After a landmark trial, a German court sentenced an ex-Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for murder, rape, and crimes against humanity, making it the first such conviction for state-backed torture perpetrated during Syria’s civil war.
Anwar R. was found guilty of 27 of the 58 charges of murder, rape, and sexual assault he oversaw at a Damascus jail controlled by a unit of President Bashar al-security Assad’s forces.
Prosecutors said the 58-year-old, who was a colonel when he defected to the Syrian opposition in 2012 and was given refuge in Germany two years later, had rejected all accusations.
The Assad regime denies torturing detainees.
The trial was held under Germany’s universal jurisdiction statutes, which empower courts to investigate and try crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the globe.
Prosecutors aided by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) have acquired evidence from around 50 Syrian torture survivors in Germany and elsewhere in Europe since 2016, according to the ECCHR, a non-governmental organization created by attorneys in 2007.
Mariam Alhallak, whose son was seized at Damascus University in 2012 and murdered after questioning by regime agents a year later, praised the judgment.
“It means a lot to me because I have a feeling that justice is happening,” she said outside the court in the western German city of Koblenz, one of a group of Syrian mothers holding pictures of children killed or tortured in Syrian government facilities.
“It’s a small step toward the justice we hope will be achieved: accountability for all those who committed violations, including the criminals who killed my son.”
Inside the court Anwar R., dressed in a black jacket and wearing glasses and a white face mask, gave a brief, wry smile as he waited for the verdict to be read out after a police officer removed his handcuffs.
Syrian human rights lawyers said he had defected to Turkey before moving on in 2014 to Germany, where he contacted police saying he feared former colleagues could take his life. He was arrested by German authorities in 2019.
‘THE CRUELTY CONTINUES’
The verdict against Anwar R., which will give hope to survivors of atrocities committed during the war after attempts to establish an international tribunal for Syria failed, was the second one handed down during the trial, which began in April 2020.
Last year Eyad A., another former member of the Syrian intelligence services, was sentenced to 4-1/2 years in jail for abetting the torture of civilians.
“The trial demonstrates that accountability for the Assad regime’s heinous atrocities is possible …if national prosecutors and judges choose to act,” said Eric Witte of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which also supported several witnesses in the case.
“As much as we welcome the outcome of this trial, we must not forget that the cruelty of the crimes proved in court continues to this day in Syria.”
A second trial of a Syrian doctor suspected of crimes against humanity, including torturing prisoners at a military hospital in the city of Homs in 2011 and 2012 and killing one using a lethal injection, opens in Frankfurt next week.
At the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China have vetoed attempts by Western powers to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court, leaving survivors of torture and chemical weapons attacks with limited options to seek justice.
But some of the estimated 800,000 Syrians living in Germany have opposed the Koblenz trial, saying it discourages future defections by Syrians who may have more evidence of crimes committed by the government, after Anwar R. was encouraged by senior opposition members to change sides.
“It is natural that Syrians are going to have different views on how to seek justice,” said Witte of Open Society. “Some want an amnesty and to save the trial for Bashar al-Assad and his top officers.”