The concept of universal jurisdiction being applied in Germany ‘gives hope, even if everything takes a long time and nothing happens tomorrow, or even the day after’, says one alleged victim
Patrick Kroker was on a train with two Syrian colleagues when they first made the connection. One of the Syrians mentioned to the other that he had seen a familiar-looking man walking along the streets of the German capital, and he had been struggling for weeks to place him, before realising that it was Anwar Raslan.
His fellow Syrian train passenger was mortified. Anwar Raslan, he said, was the man who had overseen the detention and torture of him and thousands of other political prisoners inside the notorious Khatib branch of the General Intelligence Directorate in Damascus.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in exile in Europe, unfounded rumours and baseless conspiracy theories swirl. But the confirmation that both the perpetrator and victim of torture were now residing in the same city moved Kroker and the Syrians to action.
Kroker, a human rights lawyer focused on Syria at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, recalls the 2015 train journey during a meeting in his Berlin office. “We were talking about their experiences and I was like, ‘Wow, what are we going to do about this?’”
Thanks in part to testimony collected by the ECCHR and other organisations, Raslan has been held in pre-trial detention since February inside Berlin’s Moabit prison. Last month, prosecutors in Germany indicted him and Ayad al-Ghareeb, another lesser Assad regime enforcer, on charges of crimes against humanity. These are some of the most promising efforts yet towards justice and accountability for the years of horror inflicted by Syrian authorities against peaceful protesters who rose against Assad.
“It is going to be the first case that focuses on torture by the Syrian government,” says Kroker. “That’s why it’s such a landmark case.”
Prosecutions of alleged Syrian rights abusers are picking up pace throughout Europe. This week, five torture survivors filed a criminal complaint in Oslo against ranking officials of the Assad regime. Cases have also been filed against regime officials elsewhere in Germany, as well as in Austria, France and Sweden.
“We want all the European prosecution authorities to do their share of the work,” says Kroker.
Jurists are employing the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which gives nations the authority to prosecute violations of international criminal law even when the alleged violation did not occur on that country’s soil or by or to its citizens. Essentially, the principle works on the belief that some crimes are so heinous they should be pursued in any country.
Independent human rights organisations and advocacy groups have repeatedly and painstakingly documented how torture has been used systematically by the Syrian regime as a means to crush a years-long uprising against Assad’s rule that later devolved into a vicious armed conflict. A trove of photographs smuggled out of the country by a defector code-named Caesar illustrated the industrial scale of the horrors carried out by the Assad regime against the Syrian people.
Backed by Russia and Iran, Assad appears to be on the cusp of military victory against his battlefield foes. But among the tens of thousands of his regime’s victims who managed to find their way into exile, some are demanding a measure of justice and accountability.
“This process in Germany gives hope, even if everything takes a long time and nothing happens tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow,” one Syrian who claimed to have been tortured in Khatib was quoted as saying by the ECCHR. “The fact that it continues at all gives us as survivors hope for justice. I am ready to testify.”
The privately funded ECCHR pursues legal action against political and military leaders as well as corporations on charges of crimes against humanity. It is among several organisations worldwide pushing court cases against alleged Syrian regime torturers, often using novel legal approaches to test the courts and the law.
One such group is the team at the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative, which has collected a case dossier of witness statements and legal arguments for the German prosecutor in the Raslan case, effectively conducting research for overburdened government officials, and serving as victims’ legal representatives.
“There’s a big broad effort, and there are other cases that people are trying to develop,” says Jonathan Birchall, a spokesperson for the Open Society Foundations. “The Anwar R case is especially significant because he is the most senior former Syrian government official to go on trial so far in Europe.”
Prosecutors can draw on a trove of 800,000 or so documents collected by an organisation called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, which has spent years rummaging through Assad regime detention sites and offices that fell under rebel control. The documents identify key regime collaborators, and detail a policy of torture directed at mostly peaceful opponents of Assad.
“This was a very well organised and systematic programme that was applied in dozens of sites around the country,” says Steve Kostas, an attorney at the Open Society’s Justice Initiative.
ECCHR and Open Society were reluctant to grant media access to any of the witnesses they had assembled against Raslan, worried it might taint the case or possibly expose them to danger. But rights activists say that Raslan’s alleged victims largely tell similar stories.
Typically they took part in the civic uprising that ignited during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. They might have been arrested for distributing leaflets or taking part in a street protest.
They were stopped near a demonstration and thrown into a van, or taken from their homes. They were beaten inside the bus or van and beaten again on arrival at the Khatib branch of the General Intelligence Directorate.
They were then thrown into mass cells with abysmally poor sanitary and hygiene conditions. Food was scarce, and infections and illnesses rampant. There was no space to sleep and no facilities in which to shower.
The prisoners were regularly summoned for interrogations that amounted to torture sessions. Assad regime enforcers grilled them about whether they were spies, terrorists, or CIA agents.
“If you answer yes, it’s a death penalty,” says Kroker. “If you say no, it starts with beatings and sticks and other objects on the naked skin.”
That quickly escalates to electric shock, and stress positions, including being hung from your hands. The interrogators blasted prisoners with insults and threats, including warnings about their wives and children.
Eventually, the prisoners agreed to confess. They signed documents detailing their crimes, or blank sheets of paper later filled out by interrogators. They were transferred to another intelligence branch office, and perhaps to a regular prison, where conditions improved. There were showers, and shops to buy food. Relatives could contact them, at least indirectly, and prisoners could get word to an attorney.
Defendants were then brought before judges, who would either sentence them to prison, or take bribes to release them. Many of those released were arrested again in the ensuing weeks and months.
Raslan is suspected of complicity in the torture of at least 4,000 people in 2011 and 2012, resulting in the deaths of 58 people. Ghareeb, a General Intelligence Directorate colleague of Raslan, is also in detention in another German prison and charged with torture in at least 30 cases.
By late 2012, Raslan had apparently had enough, joining the wave of Syrian refugees who made it to Europe. It remains unclear whether he had a crisis of conscience or simply saw an opportunity to advance his life, but it was likely a huge personal risk for the ranking Syrian intelligence officer to abruptly leave the country. Although he has publicly broken with the regime, he has yet to disclose his role in overseeing the alleged crimes at Khatib.
His trial, to commence next year in the German city of Koblenz, will be closely watched, partly because the legal principle of universal jurisdiction is a controversial one.
Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger argued in a 2001 foreign affairs essay that the legal principle of universal jurisdiction “would arm any magistrate anywhere in the world with the power to demand extradition” potentially interfering in any “reconciliation efforts” that could be taking place in another country.
UN member states last month squabbled ferociously about where discussions about the applicability of universal jurisdiction should take place, and whether it should be discussed within a political or legal forum.
Nevertheless, it is a tool increasingly being used by prosecutors. First used in the UK to arrest former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on a Spanish warrant in 1998, it has since been applied in Argentina against perpetrators of violence under Spain’s Francisco Franco, in Belgium and France for war crimes in Rwanda, and in the Netherlands for a case involving Liberia.
Kroker declined to disclose the evidence gathered against Raslan. But he also raised the possibility that the former Assad enforcer could confess and serve as a witness to prosecute even higher-ranking regime figures.
“He defected,” says Kroker. “If he confesses and expresses regret, the court has to take it into account.”
German prosecutors have already obtained an arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s notorious air force intelligence, who is among the biggest targets of legal advocates and is now in Damascus, serving as one of Assad’s top enforcers. “We want to go to the very top,” Kroker says.