Landmark ruling

The head of a Syrian torture prison is convicted by a Koblenz court. An interview with the lawyer Anwar al Bunni about this success on the part of the diaspora.

medico: After a trial lasting 107 days, the Koblenz Superior Regional Court sentenced Anwar Raslan, who headed the notorious torture prison "Branch 251" in Damascus until December 2012 and was accused of 4,000 cases of torture and 58 cases of murder, to a lengthy prison term in mid-January. How do you assess these court proceedings in Germany for violations of human rights in Syria?

Anwar al Bunni: The sentencing of Anwar Raslan in Koblenz is a historic event. It is the first time that a high-ranking member of the Syrian regime has been convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Torture and arrests are the Syrian regime's main instruments of repression. Since 2011, over one million Syrians have been arrested, and all those arrested are tortured. To date, 105,000 people have disappeared from detention centres. No one knows if they are still alive. The chemical weapons used in Syria cost 6,000 lives. The weapons of detention and torture have cost at least 70,000 lives. That is why the Koblenz ruling on torture is so important. It is also historic because for the first time justice is being served before a political or military solution. Until now, it has been the other way around and political circumstances have decided who is tried and who is granted amnesty for reasons of expediency. This time it is different.

More court cases in which Syrian suspects face charges are taking place. Which ones are the most important?

A trial has just commenced in Frankfurt. The accused completed his military service in the military hospital in Homs and was then reassigned to military security in Damascus. He is accused of torturing members of the opposition. Some of his victims identified him. In the summer, another trial is to take place in Germany involving a member of a Palestinian militia who fought on the side of the regime in the Yarmuk camp. The man worked at a checkpoint that controlled access to the camp. He is accused of torture and killing at least nine people. He is alleged to have inflicted gunshot wounds on over 30 people and to have raped several women in the mosque next to the checkpoint. In our capacity as lawyers, we are working with the authorities in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Sweden to initiate further trials.

You have collected testimonies. Does everyone, the victims and the perpetrators, come from the Syrian diaspora in Europe?

Either victims recognised the perpetrators or they have been otherwise discovered and victims were able to identify them from photos. We collect not only statements by witnesses, but also evidence from social media or other organisations documenting events in a way that we can use in court. We also work closely with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established by the UN, and other international institutions.

Could one say that the Syrian diaspora has its own kind of parastatal infrastructure in organisations like yours, in which despite living in exile the law prevails?

That is exactly how it is. Many Syrian organisations have documented or lobbied for convictions for crimes in the past. They are activists. But for justice, you need lawyers to secure legal evidence and to obtain legally tenable testimonies. That is why our organisation consists only of lawyers, here and in Syria. We are currently training 30 Syrian lawyers across Europe to collect evidence and document testimonies in a way that makes them legally valid in Europe.

How do you see the role of the German judiciary? Are these proceedings a new form of transnational law?

The possibility of universal jurisdiction was amended to the German Basic Law (the German constitution) in 2002. There have already been other international proceedings. Special police and judicial units have been created in Germany to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity since then. So far, however, most of the investigations by these units have not come to court for various reasons. The fact that it has now been possible for the first time to conduct a trial and bring it to a conclusion is also due to the fact that there is a very large Syrian diaspora in Germany.

Why did the perpetrators leave Syria?

We conducted a study on the Syrian diaspora that emerged in Germany after 2015 and found that 60 to 70 percent of the people did not flee because they ran into trouble with the Assad regime. Many of those who actually fled Assad often do not have the money to make it all the way to Europe. They live in Turkey or Lebanon. Most of the refugees in Europe wanted to escape military service or economic misery. We even have reports that the Assad regime has deliberately sent loyal supporters to Europe in order to have access to a loyal community of supporters here as well. Anwar Raslan, for example, who was sentenced in Koblenz, was sent here on a special mission by the regime. Perpetrators like him would never have thought that something could happen to them here. After all, the International Criminal Court (ICC) would not proceed against Syrian crimes because of the veto of Russia and China. All of the people facing charges were living in a comfortable situation. The fact that this trial took place and ended with a conviction surprised everyone, including the victims. The great significance of the Koblenz trial is also that it was not initiated by the international community, but rather the victims. The Koblenz trial is based on criminal complaints filed by about 100 Syrians in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway. There has never been anything like this before.

What do the proceedings mean for the obviously very diverse diaspora in Europe?

All those who believe in a democratic Syria are very pleased about the trials; all those who have committed crimes are now afraid. We believe that there are more than 1,000 war criminals here, not only from the regime, but also from ISIS and their armed groups. We are trying to trace all of this. The trial is also having an effect on the Syrian community, which has been living in Germany for some time and among whom there are Assad supporters. They believed the regime's propaganda as it was broadcasted through state media channels. These proceedings have shifted prevailing images and certainties. What do these trials mean for a future Syria? It is now clear that there can be no normalisation with this regime and its criminals. Now there are not only accusations charges, but legally binding convictions and sentences. These are crimes against humanity. And there will be further proceedings to confirm and uphold this.

Interview: Katja Maurer, Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa

For many years, medico international has been supporting work to shed light on violations of human rights in Syrian prisons. This also includes supporting legal assistance for people arrested in Syria and the work of the MENA Prison Forum. The latter seeks to illuminate the prison system as a systematic method of rule in the Middle East and North Africa.

Published: 29. March 2022

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