Syrian secret police convicted of government torture
A former member of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s secret police was convicted by a German court on Wednesday of facilitating the torture of prisoners. The conviction marks the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on a case involving Syrian government officials– and human rights activists hope the ruling will set a precedent for other cases in decades of conflict.
Eyad Al-Gharib was convicted of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity and was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison by the Koblenz State Court. The German public prosecutor’s office relied on the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes involving victims and defendants who were in Germany.
Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the process was a step against impunity in the conflict. His country has sheltered hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled violence and hardship in their homeland and supported international efforts to collect criminal evidence of crimes in Syria.
Russia and China have used their vetoes to block attempts by the United States Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
“So the cases outside of Syria are great rays of hope, but also a clear signal to the victims … that they should receive justice,” Maas told The Associated Press.
Al-Gharib could have spent more than a decade behind bars, but the judges considered mitigating factors, including his testimony to German authorities investigating the allegations.
The 44-year-old was accused of being part of a unit that arrested people after anti-government protests in the Syrian city of Douma and took them to a detention center called Al Khatib or Branch 251, where they were tortured.
Al-Gharib was tried last year with Anwar Raslan, a senior Syrian ex-official who is accused of overseeing abuse of inmates in the same prison near Damascus.
Raslan is alleged to have monitored the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 detainees between April 2011 and September 2012, in which at least 58 people were killed.
During his interrogation by the police, al-Gharib testified against Raslan and involved him in more than 10 prisoner deaths. A verdict on Raslan’s case is expected later this year.
The court also examined photos of thousands of alleged victims of torture by the Syrian government. The pictures were smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer who goes by the pseudonym Caesar.
“Today’s verdict is the first time a court has confirmed that the actions of the Syrian government and its employees are crimes against humanity,” said Patrick Kroker, an attorney at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who represented several survivors of the trial.
“The testimony of survivors of torture and intelligence officials, as well as the photos of Caesar, demonstrate the extent and systemic nature of disappearances, torture and sexual violence in Syria,” he said. “The relevance of this evidence goes far beyond the trial in Koblenz.”
With the oral judgment, the presiding judge made it clear that the crimes of al-Gharib were part of the systematic abuse of the Syrian government against its own people. Syrian officials did not testify during the 60-day trial.
The court concluded that al-Gharib’s unit, under Raslan’s command, was involved in the hunted down and arrest of at least 30 people after a demonstration in Douma, and then taken to the detention center where they were tortured .
Al-Gharib, who had the rank of Sergeant Major until he left, left Syria in 2013 and came to Germany in 2018. Both men were arrested a year later.
Some rights groups have raised questions about the process, noting that government defectors like Al-Gharib may fail to realize that statements they make on asylum applications can be used against them.
Mohammad Al-Abdallah, director of the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center and a former prisoner in Syria, said Al-Gharib was a low-ranking officer of little value in the case against him.
He suggested that defectors like Raslan and Al-Gharib be imprisoned if the Assad government would please “because it would prevent anyone else from breaking into or joining the opposition or from providing information to human rights groups.”
But Wassim Mukdad, a Syrian survivor and co-plaintiff in Raslan’s trial, said that while al-Gharib was “just a small cog in the vast Syrian torture machine,” the verdict against him was important.
“I hope it can shed light on all of the crimes of the Assad regime,” he said. “Only then will the trial really be a first step on this long road to justice for myself and other survivors.”
Al-Gharib’s attorney Hannes Linke said the court’s verdict was “largely convincing” and that the verdict against his client would “send a clear signal to perpetrators of war crimes worldwide”. Linke said he would still appeal the verdict and ask the German Supreme Court to review the lower court’s decision to dismiss al-Gharib’s defense, which he had acted to avoid harming himself.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which supports 29 survivors in the Raslan case, 14 of whom are co-plaintiffs in this case, is working to bring more cases against Syrian officials to court in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway.
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