In the German city of Koblenz, a former Syrian secret service officer was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday. Anwar Raslan, 58, was convicted by a judge of a series of crimes against humanity, including 4,000 acts of torture and 27 murders.
This is a historic statement, as Raslan is the first senior officer in Syrian President Assad’s regime to be convicted of torture. His subordinate, Eyad al-Gharib, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison last year.
“It’s a victory for justice,” Anwar al-Bunni, a self-torturing Syrian human rights lawyer, said on Twitter. “It’s a victory for the victims in court […] and for the victims in Syria who cannot be here.
Recognized by victims
At the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Raslan ran al-Khatib prison in Damascus, where opponents of the regime are tortured to this day. At the end of 2012, the colonel deserted and fled to Germany via Jordan. Raslan became involved in the Syrian opposition and even testified against other ex-officers. In doing so, however, he also opened up to his own past, so that he was ultimately arrested himself in 2019.
More than a hundred witnesses have been heard in Koblenz over the past 18 months. Some of them burst into tears when they saw Raslan in the dock and told the judge in detail how they had been tortured under his watch. The prisoners were hung from the ceiling, sprayed with boiling water, raped, and subjected to electric shocks. They often stayed with over a hundred people in small cells with no place to sit or stand. Guards sometimes shut off the ventilation so people can suffocate, one of the witnesses said.
In addition to the atrocities committed at al-Khatib, the Koblenz court also mapped out the broader workings of Assad’s torture machine. For example, it was the first time a judge had examined the well-known photos of ‘Caesar’, named after the pseudonym of a Syrian military photographer who smuggled 55,000 images of Syrians tortured and murdered by the regime. . Another witness, who worked for the funeral authority in Damascus, told the judge how he traveled back and forth with trucks that dumped up to 700 corpses into mass graves each week.
tortured to death
In total, nearly 15,000 people have been tortured to death since 2011, according to the Syrian Human Rights Network, and more than 100,000 have disappeared. Thanks in part to numerous leaked prison documents, there is an abundance of evidence, but a case against the Assad regime at the International Criminal Court in The Hague never materialized – Russia and China are thwarting this with their veto in the UN Security Council.
National prosecutions like the one in Koblenz are the only alternative at the moment. The fact that Germany is taking the lead in this area is in part due to its broad interpretation of the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows prosecutors to investigate crimes outside German territory, even when perpetrators and victims do not. are not German. In the Netherlands, such jurisdiction only exists if the suspect or victim is Dutch, or if the suspect is in the Netherlands.
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Nevertheless, a case like the one against Raslan would in principle also have been possible in the Netherlands – after all, the suspect was already within national borders. In addition, former accomplices of the Assad regime are also walking free in the Netherlands, according to previous research by NRC to three Syrian men who were respectively employed in the security services, a pro-Assad militia and at a checkpoint.
The public prosecutor does not want to say anything about these three cases. “We don’t get into individual cases,” a spokesperson said. “But we underline that war crimes with a connection to the Netherlands command our full attention, including war crimes committed by persons associated with the Assad regime.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on January 14, 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 14, 2022