BERLIN — A German court convicted a former Syrian regime intelligence officer Thursday of crimes against humanity, concluding the world’s first trial related to state-sponsored torture under President Bashar al-Assad. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The verdict was the most significant step so far in more than a decade of seeking justice for those who suffered at the hands of the Syrian state apparatus as it brutally sought to suppress mass protests during the Arab Spring and fought years of bloody conflict.
The trial, which began in April 2020, marked the first time Syrian victims had the chance to face in court an alleged perpetrator of crimes attributable to the Assad regime in that era. Victims who spoke in court as witnesses described the case as a milestone but still just one step on the road to accountability.
Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer who was a witness in the case, described Thursday’s verdict as “historic” and a “victory for Syrians.” Although it was a single conviction, the whole Syrian state apparatus was on trial for the first time, he said.
“He was convicted as part of this machine, part of this killer machine that arrested Syrians, killed them, tortured them,” he said. “It’s a conviction for the whole regime.”
The proceedings against Raslan were sparked by a chance encounter seven years ago when Bunni recognized Raslan at his refugee center in Berlin. At first, he could not figure out how he knew him. It was only after a fellow refugee told him that a regime official was in the facility that it all fell into place.
In court, Bunni recounted how Raslan was the man who had detained him outside his house in the Kafr Souseh neighborhood of Damascus in 2006, after which he spent five years in prison. After recognizing Raslan in Berlin, Bunni lodged a complaint with police, and Raslan was eventually arrested in 2019.
Raslan was convicted of crimes that took place between April 29, 2011, and Sept. 7, 2012, when Syria was gripped by revolution.
The court found him guilty of complicity in 27 murders while he was an official at the Branch 251 detention center, as part of what the court described as the Syrian government’s “extensive and systematic” attack on its own population beginning in April 2011.
According to the court’s findings, at least 4,000 prisoners where held in the detention center attached to Raslan’s interrogation unit while he worked there.
“The inmates were brutally tortured during their interrogation in various ways,” the court said, including with electric shocks. Sexual violence was also used, it said, and prisoners could hear constant screams from other inmates suffering torture. Medical care was denied and food was inadequate.
While he did not physically carry out the crimes, Raslan was deemed responsible as a result of his position of authority, said court spokesperson Anne-Christina Brodöfel.
Raslan announced his defection from the regime in 2012. In their final arguments, his attorneys said Raslan had not approved the torture and had even punished soldiers for abusing prisoners. “An employee of a criminal regime cannot just pick up the phone when he realizes that injustice is occurring in the prison,” his lawyers said, according to the German newspaper Die Zeit. But the court said it had concluded that he could have defected earlier. He will be eligible for parole in 15 years.
His defense team said it would appeal the verdict.
His co-defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, 44, a low-level officer, was sentenced to 4½ years in jail early last year.
Syrian activists living in Germany and abroad welcomed the verdict but also warned that atrocities continue in Syria. The German-Syrian human rights organization Adopt a Revolution said in a statement issued ahead of the verdict that the judgment should not be used as “a fig leaf for political inaction.” The German government should halt deportations to Syria and make sure that Raslan’s superiors do not go unpunished, the group said.
Human Rights Watch described the conviction as “a groundbreaking step toward justice for serious crimes in Syria” and called on other countries to follow Germany’s lead. Emphasizing the central role of Syrian survivors, lawyers and activists in the trial, the organization lamented the challenges presented by witness protection.
Steve Kostas, the senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, noted that although the trial was about past events, those events continue to have relevance in Syria.
“It laid bare the systemic atrocities that continue to this day against innocent Syrians,” Kostas said in a statement. In the trial, his organization represented five people who survived torture during detention and interrogation.
The trial took place under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which is enshrined in German law and allows for the prosecution of those accused of committing grave acts such as genocide or war crimes in other countries. The legal principle holds that some crimes are so serious that normal territorial restraints on prosecutions do not apply.
From the genocide of Iraq’s Yazidis to Syrian state-sponsored torture and the killing in Istanbul of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the German legal system is increasingly a place to seek justice for crimes committed far outside its borders.
According to a 2020 report, more than a dozen active cases related to crimes committed in Syria are taking place in Germany. And activists hope that the convictions of Raslan and Gharib will be just a first step: Next week, a court in Frankfurt will begin the trial of a Syrian doctor accused of torturing opponents of Assad’s government in military medical facilities.
“This is the first step but certainly not the last,” Wissam Mukdad, a witness and co-plaintiff in the trial, said after the verdict. At one point, he said, he was packed with 87 others into a cell of little more than 230 square feet during 16 days at Branch 251.
“The road to justice is long and we will not stop until Bashar al-Assad and his circle of confidants stand trial,” he said.