War crimes in Syria

Can Syrian sexual violence survivors get justice in Germany?

Brutal sexualised violence is widespread in Syrian prisons – and yet the subject receives little attention. Human rights activists are trying to achieve justice for thousands of victims in Germany. By Lisa Ellis

For most women, the horror starts at the moment of arrest. First, the male soldiers touch them inappropriately. On arrival at the prison, they are forced to strip naked. The invasion of their bodies often begins with an aggressive, intimate search by a male guard.

For thousands of female detainees in pro-regime prisons this marks the start of a journey to hell – one that very often ends with them being broken and then ostracised from their families and communities.

Sexualised, gender-based violence is one of the most widespread crimes in Syria's government detention facilities, according to international law expert, Alexandra Lily Kather. Yet, it is also one of the most underreported.

"We know about air strikes, we know about weapons, we know about torture, we know about [the Islamic State]," says Kather who works for the ECCHR (European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights) in Berlin. "But what is not being covered sufficiently either in the media, or in terms of calling perpetrators to account, is sexual violence [in government prisons], despite the devastation it causes both for the victim and for society as whole."

Kather and her colleagues at the ECCHR hope this state-of-affairs is about to change in a radical way. Together with Syrian rights activist, Joumana Seif, Kather filed a criminal complaint with Germany's federal prosecutor calling for sexualised and gender-based violence in Syria to be prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

First trial of state torture already underway

Germany has already achieved a world first by putting two former Syrian intelligence officers on trial for war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to try foreign nationals for crimes committed abroad.

Alexandra Lily Kather and Joumana Seif of the ECCHR in Berlin (photo: ECCHR)
Investigating the massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Assad regime: together with Syrian activist Joumana Seif, Alexandra Lily Kather has filed a criminal complaint with the Federal Public Prosecutor General in Karlsruhe. They want to ensure that sexualised and gender-based violence in Syria is prosecuted as a crime against humanity

However, while applauding this effort, ECCHR says Germany has failed to include sexualised violence as a crime against humanity on any indictments or arrest warrants, which in their view is a grave oversight and a blow to the victims.

"From the evidence we have," says Kather, "we can clearly see that sexual violence was part of a systematic and widespread attack on the civilian population and therefore should be categorised as a crime against humanity."

The UN Human Rights Council shares this opinion. In a harrowing report published in 2018, the body detailed abuses based on the testimony of nearly 500 survivors and witnesses. Of all the warring parties, pro-government forces and militias were the most prolific offenders when it came to sexual assaults and rapes. The UN concluded they used sexualised violence as a weapon to instil fear and inflict humiliation.

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