death.
While the trial and verdict are seen as important landmarks, victims, lawyers, and human rights groups alike are quick to stress that this is just the beginning of what will likely be a long and difficult road towards justice for crimes committed in Syria’s war.
While praising Germany for carrying out this trial, Whitney-Martina Nosakhare, who has been monitoring the trial for Human Rights Watch, said there were lessons to be learned going forward.
“German authorities should be applauded for this well-run trial,” she told The New Humanitarian. “At the same time, there are areas for improvement. One is the issue around accessibility and outreach [like translation into Arabic]. Secondly, a major challenge of this trial has been witness protection.”
Nosakhare said several witnesses had decided not to testify out of fear for their lives or those of their families.
Both victims and rights groups say it’s important to remember that people are still being detained and tortured in Syria. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 131,469 people remained detained or forcibly disappeared by the government, as of August 2021.
Edited by Annie Slemrod.