Syria torture trial
Anwar Raslan: "No small cog in the wheel"

Life imprisonment for crimes against humanity: that was the sentence handed down to Anwar Raslan in the world's first trial of a member of the Syrian torture system. Matthias von Hein reports

Samaa Mahmoud ist erleichtert - und ein bisschen froh, "weil Anwar Raslan jetzt sein Leben lang im Gefängnis bleibt." Die junge Syrerin betont aber auch: "Wir wollen keine Rache, wir wollen Gerechtigkeit. Und das hier ist ein Anfang. Nicht mehr, aber auch nicht weniger." 

Den ganzen Tag stand Samaa Mahmoud in stillem Protest vor dem sandsteinernen Gebäude des Oberlandesgerichts Koblenz,

Samaa Mahmoud is relieved – and a bit happy, "because Anwar Raslan will now spend his life in prison." But the young Syrian also emphasises: "We don't want revenge, we want justice. And this is just the beginning. Nothing more, but also nothing less."

All day, Samaa Mahmoud stood in silent protest in front of the sandstone building of the Koblenz Higher Regional Court, a photo of her uncle Hayan Mahmoud in front of her. He disappeared in 2012 in the Syrian repressive system, like thousands of others. He is probably dead.

Meanwhile, inside the courtroom, presiding judge Anne Kerber pronounced sentence on a former leading member of precisely this repressive system. Ex-secret service colonel Anwar Raslan was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, murder in 27 cases, torture and severe deprivation of liberty in at least 4,000 cases, rape and sexual abuse of prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012.

Samaa Mahmoud with a picture of her uncle in front of the courtroom in Koblenz (photo: Matthias von Hein/ DW)
Verdict with signal effect: The UN has described the verdict handed down in Germany in the world's first trial on state torture in Syria as a "landmark". “It is a landmark leap forward in the pursuit of truth, justice and reparations for the serious human rights violations perpetrated in Syria over more than a decade,” said UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet. The verdict should also help push forward “all efforts to widen the net of accountability for all perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes that have characterised this brutal conflict,” she added

The 58-year-old defendant with the characteristic birthmark under his left eye received the verdict motionless, at least outwardly, wrapped in a thickly lined parka into which he appeared to sink. During the more than four-hour sentencing, Anwar Raslan did what he has always done very carefully during the trial: he took notes. As if he was falling back into his role as an investigator, only this time on his own account.

The verdict marks the end of a mammoth trial that lasted almost two years – the first trial in the world against members of the Syrian torture system. A good 80 witnesses and experts were heard on a total of 108 trial days. In the courtroom, unspeakable atrocities were tried and the Assad regime's system of torture and oppression was illuminated in its entirety.

In her reasoning, Judge Kerber drew a wide arc from the beginnings of Assad's rule in the 1970s to the role of the secret services as a means of securing rule and the brutal suppression of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and 2012 to the individual guilt of the accused. He had made it to the head of the interrogations subdivision within the intelligence department 251, responsible for security in Damascus and the surrounding area. He was the superior of 30 to 40 subordinates in Al-Khatib prison in the heart of Damascus.

A place of horror


It is this prison that so many torture survivors testified about in the trial. A place of horror, filled with the screams of the tortured, with unspeakable conditions of detention for the prisoners, who did not know if they would ever leave this hell alive again.

The regime repeatedly used torture in its suppression of the Syrian revolution (photo: James Lawler Duggan/afp)
An instrument of Assad rule: torture had already been used before the popular uprising against the Assad regime to extort information. "But now it was about deterrence, revenge - and the physical destruction of opposition members. Mere imprisonment in this place of horror was tantamount to torture," emphasised Judge Anne Kerber

With the beginning of the protests, Judge Kerber argued, the working methods of the secret services had changed fundamentally. Torture had been used before: to extort information. But now it was about deterrence, revenge – and the physical destruction of opposition members. Mere imprisonment in this place of horror was tantamount to torture, emphasised Judge Kerber.

Not even the accused has denied the many deaths and the torture in Al-Khatib. And yet he has denied any guilt: he never personally tortured or gave the order to do so, he said in a personal statement last week. He had only formally been head of the interrogation department; in fact, he had been deprived of his power in the summer of 2011. His superiors had doubted his loyalty because he had released too many people. He himself had had to fear for his life. Anwar Raslan's defence had demanded acquittal for their client.

From career civil servant to defector


Judge Kerber reiterated: Anwar Raslan had not been a "small cog in the wheel" of the repression machine. As a colonel, he had power; people could be released from prison on his word – or not.

Kerber describes an enigmatic figure with many facets: a career civil servant in the secret service who worked his way up through outstanding achievements. One who identified with the system and supported it. One who was worried that this system could fall – because then he would have lost his privileges and would have had to reckon with persecution himself. One who called opponents "scum to be boiled". One who, through his actions, had helped to prevent Assad's rule from being overthrown.


And yet the intelligence service colonel had fled Syria with his family in December 2012 and joined the opposition. Anwar Raslan also made a "career" there – as a high-ranking defector; he even took part in negotiations on the future of Syria in Geneva in 2014.


The court did not declare Anwar Raslan guilty of exceptional culpability, as sought by the Federal Prosecutor's Office. The offences had been committed a long time ago and since then he had gone unpunished. Moreover, he had not laid hands on the prisoners himself, had not tortured them himself. Instead, he had helped individual detainees. Another point in Anwar Raslan's favour is that he was not an ardent supporter of Assad and had credibly turned his back – albeit out of opportunism. Moreover, he had made a partial confession and apologised.

At least a little: he was sorry that he had not been able to help the detainees, Anwar Raslan had said in his personal statement.

At the end of the statement, a torture survivor confessed that he did not know how he felt after this long day. There was a lot to process. It would probably only become clear to him in the next few days what the verdict means. The same is likely true of Anwar Raslan.

Matthias von Hein

© Deutsche Welle / 2022

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