Two alleged former Syrian intelligence officers go on trial in Germany on Thursday accused of crimes against humanity in the first court case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Prime suspect Anwar Raslan, an alleged former colonel in Syrian state security, stands accused of carrying out crimes against humanity while in charge of the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus.
The 57-year-old is charged with overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the prison between April 29, 2011 and September 7, 2012.
Fellow defendant Eyad al-Gharib, 43, is accused of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity, having helped to arrest protesters and deliver them to Al-Khatib in the autumn of 2011.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, the two men both fled their country and applied for asylum in Germany, where they were arrested in February 2019.
“This trial is the first occasion on which (victims) are speaking out –- not only in public, but before a court –- about what happened to them and what is still happening in Syria,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based legal group supporting the plaintiffs.
Raslan and Gharib are to be tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity.
This is the only way to bring the perpetrators of Syrian state crimes to justice, as the International Criminal Court is hamstrung by vetoes from Russia and China, the ECCHR claimed.
– ‘Beaten with fists, wires and whips’ –
The court is expected to hear testimonies from victims who survived what prosecutors say were “inhuman and degrading” conditions at Al-Khatib, before later escaping to Europe.
The prison’s inmates, many of whom were arrested for taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations during the Arab Spring in 2011, were beaten with “fists, wires and whips” and subjected to “electric shocks”, prosecutors claimed.
Others were “hung by their wrists so that only the tips of their toes were touching the ground” and “continued to be beaten in this position” or else “deprived of sleep for several days”.
Such “brutal acts of psychological and physical abuse” were intended to extract “confessions and information about the (Syrian) opposition”, the charge sheet added.
Some have suggested that Raslan was not just a pawn of the regime, noting that he reportedly defected to the opposition in 2012 before arriving in Germany two years later
Yet ECCHR’s Kaleck insists that the 57-year-old was not “any old prison guard”, but rather someone who, according to prosecutors, had a position of authority in the apparatus of the Syrian state.
If convicted, Raslan faces life imprisonment.
Raslan and Gharib’s lawyers declined to give a comment ahead of the trial, which is expected to last until at least August.
Assad himself, however, defended Raslan against the accusations when he was asked about the trial in an interview with Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT.
“We never believed that torture could make the situation better as a state, very simple. So we don’t use it,” said the Syrian president, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 20 years.
Yet according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have been killed under torture or as a result of the terrible conditions in Assad’s detention centres.