After nearly a decade of war, Syrians have endured more than 500,000 deaths, over 200 chemical attacks, 12 million displacements, and nearly 130,000 recorded disappearances. Although the Assad regime’s stranglehold on the state persists, small steps are being made to bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice through international courts amassing evidence against them.
One such instance is the ongoing “torture trial” taking place in the German town of Koblenz, where two intelligence officials, Anwar Raslan, former head of investigations at a notorious Al Khatib prison in Damascud and the most senior official to be tried, and his sidekick Eyad Gharib, are accused of having aided and abetted crimes against humanity by arresting and imprisoning protesters.
In testimony after testimony, survivors of torture, victims’ relatives and regime defectors are helping the court paint a fuller picture of the Syrian government’s crimes. Germany adheres to the principle of universal jurisdiction, which enables taking legal action against those responsible for grave crimes committed outside its borders. This is likely to embolden more victims to come forward and signal to the regime that it too could, one day, face trial.
The use of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture has been integral to the massive repressive apparatus created by Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, before him. Its means and methods were most famously revealed in 53,375 photographs of dead, brutally mutilated Syrian detainees; the pictures were smuggled out of Syria by a photographer for the military police, code-named Caesar. With the war in Syria showing no signs of abating and Assad’s future looking as secure as ever, the stakes are high for those who are still missing, left even more vulnerable due to Covid-19.
Syrians are now turning to European courts for answers about the fate of over 127,916 missing (presumed dead or in custody), who disappeared within Syria’s impenetrable maze of slaughterhouses, each a black box for those trapped inside. The highlight of the Koblentz trial was, indeed, the testimony of a gravedigger who documented, in great detail, the names of hundreds of thousands of dead, the location of mass graves, as well as the secret service branches they came from.
Among the sixteen witnesses involved in the proceedings is Anwar Bunni, Syrian human rights attorney and activist now living in Berlin. Bunni spent his life defending dissidents in Syria; he was jailed in 2006 for signing the Damascus Declaration which called for democratic reform and radical change, and languished in prison for five years before being released and eventually fleeing to Germany in 2014. Bunni’s arrest and imprisonment was overseen by Anwar Raslan, one of the two defendants in the German trial.
Bunni encountered his jailor and torturer years later in a refugee camp in Germany; the two had been, in a weird twist of fate, assigned to live in the same settlement on the edge of Berlin after Raslan’s defection in 2012. This chance encounter set in motion the trial against Raslan, accusing him of overseeing the “systematic and brutal” torture of at least 4,000 individuals between April 2011 and September 2012, leading to the deaths of 58 people.
Though a limited step towards achieving justice, the trial is nothing less than a breakthrough for efforts to hold regime perpetrators accountable for torture that is instrumentalized and condoned by the state. For the first time in years, the trial offers hope for those who cannot forget the complicity of the world community in one of the worst humanitarian and refugee crises in history. The trial is inspiring the investigation and prosecution of similar Syrian cases. Very recently, one such criminal lawsuit was brought to court by three organizations against regime officials, including Assad and his brother Maher, on behalf of the victims of the sarin gas attacks against Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Sheikhoun in 2017.
These moments could not have happened without the work of human rights activists like Bunni and many others who, at great personal risk, tenaciously collected, over time, thousands of government documents and testimonies, tracked witnesses and defectors, and even helped protect them, exposing in the process how much more is needed to bring to justice the regime.
Prosecutions will not address the prevailing feelings of dissatisfaction among survivors of the regime’s brutality, especially if they do not indict perpetrators or compensate victims. But as a foundation for the future, these court cases will serve as reminders that this regime that is responsible for gruesome human rights violations against its own civilians should neither be part of the solution in Syria nor should it be part of its future.