In a landmark verdict in Germany, a former Syrian security service colonel has been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of crimes against humanity, the first such process in the world linked to abuses committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Anwar Raslan, 58, who defected 10 years ago, was implicated in the murder of dozens of people and the torture of thousands in a detention centre near Damascus.
The ruling by the regional high court in Koblenz is a first step toward justice for countless Syrians who suffered abuse at the hands of the Syrian government. It's the second conviction in the case, following the trial of a more junior intelligence officer last year.
Meanwhile, another trial linked to the Syrian regime — that of a doctor who sought refuge in Germany — is due to begin in Frankfurt on Thursday.
The judges found the ex-colonel guilty of the murder of 27 people in the Al Khatib detention centre in Duma near Damascus, also known as Branch 251.
Raslan, who led the unit's investigations for the Syrian security service, listened to the verdict on Thursday as it was translated into Arabic, without apparent emotion.
He did not speak during the trial which began in April 2020, but denied involvement in the death and torture of detainees in written statements.
Nearly 11 years after the start of the popular uprising in Syria, the Koblenz trial has been the first time that a court has examined the crimes attributed to the Syrian regime and documented countless times by Syrian activists and NGOs.
In the earlier verdict as part of the same trial, a second defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, was convicted last February of accessory to crimes against humanity and sentenced by the Koblenz state court to four and a half years in prison.
The court concluded that al-Gharib was part of a unit which detained anti-government protests and took them to Al Khatib, where they were tortured.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Raslan was the senior officer in charge of the jail and supervised the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of at least 58 people.
The court heard evidence implicating Raslan in 30 deaths, and he was convicted over 27 of them. A key part of the evidence against him were the photographs of alleged torture victims smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer, who goes by the alias of Caesar.
More than 80 witnesses gave evidence, including 12 deserters and numerous victims who exposed the mistreatment of prisoners tied up in unsanitary conditions in the secret detention centre — including electric shock treatment, whippings and beatings.
Some witnesses declined to give evidence, while others were disguised for fear of reprisals against their relatives still in Syria.
Anwar Raslan's lawyers asked the court last week to acquit their client, claiming that he never personally tortured anybody and that he defected in late 2012.
In custody for the past three years, Raslan never tried to cover up his past when he sought refuge in Berlin with his family in 2014. Seeking police protection in Germany in February the following year, he described his experience to officers.
About 800,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Germany since the start of the war, including Raslan and al-Gharib, who were arrested in 2019.
With Russia and China using their vetoes to block attempts by the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, countries like Germany that apply the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes will increasingly become the venue for such trials, according to Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights who represented several survivors at the trial.
Speaking this week before the verdict, one of those who testified against Raslan said that whatever the outcome, the court proceedings in Germany would send an important message that those responsible for crimes in Syria can be held to account.
“As Syrians who suffered a lot, especially after the beginning of the revolution, (the trials shows) those sufferings are not in vain," said Wassim Mukdad, a torture survivor and co-plaintiff who — like the defendant — now lives in Germany.
Mukdad was among dozens of witnesses who testified against Raslan and al-Gharib.
Conservative estimates put the number of those detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria at 149,000, more than 85% of them at the hands of the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Most disappeared or were detained soon after peaceful protests erupted in March 2011 against Assad’s government, which responded to the rallies with a brutal crackdown.
The Syrian government denies it is holding any political prisoners, labelling its opposition terrorists.