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First trial over Syrian state-sponsored torture looms in Germany

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By Euronews with AFP
FILE PHOTO: Syrian government forces raise a national flag and an image of President Bashar al-Assad at Tabqa air base in norther Syria's Raqa region on October 16, 2019
FILE PHOTO: Syrian government forces raise a national flag and an image of President Bashar al-Assad at Tabqa air base in norther Syria's Raqa region on October 16, 2019   -   Copyright  AFP

Germany charged two alleged former Syrian secret service officers with participating in crimes against humanity, paving the way for the first trial worldwide over State-sponsored torture in Syria, a German NGO said on Tuesday.

"The first trial worldwide about state torture in Syria is expected to start in Germany in early 2020 – an important step in the fight against impunity," the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) said in a statement.

Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib were arrested in February in Germany together with a third suspect in France, the federal prosecutor's office in Karlsruhe said.

Charges against the two men were filed on October 22, the prosecutor's office announced on Tuesday.

Raslan, who allegedly led an investigative unit with its own prison in the Damascus area is "suspected of complicity in crimes against humanity", prosecutors said in a statement.

"In this context he is also accused of murder in 58 cases, rape and aggravated sexual assault" in the jail where more than 4,000 prisoners suffered "brutal and massive torture" from April 2011 to September 2012.

Gharib, a former officer who had manned checkpoints and hunted protesters, allegedly aided and abetted the abduction and torture of at least 30 people in the autumn of 2011.

In the town of Douma at the time, security authorities used force to break up an anti-government rally. Gharib is believed to have helped capture fleeing demonstrators and detain them in the prison headed by Raslan.

Raslan left Syria in late 2012 and arrived in Germany in July 2014, while Gharib left in February 2013 and entered the country in April 2018, prosecutors said. 

They are currently in custody. 

"Brutal force"

Prosecutors outlined a system of brutal interrogations of opposition members including a variety of torture methods including "blows with fists, truncheons, pipes, cables, whips and hoses as well as electric shocks".

Prisoners were also suspended from the ceiling by their wrists and beaten, sexually assaulted, deprived of sleep and threatened with harming their loved ones.

"The systematically brutal physical and psychological mistreatment served to force confessions and extract information about the opposition movement," prosecutors said.

The ECCHR, which supports Syrian torture survivors as co-plaintiffs in legal proceedings, said 14 witnesses had participated in the German investigation.

The Syria conflict began in March 2011 with a series of mass protests demanding civil liberties, prompting repression by the regime which quickly began using "brutal force" against protesters, prosecutors said.

"The Syrian secret services played an essential role in this," the statement added.

More than 360,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict with millions more displaced.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have died from torture or harsh conditions in regime custody since the conflict began.

Other cases loom

Although the alleged abuses did not happen in Germany, the case has been filed under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows any country to pursue perpetrators regardless of where the crime was committed.

Several other legal cases are now pending against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Germany.

The ECCHR joined with torture survivors to file criminal complaints against 10 high-ranking Syrian officials, accusing them of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Last year, German prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, a top Syrian official who headed the notorious airforce intelligence directorate and is accused of overseeing the torture and murder of hundreds of detainees.

“These charges send an important message to survivors of Assad’s system of torture,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary of the ECCHR.

“We will continue working to ensure that the main perpetrators of torture under Assad are brought to justice – in Germany or another European country.”