An unprecedented trial begins in Germany on Thursday. A former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer, charged with crimes against humanity, will face Syrian torture survivors in a courtroom in the western German city of Koblenz.
Anwar Raslan, 57, is accused of overseeing the torture of more than 4,000 prisoners, at least 58 deaths, as well as rape and sexual assault. Prosecutors allege these crimes were committed at Al-Khatib prison in Syria's capital of Damascus in 2011 and 2012, after the uprising began against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A second suspect will also be tried for aiding and abetting a crime against humanity in Syria in 2011.
Both men sought asylum in Germany in 2014 and lived openly under their own names among Syrian refugees. In February 2019, they were arrested by German police.
This is the first legal proceeding over state-sponsored torture in Syria, and it comes as Germany is cautiously lifting a lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
Masks in the courtroom
"It's not an easy job, there will be a lot of additional measures," said Wolfgang Kaleck, a German civil rights attorney and general secretary of the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.
ECCHR lawyer Patrick Kroker is representing six plaintiffs in a trial that already has 52 witnesses, according to the center.
Federal judges at the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz have signaled exceptional safety measures are likely to include mandatory masks and limits to the number of observers allowed in the court room, according to Kaleck.
Hailing the decision to start the trial despite health risks, Kaleck said: "It's an important step forward, these crimes won't go unaddressed ... and important that the people who have been indicted face trial."
ECCHR legal advocates have worked closely with Syrian lawyers and activists to document systematic torture in Syria and to show arbitrary arrests and widespread brutality was a policy to quell an uprising in 2011. The evidence gathered includes extensive eye-witness testimony from Syrian torture survivors resettled across Europe.
"I'm not sure if I can sleep the night before because I will be thinking of the trial," said Omar Alshogre, a vocal survivor and witness of Syrian prison abuse.
Alshogre is not a plaintiff in this case but he has recounted his own experience in two Syrian prisons from 2012 to 2015 to European prosecutors as well as U.S. senators.
"It is an important day for those who suffered in those prisons," he said. "It is painful and it's powerful when you are standing in front of the guy who tortured you."
"We should be excited about this moment to achieve justice for the first time," Alshogre said.
The trial in Koblenz was scheduled before the pandemic and is likely to continue for more than a year.
"It's my life now"
One key witness is Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni. He fled to Berlin in 2014 and has worked with German prosecutors and legal groups to identify Syrian witnesses and collect testimony for this and other cases. Bunni said he was himself arrested by Raslan in Syria in 2006.
"It's not work for me, it's my life now for my family and the next generation," he said. He hopes the groundbreaking trial will "encourage others to go forward in their investigations," he said.
Mohamed Amjahid, a reporter and political editor at the German newspaper Die Zeit, agrees that it is crucial to build legal cases against the Syrian regime.
"I think the most important information we can get is the testimonies of witnesses," he said.
In early April, Amjahid published a profile of Mosallam K., a Syrian torture survivor living in Germany. Arrested in 2011, he was brutally tortured at al-Khatib prison where Raslan was head of interrogations. Mosallam K. was beaten on his feet with electric cables until he could no longer walk, doused with cold water so the electric shocks would course through his naked body.
Mosallam K., a plaintiff in the case, joins almost a dozen Syrian survivors who will tell their story in court, "details that are really shocking," said Amjahid. "This is also about what cruel methods the Assad regime is still using today."
Troves of proof
The Assad regime has repeatedly denied torture and war crimes charges. But the evidence of war crimes committed by his government is overwhelming.
In 2013, a Syrian military police defector slipped out of the country with thousands of photographs on a thumb drive. The photos show emaciated and bruised corpses tagged with prison numbers. German experts have verified the images as part of a trove of evidence for the proceedings.
In addition, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent nonprofit group funded by Western governments, has been working since 2012 with Syrians on the ground to ensure Syrian government documents are collected, shipped out of the country, translated and stored. Prosecutors will use some of these documents for the trial in Germany.
So far, Syria's military ally Russia has wielded its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block an international tribunal.
German prosecutors managed to launch a criminal case in Germany's federal court using the policy of universal jurisdiction, which means a country can prosecute alleged crimes against humanity committed elsewhere.
"I see the national courts, in the short to medium term, filling a gap that certainly exists at the international level," said Steve Kostas, a London-based lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative who works on accountability for crimes in Syria. "There are a couple of NGOs that are representing victim witnesses in the case. We represent six victims."
Kostas said this case will spur other European jurisdictions to press for accountability in Syria.
"It's yet to be seen what a coalition of willing states will produce in terms of a more robust criminal justice response to the crimes committed in Syria," he said.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
For the first time, Syrian officials are going to trial to face accusations of war crimes. The trial starts tomorrow in a courtroom in Germany. It's two former Syrian officials who are charged. This is all the result of evidence gathered over years, and it happens as the Syrian regime seems to be on the verge of winning that country's long civil war. NPR's Deborah Amos has been covering this case. She joins me now.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: Who is on trial, and what exactly are they charged with?
AMOS: A former Syrian intelligence officer and an accomplice. They'll face Syrian torture survivors in a German court. The charges are crimes against humanity. There are some big ideas here - accountability, a war crimes trial in a national court, Germany, at a time when the international system of tribunals is stalled because Russia, a Syrian regime ally, has veto power at the U.N.
AMOS: Here's another big idea. German prosecutors are using the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, and that means German law allows for prosecutions of crimes against humanity, torture, even though the defendant and the plaintiffs are not German citizens.
KELLY: Fascinating. So that's the exact - what they're being charged with, crimes against humanity?
KELLY: OK. I said this is - has come about because of evidence gathered over years. How did prosecutors build this case?
AMOS: Well, I have to say that the Syrian regime has repeatedly denied all torture allegations, but the evidence is overwhelming. First, there are photographs - thousands - smuggled out of Syria by a police photographer, images of bruised and battered corpses. And they're tagged with dates and prison numbers. And then there's a trove of government documents. It was collected by Syrian activists, smuggled out to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, CIJA. It's an independent nonprofit - more than 800,000 documents.
And here's Chris Engels. He's director of investigation for CIJA. Those documents are part of the evidence in the German court.
CHRIS ENGELS: What we hope to do with the documents is demonstrate who is in charge. And those documents, I think, are quite strong. What we need to do then is tie to that proof that abuse occurred under their watch. And that's where the importance of the victim testimony comes into play.
AMOS: Now, about a dozen Syrian torture victims are plaintiffs in this case. They'll tell their story in court. They'll face the accused, who's charged with crimes against humanity. Engels says this trial is about more than one mid-level official. The documents show systematic abuse across prisons in Syria.
ENGELS: It's quite clear the responsibility for that abuse goes all the way to the top.
KELLY: Deb, it's so striking, the image that it will be about a dozen torture victims who were the plaintiffs, who will be in court facing off against the men who've been charged. It prompts me to ask about all of the other people who have been tortured in this war. There are millions of Syrian refugees all over the world. Are they watching this particular trial closely?
AMOS: I think many are, and here's one, Omar Alshogre. He's not testifying, but he survived three years in a Syrian prison.
OMAR ALSHOGRE: I'm not sure if I can sleep the night before. I'm going to be thinking about those who are going to be standing in the court. It's so hurtful and painful. And it's powerful at the same time when you stand in front of the guy who ordered torture.
KELLY: Powerful to hear that. And, Deb, just to situate this in the bigger context, in Syria, we mentioned it looks like the regime led by Bashar al-Assad, that he is going to win. Does that make this trial more significant in the sense that it's going to be one of the few vehicles for accountability?
AMOS: Look. This conflict was incredibly brutal - using starvation, torture, besieging towns, denying medical treatment. And there will be autocrats across the region watching to see if there is accountability to these tactics.
KELLY: Thank you, Deb.
AMOS: Thank you.
KELLY: NPR's Deborah Amos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.