BERLIN — A German court issued a landmark ruling Wednesday, sentencing a former member of Syria’s intelligence services to four-and-a-half years in prison for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity through torture and the deprivation of liberty.

The trial of Eyad al-Gharib, 44, began last year, alongside that of a more senior intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, 57, who was alleged to have been head of the investigations at a branch of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate. Both had sought asylum in Germany.

A court in the German town of Koblenz found Gharib guilty of detaining at least 30 opposition activists after anti-government demonstrations began in 2011. The court said that Gharib sent the protesters to an intelligence center where he knew they would be subjected to torture. Raslan remains on trial.

Wednesday’s decision was historic: the first court case in the world over state-sponsored torture under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Since the trial began in April, there have been testimonies from torture victims and witnesses, including a guard from the al-Khatib detention center, also known as Branch 251.

While Gharib may have been a low level officer, the trial involved evidence on how the highest levels of Syria’s state apparatus used torture and war crimes to forcibly suppress mass demonstrations.

The court said it had found that the Syrian government carried out an “extensive and systematic attack on the civilian population” when the large scale street protests of the Arab Spring reached Syria.

“It’s a milestone but it’s a first step in a very long way to reach justice,” said Wassim Mukdad, who was detained in Syria in September 2011 and gave evidence in court.

He said that giving testimony felt like the first time that he told his story that felt like it could make a difference.

One of more than a dozen Syrians who took the stand, Mukdad recounted how he was blindfolded and hit with a rifle, before being loaded onto a bus and taken to Branch 251. During a total of 16 days in detention, he lost more than 37 pounds. At one point he said he was packed into a cell a little over 230-square feet with 87 others. He described the experience as “hell.”

“The brutal physical and psychological abuse had been used to force confessions, to obtain information about the opposition movement and to deter the prisoners from further protesting against the government,” the court said in a statement after the verdict. 

In Branch 251, it said, there was torture using electric shocks, beatings and severe psychological abuse to obtain forced confessions. Prisoners were denied access to sufficient food or medical care and kept in inhumane conditions, it found.

Gharib was convicted of rounding up demonstrators following a protest in the Syrian city of Douma and accompanying them by bus to Branch 251, despite knowing of the widespread abuses that happened there.

“This verdict is against a single individual and he’s been, I think correctly, referred to as a relatively small fish,” said Steve Kostas, legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, which represents Syrian victims who have given evidence at the trial. “But the evidence in the case in order to prove the crime against humanity involved demonstrating the role of the entire Syrian government intelligence agencies going up to the highest levels.”

In his closing arguments last week, Gharib’s defense lawyer began by reading a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., saying he had a dream that humanity had learned from the crimes in history, according to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights’ account of the trial.

The lawyer emphasized that Gharib helped as a witness against the other defendant, Raslan, and his behavior after his alleged crimes showed remorse: He had defected from Syria and apologized to the victims in a letter.

He also said that Gharib had to follow his superiors’ orders. Evidence presented German authorities has included documentation from the Syrian defector code-named Caesar who smuggled thousands of pictures of torture victims out of Syria. But much of the evidence against Gharib was based on his own testimony to authorities when he applied for asylum in Germany.

In an initial May 2018 asylum interview, he admitted working with Syrian intelligence but said he was a witness to abuses. In a later police interview, he admitted detaining demonstrators.

As his defense attorney spoke, Gharib wept before saying he had nothing to add.

Although some were quick to criticize what was perceived as a relatively short sentence, the decision still offers Syrian victims a new kind of hope: Sometimes, justice prevails.

“I believe that this is just one step on a long and hard road to achieving any justice for Syria and its children,” said Wafa Mustafa, a Berlin-based Syrian activist who campaigns on freeing detainees in Syria. “My most important hope and my most important message is that this is a chance for the whole world … to do more than just talk. This is a chance to save all the detainees who we can still save.”

While states can normally only prosecute crimes committed on their own territory, the case used the principle of universal jurisdiction, which is enshrined in German law and allows for the overseas trials of those accused of committing grave acts such as genocide or war crimes.

It allowed a former Syrian soldier to be convicted of war crimes in Sweden in 2017 after posing with his boot on a corpse.

The trial “shows that it’s possible with drive and perseverance and determined prosecutors for victims to have their day in court,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

“Over the last ten months, courageous survivors have provided testimony about horrific abuses committed in Syria’s ghastly archipelago of prisons,” Jarrah said in a statement. “This case not only speaks to the role of the two suspects but also lays bare the Syrian government’s systemic torture and killing of tens of thousands of people.”

Hearings in Raslan’s trial are expected to continue until at least fall this year. He is accused of crimes that took place before he defected in 2012. The trial was set in motion after a chance encounter in Berlin two years later, when Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer, recognized Raslan in his refugee center as the man who had arrested him in Damascus in 2006 before he spent five years in prison.

Dadouch reported from Beirut. Luisa Beck in Berlin also contributed to this story.