KOBLENZ, Germany ( Associated Press) — A German court overseeing the mistreatment of detainees at a prison near Damascus a decade ago has convicted a former Syrian secret police officer of crimes against humanity.
Thursday’s verdict in the historic trial is eagerly awaited by Syrians who have been abused or lost their relatives at the hands of President Bashar Assad’s government in the country’s long-running conflict.
The Koblenz state court concluded that Anwar Raslan was the senior official in charge of a facility in the Syrian city of Douma known as al-Khatib, or Branch 251, where suspected opposition protesters were detained.
The court sentenced him to life imprisonment. His lawyers asked judges last week to acquit his client, claiming he had never personally tortured anyone and that he defected in late 2012.
German prosecutors alleged that Raslan oversaw the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of dozens.
A junior officer, Iyad al-Gharib, was convicted last year of crimes against humanity And the Koblenz court sentenced him to four and a half years in prison.
Both men were arrested in Germany in 2019 after years of seeking asylum in the country.
Victims and human rights groups have said they hope the verdict will be the first step Towards justice for countless people who have been unable to file criminal complaints against authorities in Syria or before the International Criminal Court.
Experts say that since Russia and China have blocked UN Security Council efforts to refer cases to the Hague-based tribunal, countries such as Germany that apply the principle of universal jurisdiction to serious crimes , will become the site of such tests.
Balkis Jarrah, Associate International Justice Director for Human Rights Watch, said: “We are beginning to see the fruits of the determined effort by courageous survivors, activists and others to achieve justice for the horrific atrocities in Syria’s network of prisons. “
“The verdict is a breakthrough in breaking down the wall of impunity for Syrian victims and the German justice system,” he said. “Other countries should follow Germany’s lead and actively try to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”
The trial is the first of its kind worldwide and other courts can cite the verdict and evidence heard in Koblenz, said Patrick Crocker, a lawyer for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. The group represented a number of victims who were able to participate in the proceedings as co-plaintiffs under German law.
A key piece of evidence against Raslan were photographs of alleged torture victims trafficked from Syria by a former police officer who goes by the surname of Caesar.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, conservative estimates put the number of detained or forced disappearances in Syria at 149,000, of whom more than 85% are in the hands of the Syrian government. Most disappeared or were taken into custody shortly after peaceful protests against Assad’s government began in March 2011, which responded to the rallies with brutal crackdown.
The Syrian government denies that it has held any political prisoners, labeling its opposition terrorists. Following the victory on the battlefield, it has negotiated limited prisoner exchanges with various armed groups, which the families say provide a partial solution for too few.
Jordan reported from Berlin.