Historic Verdict in Germany’s Prosecution of a Syrian for Crimes Against Humanity

By Jamshed Baruah

GENEVA (IDN) — The German city of Koblenz on the banks of the river Rhine has made history. The Higher Regional Court there has convicted a former senior Syrian intelligence officer, for crimes against humanity.

The man, known as was charged with complicity in the torture of thousands of people between 2011 and 2012 in the Al-Khatib Branch of Syrian General Intelligence in the capital, Damascus. 

The court found him guilty of the crimes against humanity of “killing, torture, serious deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault in combination with murder in 27 cases, dangerous bodily injury in 25 cases, particularly serious rape, sexual assault in two cases, over a week of deprivation of liberty in 14 cases [and] hostage-taking in two cases and sexual abuse of prisoners in three cases”.

Verdicts such as today’s represent much-needed progress towards achieving justice for victims and survivors of war crimes in Syria – despite the fact that pathways to accountability remain curtailed in Syria and at the UN Security Council,” Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission, said. 

In February 2021, the court in Koblenz sentenced Eyad A., an associate of Anwar R., to four and a half years’ imprisonment for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, marking the first time a former member of the Syrian intelligence services was convicted in a third State universal jurisdiction case related to the ongoing conflict.

Three reports by the Commission were read into evidence during the trial. Persistent advocacy and cooperation by victims, witnesses, and activists in Germany were a vital feature of the proceedings.

In 2002, Germany adopted a Code of Crimes against International Law, allowing German courts to try crimes against international law committed in other countries where neither the perpetrator nor the victim is a German national under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The Code also excludes the statute of limitations for these crimes.

“Outcomes such as today’s would not be possible without the tireless efforts of victims and family associations,” Commissioner Hanny Megally said. “If Member States want to achieve justice for Syrians, it is the meaningful participation of those Syrian voices that must be supported.”

The Commission noted that efforts to hold those most responsible for such crimes must continue. States should support such efforts by ensuring adequate financial and other resources and legislative frameworks are in place.

The Koblenz trial concerned events in the early days of the conflict in 2011-2012.

However, the Syria Commission of Inquiry recalls that torture, ill-treatment, rape, enforced and acts tantamount to enforced disappearances have continued in Syria, as documented in more than 20 regular mandates reports and 13 thematic reports, including its most recent report focused on detention in March 2021. Further, more than 100,000 people are estimated to remain missing due to the conflict.

“The impact of today’s outcome is enormous, but we should not forget that the conflict and crisis in Syria are far from over,” Commissioner Lynn Welchman said. “Right now in Syria, there are victims of torture and disappearance languishing in incommunicado detention across the country, and countless Syrians are still waiting for news of their loved ones.”

UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet said the former Syrian intelligence officer’s trial cast a much-needed renewed spotlight on the torture and inhuman treatment countless Syrians suffered in detention facilities.

She added: “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.”

The Human Rights Commissioner is convinced that the verdict would 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”.

Germany adopted a Code of Crimes against International Law in 2002, which allows the country’s courts to try crimes against international law committed in other countries where neither the perpetrator nor the victim is a German national. The Code also excludes the statute of limitations for these crimes.

“This conviction has put State authorities on notice—no matter where you are or how senior you may be, if you perpetrate torture or other serious human rights violations, you will be held accountable sooner or later, at home or abroad,” said Ms. Bachelet.

She added: “This is a clear example of how national courts can and should fill accountability gaps for such crimes wherever they were committed, through fair and independent investigations and trials carried out in line with international human rights laws and standards. This serves as a powerful deterrent and helps prevent future atrocities.”

As UN News reports, the UN Human Rights Office, OHCHR, noted that there have been several other criminal and civil cases against former officials and members of non-State armed groups accused of crimes in Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and other jurisdictions.

A number of proceedings are currently pending in national courts. OHCHR said action at national levels is particularly important in Syria.

The country is not a party to the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), which tries cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, adding “and the UN Security Council has repeatedly failed to refer the situation to the ICC Prosecutor”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 January 2022]

Photo: The Higher Court in Koblenz. Source: Kanzlei Goldenstein.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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