Assad's crimes against his own people
Syrian ex-secret police stand trial in Germany

For the first time anywhere, Syrian intelligence officers are facing trial – in Germany. The court aims to probe the defendant's alleged crimes, as well as cast light on Bashar al-Assad's system of torture and oppression. By Matthias von Hein

It's going to be tough in Koblenz at the city's Higher Regional Court, located close to the majestic Rhine River. So very, very far away from the horrors of Syrian torture chambers. It's going to be tough for the handful of observers, who, despite restrictions linked with the coronavirus pandemic, manage to occupy one of the few seats available in the courtroom.

It's going to be much, much tougher for the witnesses. They will be called on to recount the torture, the moments of anguish and agony that they would rather forget – if they only could. They will have to talk of the kind of pain that goes beyond the imagination of anybody who has never experienced such horror. They will have to report on inconceivable humiliation and de-humanisation that they have suffered at first hand.

For many months to come, the focus will be on the monstrous excesses of a system of control and persecution that was set up with just one purpose: to maintain the Assad clan's grip on power – at any price.

One senior member of the Syrian president's apparatus of violence and persecution was 57-year-old Anwar R. He is the principal defendant. Holding the rank of colonel, he was the man in charge of Branch 251 of the Syrian secret service and as such responsible for security matters in the capital, Damascus. The other defendant, Eyad A., also worked at Branch 251, but further down the ranks. Branch 251 was located right next to a prison.

In the court's charge sheet, it was in this prison and under Anwar R.'s leadership, that at least 4,000 prisoners were tortured over a period of around 500 days between April 2011 and September 2012. The prosecution has listed rape, serious sexual assault, beatings and kicking, as well as subjection to electric shocks. It's estimated that at least 58 prisoners died as a result of the abuse. Eyad A. is charged with complicity to torture in at least 30 cases.

Landmark trial

This is the first time worldwide that members of the Syrian regime have faced charges of crimes against humanity. The fact that German prosecutors are pressing these charges in a German court against Syrians accused of torturing and murdering other Syrians in Syria is made possible by Germany's Code of Crimes Against International Law, which came into force in June 2002.

This code includes what's known as the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows German courts to prosecute crimes against international law, even if they were not committed in Germany and neither the perpetrator nor the victim are Germans.

Although the scene of the crime is a long way away, the body of evidence collected is substantial. There are witnesses. Many of them came to Europe as refugees, and many of them came to Germany. Sixteen women and men expected to deliver testimony at the trial are being supported by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). Nine of them are joint plaintiffs in the case against Anwar Raslan.

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