UN praises historic conviction of senior Syrian official

KOBLENZ (Germany) -- Thursday's German court convicted a former Syrian secret police officer of crimes against humanity. He was convicted of overseeing abuses of prisoners at a Damascus jail a decade ago. This ruling was described by the United Nations top human rights official as "historic."

UN praises historic conviction of senior Syrian official

Anwar Raslan, the highest-ranking official in Syria to be convicted of this charge, is Anwar. People who were victims of abuse or lost loved ones in the long-running conflict between Syria and President Bashar al-Assad's government, Anwar Raslan, eagerly awaited the verdict.

Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner, stated that this trial "put a much-needed spotlight on the sickening torture, cruel, and truly inhuman treatment – including abject sexual violence- that many Syrians were subjected too in detention facilities."

"It's a significant leap forward in the pursuit for truth, justice, and reparations in relation to the grave human rights violations committed in Syria over the past ten years."

The Koblenz court found that the defendant was responsible for interrogations at the facility in Douma, Syria known as Al Khatib or Branch 251, where opposition protesters were held.

The court sentenced him to life imprisonment. His lawyers asked the judges to release him last week, claiming that he had never tortured anyone personally and that he had defected in 2012.

Ruham Hawash, a Branch 251 survivor who testified at the trial, said, "This day, the verdict is important for all Syrians that have suffered and are still being affected by the Assad regime’s crimes."

She stated that "this verdict is only the beginning, and we still have a lot to do - but for us affected persons, this trial, and today's ruling, are a first step towards freedom and dignity, and justice."

German prosecutors claimed that Raslan oversaw the "systematic, brutal torture" of over 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 to September 2012. This resulted in the deaths or at least 58 persons. Judges found that evidence could hold Raslan responsible for 27 deaths.

E yad Al-Gharib was a junior officer and was convicted of accessory to crimes against humanity. He was sentenced by the Koblenz Court to 4 1/2 years imprisonment

The men were both arrested in Germany in 2019, many years after they had sought asylum in Germany.

Victims and human right groups expressed hope that the verdict of the 19-month-old trial will bring justice to countless victims who were unable or unwilling to file criminal complaints against officials in Syria.

Experts say that Russia and China have resisted efforts by the U.N. Security Council for cases to be referred to The Hague-based tribunal. This will lead to countries like Germany, which apply the principle universal jurisdiction for serious offenses, becoming the venue for such trials.

Balkees Jarrah (associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch) stated, "We are beginning to see the fruits a determined push from courageous survivors, activists, and others to attain justice for horrific atrocities committed in Syria's network prisons."

She said that the verdict was a breakthrough for the victims of Syria and the German justice system cracking down on impunity. "Germany should lead the way and encourage other countries to support efforts to prosecute serious crimes committed in Syria."

Patrick Kroker, a lawyer at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, stated that the trial is unique worldwide and that other courts could cite the verdict and evidence in Koblenz. The group represented 14 victims, who were allowed to participate in the proceedings under German law as co-plaintiffs.

Kroker stated that the goal is to bring senior Assad associates (such as Jamil Hassan, former Air Force Intelligence chief) to justice for their crimes. Germany issued an international arrest warrant in 2018 for Hassan, but it will be difficult to bring him and other top Syrian officials to trial as the country doesn't extradite its citizens.

Eurojust, the European Union's judicial cooper organization, said that the ruling would "leave a lasting impression on international criminal justice."

It was noted that photos of torture victims, allegedly smuggled out from Syria by an ex-police officer who goes under the alias Caesar, were key evidence against Raslan.

"This conviction has put State officials on notice – no matter how old you are or what your seniority, if you commit torture or other serious violations of human rights, you will face accountability sooner or later at home or overseas," Bachelet, U.N. rights chief, said.

Marco Buschmann (Germany's justice minister) echoed her comments and called for other countries to emulate the "pioneering work", which he described as the legal system of his country.

"Crimes against humanity cannot be ignored. Buschmann stated that it doesn't matter where crimes are committed or by whom.

Experts in human rights said that it was important that Raslan was convicted by the Koblenz court for the charges of sexual violence. The judges did not convict Raslan for the enforced disappearances. These will be pursued separately in future proceedings.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, conservative estimates place the number of people detained in Syria at 149,000. This is more than 85% of those who were forcibly or unlawfully disappeared. Many disappeared or were taken into custody soon after peaceful protests against Assad's government broke out in March 2011. The government responded with a brutal crackdown.

The Syrian government claims it does not hold any political prisoners and has been labeled as terrorists by its opposition. It has reached limited prisoner swaps with various armed groups after victories in the battlefield. These exchanges, according to families, offer only partial solutions for a small number of people.

Multiple European trials have already taken place for Syrians who were accused of war crimes against members armed forces of Syria.

Raslan's lawyers may appeal the verdict.

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