A German court has sentenced Colonel Anwar Raslan to life in prison for crimes against humanity committed while serving as a Syrian intelligence officer after two hearings.
The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz found Raslan, 58, guilty on 27 counts of murder, rape, and sexual assault carried out in a Syrian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) prison in Damascus in 2011 and 2012.
He was alleged to have been responsible for more than 30 murders and more than 4,000 incidents of torture and sexual assault when he oversaw the prison.
A second defendant in the landmark case, which began in April 2020, was sergeant Eyad Al-Gharib, 45, who was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in February for complicity in the perpetration of crimes against humanity.
Prosecutors successfully argued that Al-Gharib had helped carry out the arrests of protesters and had them transferred to the prison overseen by Raslan.
Over 80 witnesses, including many women, came from various European countries in order to testify in Koblenz and confirm the identity of the defendants, who had been granted asylum in Germany some years earlier.
Raslan headed the GID’s Interrogation Department Branch 251, or the Al-Khatib branch as it was then known, reputedly the cruelest of all Syrian security detention centres.
The trial was held under Germany’s universal jurisdiction law, passed in 2002, which gives German courts the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
In a letter to the Syrian people released some days before the court pronounced its verdict, Raslan asked for forgiveness, saying that he had opposed the “degradation of the Syrian people” and that he had not been able to stop the “regime’s killing machine.”
His lawyers argued that he was not personally responsible for the torture and that he had not issued orders.
But the arguments did not hold up in the face of evidence demonstrating his responsibility for dozens of deaths and countless acts of torture during the first two years of the Syrian uprising.
“Anyone who read Raslan’s letter without knowing the true nature of his job might think that the violence only began after the revolution broke out and that it was only used rarely and for limited purposes,” said opposition Syrian commentator Omar Qadour.
“They would not appreciate that this violence was the very essence of a large number of intelligence detention centres.”
Raslan showed no remorse for the work he did for the GID before the revolution and failed to substantiate his claim to have been a dissident who had condemned the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Qadour said.
“The lawsuit put Raslan in the defendant’s seat, but from a moral standpoint he could have shifted to the plaintiff’s side if he had apologised for his past instead of trying to wriggle out of it,” he added.
Syrian opposition activists have welcomed the German court’s decision, which marks an international precedent in bringing the Syrian regime to account for torture and other crimes.
They hope that it will be the beginning of efforts to bring alleged war criminals, above all the Syrian president and senior military and security figures, to justice for the hundreds of thousands of civilians they say have died under torture in the regime’s secret detention centres.
Michel Shamas, a lawyer at the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies which closely followed the Koblenz hearings, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the first chapter of prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes has ended with the verdict sentencing Raslan to life. The second chapter will open next week with the trial in the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt of a Syrian doctor in the employ of the regime accused of committing crimes against humanity in a military hospital in Homs.”
“I urge all Syrians who have evidence of such crimes to come forward and submit it to the relevant authorities so that justice can take its course.”
The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria also welcomed the verdict of the Koblenz court. It represented “much-needed progress towards achieving justice for the victims and survivors of war crimes in Syria,” said Commission chair Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.
The US group Human Rights Watch hailed the ruling as a “victory for the survivors of torture and sexual assault in Syrian prisons,” while the US State Department described the ruling as an important victory for the victims of the Syrian regime.
German Minister of Justice Marcop Buschmann “called on other countries to emulate the pioneering work” performed by his country’s legal system. “Crimes against humanity must not remain unpunished, no matter where they are committed, no matter by whom,” he said.
In a statement on Raslan’s conviction, EU Spokesperson Peter Stano described the verdict as “part of the first trial worldwide on state-sponsored torture in Syria and an important step towards the fight against impunity and to secure justice and accountability.”
He added that the EU would continue to support efforts to gather evidence for future legal action and that it “reiterates its call to have the situation in Syria referred to the International Criminal Court.”
Not all Syrian opposition quarters were pleased by the verdict, however. Some sympathised with Raslan from a sectarian perspective, saying that had he been an Alawi, the Shia sect to which Al-Assad is affiliated, and not a Sunni Muslim the German court would not have taken up the case.
Others minimised the importance of the verdict, arguing that Raslan was only a small cog in a large machine. They said that the only trial that counts will be the one that “puts that regime and its security chiefs in the defendants’ box.”
According to still others, the Syrian regime does not care if dissident officers are put on trial abroad, even if they had once been part of the regime. They suspect documents used as evidence against Raslan were deliberately leaked by the Syrian regime.
Very few Syrian intelligence service members have defected, and none have stepped forward to testify in court or issue an apology for crimes committed in the course of duty.
Whether Raslan was a scapegoat for the regime or whether the verdict in his case in fact marks the beginning of a larger effort to prosecute senior officials in the Syrian regime, many see it as tangible warning to Syrian security officials that the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity will not be allowed to escape justice.
Syrian opposition activist Said Moqbil said that trials such as the one in Koblenz should take place in a transitional justice framework in order to give the Syrian people the assurance that they can put key decision-makers on trial.
“Only transitional justice can facilitate a political solution and pave the way to a comprehensive national reconciliation that will help the Syrian people put ten years of bloodshed and destruction behind them and transition to a civilian government and the rule of law,” he told the Weekly.
“Until then, such trials will have only token value because the main criminals are confident that justice will never reach them.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.