A Syrian in the Bustan Pasha neighborhood of the city of Aleppo shows marks of torture on his back on Aug. 23, 2012, after he was released by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. (James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images)

 After his arrest and torture by the government of Bashar al-Assad, dissident Khaled Rawas slipped out of Syria pledging to continue the fight. On Wednesday, he did just that — joining a landmark legal complaint in Germany seeking something that has long proved elusive for the victims of the Syrian civil war. 


As dissidents, victims’ families and human rights activists begin to lose hope that the Syrian government will ever be toppled — and that international bodies will hold it accountable for alleged war crimes — they are increasingly pursuing their own justice through criminal suits in domestic European courts. 

By doing so, they are gambling on the notion of universal jurisdiction — arguing that war crimes have no geographic boundaries. They say countries such as Germany — with broad laws covering torture and genocide — are ideal venues to launch such legal attacks. On Thursday, for instance, authorities announced the arrest of a Syrian asylum seeker in Germany on charges including war crimes. The charges stem from the alleged killing of 36 people
in Syria while the man was serving as a fighter for the militant group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al-Qaeda. 

“Our fear is that they’re going to get away with it, that the international community is going to look the other way,” Rawas said. “I don’t want revenge. But for what was done, for what is still being done, we have to have justice.”

Now 29 and living as a refugee in Germany, Rawas joined six other plaintiffs, including his wife, in filing the complaint against six senior Assad regime officials who they claim were directly involved in systematic torture. At the very least, the plaintiffs and the human rights lawyers representing them are seeking international arrest warrants similar to the one that led the British to detain former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on behalf of a Spanish judge in the 1990s.

Between March 2011 and December 2015, at least 17,723 people died in Syrian government detention, according to Amnesty International, and thousands of other dissidents were brutally tortured. Yet, while there have been international condemnations of the Assad government, there have been virtually no successful international efforts to prosecute it for war crimes.

The International Criminal Court, which has prosecuted war crimes elsewhere, is unable to accept cases from Syria because the country is not a signatory to the treaty that established the court. To investigate, the ICC would need the approval of the U.N. Security Council — a move Russia has blocked with its council veto. 

So human rights lawyers, activists and victims have been seeking alternatives — the case filed this week in Germany being the latest example. It is at least the fourth case to be filed in Europe and comes on the heels of similar legal action in Spain, France and Germany. 

The case, filed with the aid of the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), is also somewhat novel. At least one complaint has named Assad himself — something legal scholars see as problematic, given the precedent of legal immunity for heads of state. Other cases have relied on secondhand accounts of war crimes offered by human rights groups.

In contrast, the complaint filed Wednesday involves Syrian refugees living in Germany who claim to have been directly victimized. Rather than go after Assad himself, the complaint names senior intelligence and military officials who may not be covered by international laws granting sovereign immunity to a head of state.

“We are optimistic that this approach is going to get results,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of the ECCHR.

Yet the path to justice in domestic courts faces formidable obstacles. In Germany’s legal system, a case cannot proceed unless prosecutors deem it worthy of being brought to court.  And they have generally been loath to take up crusading cases involving distant lands. Legal experts here say that universal jurisdiction has been successfully invoked to prosecute war crimes in only two recent cases — and in both cases, the suspects were in Germany.

In the arrest Thursday, the ­Syrian man charged with war crimes was living in Germany. 

Perhaps Europe’s most advanced case against senior members of the Syrian regime is being considered in Spain. The plaintiff — a woman with Spanish nationality — alleges that her brother in Syria was detained, tortured and executed in 2013 at a government detention center.

The Spanish case emerged after the woman spotted her brother’s face among a horrific tableau of more than 50,000 postmortem photographs, which were taken at Syrian military hospitals between 2011 and mid-2013. The images were smuggled out of Syria by
a military police photographer ­later code-named Caesar. Activists working with him had posted the images on Facebook with the aim of creating a database that could aid in legal cases. 

Spanish courts have a reputation for reaching far and wide — with the most spectacular case being the 1998 arrest of Pinochet in Britain on a warrant issued by a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón. But in 2014, Spanish politicians passed a bill curbing the power of its judges to serve as enforcers of international law.

The fact that the plaintiff in the case is Spanish has offered some hope that the courts may decide to act. The case singles out nine high-ranking members of the ­Syrian intelligence apparatus as responsible for “state terrorism” and, hence, the death of the Spanish national’s brother. 

“Our aim is to have the suspects extradited to Spain,” said Toby Cadman, a British lawyer involved in the case. “As soon as an arrest warrant is issued, it will be possible to arrest them anywhere in Europe if they leave Syria.”

Although they may remain ­legal long shots, the accumulating criminal cases in Germany against the Assad government have offered some hope for victims. The process has also proved cathartic for people such as ­Rawas. 

In 2011, he recalled, he was studying mechanical engineering in Damascus when he joined the initial uprising against the Syrian government as a student organizer. After his first arrest in March of that year, he said, he was held for 10 days, severely beaten and sodomized with a pipe. 

Things got worse in December, when he was arrested again and taken to the dreaded Branch 215 detention center. Run by Syria’s military intelligence agency and known as the “Branch of Death,” the center was the source of more than 3,500 of the bodies shown in the Caesar database. Limbs had been beaten and burned. In some cases, prisoners’ eyes were gouged out.

Rawas said that rows of agents were lined up along the six flights of stairs leading to the facility, all beating the prisoners as they were led up the stairs. He recalled being beaten in the same room as two other inmates who had it much worse. He was assaulted with a pipe, while spiked sticks were used on the other men. 

“They ripped pieces of skin and flesh off of them which each hit,” he said. “Even now, I can’t get the screams out of my head.”

Torture in the detention center is systematic, according to war-crimes investigators. Female prisoners have reported being raped by guards, and cells are so crowded that prisoners stand and sleep in shifts. Rawas said he was kept with 30 other prisoners in a 13-by-6.5-foot cell. 

During one of the many beatings, he remembered focusing like the engineer he was on the instrument of his pain. 

“The agent was hitting me with a plastic pipe, made of PVC,” he said. “He just kept hitting me. He wouldn’t stop. So I started thinking about the material. About its chemistry. Anything but the pain.” 

“You can’t understand what these people have done, are still doing,” he said. “We need to do something. Anything. I hope this case succeeds.”

Noack reported from London. Louisa Loveluck in Istanbul contributed to this report.