Human rights violations under AssadSyrian state torture on trial
At the start of the book Syrian State Torture On Trial are several photos of women holding up portraits of their relatives. These portraits are a reminder of the disappeared – victims of the Syrian torture regime whose fate in many cases remains unknown to this day. "Over 130,000 enforced disappearances and still missing," reads one placard. "Where are they?" asks another. "No normalisation with Assad!" reads a third.
This collection of essays, edited and published by Wolfgang Kaleck and Patrick Kroker of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin, opens with the story of the Palestinian-Syrian woman Ruham Hawash. She tells how she was arrested in March 2012. Like many other Syrian woman at the time, she took part in the nationwide demonstrations, hoping the Syrian revolution would be a success.
After her arrest, she was summoned over the course of several months by the Syrian secret service to the notorious Al-Khatib branch in Damascus, where she was detained, interrogated and humiliated. She was never told exactly what would happen to her; the threat of torture, disappearance or worse hung constantly over her head.
Eventually, Hawash was forced to leave the country. While this meant that she escaped the mental torture – or worse – the psychological impact of the terror she experienced stayed with her. She was also plagued by survivor's guilt: Hawash describes how for years, she felt that what she had experienced was hardly worth mentioning, considering the brutality to which others were subjected.
Testifying in court can be liberating
It was only when the lawyers at the ECCHR encouraged her to give evidence against Syrian war criminals in a trial that was just beginning in Germany that she began to grapple with her awful experience.
Re-traumatisation is something all victims of torture go through. However, Hawash also describes how liberating it was to give evidence in a German courtroom – not only in the light of the injustice that she herself experienced, but also by proxy for the victims of all unpunished crimes committed by the Assad regime and for those affected by these crimes who could not attend the trial in person or who are, to this day, still incarcerated in Syria's torture prisons. "It gave me back some of my dignity," says Hawash.
It is no coincidence that this essay and the photos of the relatives of the disappeared were chosen for the start of the book: in doing so, the ECCHR made a conscious decision to put the perspectives and voices of the people affected by these crimes front and centre.
This also makes it clear what this book is all about: it is not about a legal debate between experts, but about looking at the joint effort being made to confront the prevailing impunity in Syria and to strive for "justice" – a huge word in view of the horrendous crimes that have been committed.
A large number of people and organisations are currently working towards this goal: not only the experts and lawyers at the ECCHR and other organisations, but also the numerous victims of Syrian crimes against humanity – of which there are many in Germany – and the Syrian legal experts and human rights activists who are involved. All of them get a chance to speak in this book.
The extraordinary trials at the heart of this book took place between April 2020 and January 2022 at Koblenz Higher Regional Court in Germany. On trial were two former officials of the Syrian state security apparatus who were charged with being co-perpetrators of systematic human rights violations.
In February 2021, Eyad A., the first of the two defendants, was sentenced to four years and six months in prison for aiding and abetting torture. This in itself was seen as a historic ruling. Even more significant, however, was the verdict in January 2022 on Anwar R., a former colonel and interrogation chief at the notorious Branch 251 of the Syrian Secret Service, the Al-Khatib Branch, where Ruham Hawash was also humiliated.
Years on from her experience, Hawash faced the accused across the courtroom in Koblenz. He was found guilty of "crimes against humanity" and sentenced to life in prison: he was found guilty of being a co-perpetrator in 27 murders and 4,000 cases of torture.
The basis for these judgements was the principle of universal jurisdiction, which has been enshrined in German law and which makes it possible to prosecute particularly serious crimes against humanity that were not committed in Germany, but are deemed of universal relevance on account of their severity.
The most recent case has not yet been closed because the main defendant has appealed. In the meantime, the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office and its European partner authorities continue their investigations.
The context and limits of universal jurisdiction
Four extremely informative essays in the final part of the book outline the judicial details relating to the trials and put them in the context of international law. Among them is a short chapter by editors Kaleck and Kroker describing the trial and the role of the ECCHR. In it, they make the limitations of this approach clear.
They emphasise that at no point did either the ECCHR or the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe intend to raise expectations about the trial and international criminal law in general. Right at the start of the book, in the preface, they make it clear that "Koblenz is not Nuremberg". They write that the trial in Koblenz cannot be compared with the Nuremberg trials, which put the main parties responsible for Nazi atrocities in the dock. On the contrary, Assad and many representatives of the Syrian regime are not only still in office, but are increasingly being courted by the international community.
This is currently casting a dark shadow over attempts to put an end to impunity: after all, it is not just a question of past injustice, but also about ongoing daily injustice. The book has been published at a particularly sensitive juncture: the political demand not to normalise relations with Assad, which was made at the time of the trials with a view to the systematic crimes committed by the Syrian government, has never been under attack as much as it has in recent weeks. At the instigation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Syria has been re-admitted to the Arab League.
In mid-May, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was invited to attend an Arab League summit for the first time since the brutal crackdown on protests against his rule. He was quite obviously at home in the company of other dictators such as Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, his Saudi host Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Tunisian autocrat Kais Saied.
He knew he had no reason to fear either criticism at the summit or criminal prosecution for crimes committed under his responsibility. Moreover, in the UN Security Council, Syria's close ally, Russia, has blocked both a referral to the International Criminal Court and the creation of a Syria tribunal.
Responsible parties remain in high office
However, the fact that in the case of Syria it has thus far been impossible to criminally prosecute any of the main responsible parties has, paradoxically, triggered considerable creative energy in this area, says Beth van Schaack, United States Ambassador-At-Large For Global Criminal Justice. In her foreword to the book, she notes that the UN General Assembly set up the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to support investigations conducted by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry of the UN Human Rights Council and other institutions.
She also sees the revival of the relatively new field of international criminal law with regard to Syria as a consequence and notes that concrete results have also been achieved in this area.
Anwar al-Bunni, one of the Syrian lawyers involved, outlines the impact of the Koblenz trials on three levels. Firstly, he says, they sent a message of hope for justice to victims and survivors. Secondly, they have indicated to the Syrian regime that there will be no immunity from criminal proceedings, and thirdly, they have drawn the attention of the entire world to the continuing system of oppression in Syria.
Mariana Karkoutly quotes Bunni in her article, which brings together the viewpoints of those affected by events and numerous other Syrian voices. She emphasises how important the trials were as an opportunity for Syrians to see court rooms as something positive after their experience in Syria, where they are nothing more than a humiliating component of the injustice system.
The essay by Hannah El Hitami, who followed the trials closely as a reporter, gives a sense of the emotional load experienced both by those directly affected and by others. The Syrian intellectual and dissident Yassin Haj Salah, who is now based in Berlin, has written an impressive, profound philosophical essay on the various dimensions of torture and the ways in which the Syrian system has been using it for decades. Haj Salah knows what he is talking about; he was in prison himself in the 1980s.
Breaking through the noise of the regime's propaganda
The writer Rosa Yassin Hassan also recalls the decades of omnipresent violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime, which was always accompanied by propaganda that justified its actions and attempts at repression. Hassan says that for her, it was only the trials in Koblenz that broke the paralysis and quieted the "narrative noise" about Syria; the sterile court room and the fact-based environment left no room for the otherwise so potent regime propaganda.
The prominent Syrian legal expert Joumana Seif also addresses this aspect. She too highlights how important it was that the trials not only found individuals guilty, but also that the regime was classified as totalitarian. She also considers it equally important that the massacre in Hama in 1982 and the systematic state crimes against humanity committed since the beginning of the revolution in 2011 were addressed. These analyses are accompanied by an article on Khaled Barakeh's "Mute" installation and the courtroom sketches of artist Nasser Hussein.
The articles in this book provide a comprehensive overview of the trials that took place in Germany and the reappraisal of injustice in Syria, which is still in its early days. They provide a moving image of Syrian hopes, of the tireless work done by dedicated legal experts, and of civil society, while at the same time managing expectations about the prospects for success.
The trials remain a milestone for all victims of the Syrian regime and have a reach that goes far beyond Syria. The fact that this important book is also being published in Arabic could help raise the profile in the Arab world and not least in Syrian civil society of the fight against impunity.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Syrische Staatsfolter vor Gericht/Syrian State Torture on Trial, edited/published by Wolfgang Kaleck & Patrick Kroker, Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung 2023, 620 pages.