A German court on Thursday sentenced a former Syrian secret services colonel to life in prison for crimes against humanity in the world’s first trial related to abuses attributed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The Koblenz Superior Regional Court convicted Anwar Raslan, 58, of Syrian murder of 27 people and torturing thousands of prisoners in a secret al-Assad government detention center in Damascus between 2011 and 2012.
This is the second conviction in the trial, after a former Syrian intelligence officer was convicted in February 2021.
Judges found Anwar Raslan guilty of the murder of 27 people at Al-Khatib detention center, also known as Branch 251.
Nearly 11 years after the popular uprising in Syria began, this was the first trial of crimes attributed to the Syrian regime and repeatedly documented by Syrian activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
In 2016, a UN commission of inquiry accused the al-Assad regime of exterminating detainees.
Anwar Raslan, who headed the investigation department of branch 251 of the sprawling Syrian security apparatus, remained silent during the lengthy trial, which began on April 23, 2020.
This morning, he heard the verdict, translated into Arabic, without any apparent emotion, according to a report by the news agency France-Presse (AFP).
In May 2020, his lawyers read a written statement in which the former officer denied his alleged involvement in the death and torture of detainees.
Anwar Raslan repeated this statement in early January, when his interpreter read a new statement, before the court retired to deliberate.
In the first part of this trial, which is closely followed by the large Syrian community in exile, the Koblenz court sentenced Eyad al-Gharib, a former member of the intelligence services, to four and a half years in prison in February 2021.
For these cases, Germany applies the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a State to prosecute the perpetrators of the most serious crimes, regardless of their nationality or where they were committed.
At least a dozen victims watched the verdict, according to AFP.
Syrian families gathered outside the courthouse early in the morning, holding banners and placards asking “where are they?”, alluding to those who disappeared in Syrian detention centres.
More than 80 people testified in court, including 12 defectors and many victims who described the abuse they suffered in unsanitary and overcrowded cells in the secret detention center, where they were tortured with electric shocks, kicking and beatings with cables, among other abuses.
Some witnesses refused to appear in court, others were heard with their faces hidden or wearing a wig for fear of reprisals against family members still in Syria.
For the first time, photographs of “Caesar” were presented in court.
It is about a former military photographer who risked his life to flee Syria with thousands of photographs of detainees being tortured, many of them to death.
Another Syrian also testified about the mass graves in which the bodies of detainees were buried.
“I hope we have been able to give a voice to those who are deprived of one” in Syria, said Wassim Mukdad, a civilian party to the trial, quoted by AFP.
“I want justice done” without “revenge or retaliation,” he added.
In closing arguments, the prosecutor, who referred to Germany’s historic responsibility, cited a Holocaust survivor.
The conflict in Syria has already claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 people and forced 6.6 million into exile abroad.
Anwar Raslan, who was in pretrial detention for three years, made no secret of his past when he sought refuge in Berlin with his family in 2014.
Since then, his supporters have argued that he defected in 2012, and tried to spare the prisoners.
Another trial linked to the Syrian regime, that of a doctor who took refuge in Germany, is due to start next Thursday in Frankfurt.