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First ever Syria torture trial starts in Germany

The High Court of Koblenz tries two former officials of the Syrian government, accused of crimes against humanity. “The torture system has been used to crush civil society”.

FUENTES Deutsche Welle, Protestante Digital AUTOR 5/Evangelical_Focus KOBLENZ 06 DE MAYO DE 2020 09:59 h
A poster of president Al-Assad at a checkpoint in Damascus, Syria. / Elizabeth Arrott, Wikimedia Commons CC

The small city of Koblenz, in western Germany, is hosting the first trial of Syrian regime officers accused of crimes against humanity, which may set a precedent in the use of universal jurisdiction.



Germany's Code of Crimes Against International Law, which came into force in June 2002, allows German courts to prosecute crimes against international law, even if they were not committed in Germany and neither the perpetrator nor the victim are Germans.



 



Landmark trial



That is why German prosecutors have been able to open this landmark trial against Anwar Raslan, former Colonel in charge of the Syrian secret service prison known as Branch 251, and Eyad Al-Gharib, who also worked at Branch 251, but further down the ranks.



Raslan entered Germany in July 2014, asking for assylum and Al-Gharib, in April 2018. The German authorities arrested both men in February 2019 pending trial.



 



Torture and murder



According to a court statement, Raslan oversaw “the torture of at least 4,000 people between 29 April 2011 and 7 September 2012 at least, and at least 58 people died because of ill treatment during his tenure”. Al-Gharib is charge with “complicity to torture and murder of at least 30 people”.



German authorities have been investigating the crimes of the President Assad regime since 2011, while Syrian activists collected documents, tracked down Syrian victims and explored ways to get their cases into European courts.



 



“The entire torture system is tried”



“It is not about them. The entire torture system is tried. This trial will expose the entire chain of command. The whole regime is on trial”, Anwar Al Bunni, lawyer for the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, told Spanish newspaper El País.



Al-Bunni was arrested by Raslan in 2005 and jailed for five years for his human rights work. “This man is not a cog in the machine, but an engine in this devilish apparatus”, he said.



 



Testimonies of the victims



Since 2015, the arrival of more than a million Syrian refugees in Germany has caused testimonies of torture, abuse and crimes against humanity to multiply.



According to investigations by the German prosecution, many of these witnesses were survivors of prison 251, located on Damascus perimeter and run by an intelligence unit.



In addition to those testimonies, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a foundation based in the Netherlands has also presented documents that will be used as evidence at judicial proceedings.



 



“Victims were beaten and received electric shocks”



"They hang people from the ceiling tied by their wrists, beat them up and give them electric shocks", Patrick Kroker, a lawyer at the European Center for Human and Constitutional Rights (ECCHR), who also represents victims in the trial.



The entity has filed 50 complaints of victims of torture in Syria and their families since 2016 in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway.



“All of them participated in some peaceful revolt. The torture system has been used to crush civil society”, Kroker pointed out.



 



Technical information



The first days of the trial, immigration authorities, a representative of the German Foreign Office and an officer from the German Federal Criminal Police were the ones to testify



"The court is gathering this kind of technical information to come up with a detailed chronology. After that, we will probably move to another phase where we have different kind of evidence being given", Kroker said.



Because of the German legal "principle of orality", which requires oral evidence to be given before the judges, documents such as visa applications and letters about social welfare benefits all had to be read out, in order to be admitted.



 



“Evidence can be used for decades”



Furthermore, three of Raslan's accusers were also in court for the first hearing. Several more are expected to share their testimonies in the coming trial sessions.



"This is the beginning of the systematic coming to terms with the crimes of the Assad government, and above all the systematic torture", Kroker underlined after the first day of the trial.



According to legal experts, it is expected that the trial will last one to three years. "The evidence we collect can be used for decades to come", a spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor's Office said.



The first stage of the trial ended on April, 30. The next stage resumes in Koblenz on May 18.


 

 


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