In Depth

Who are the ‘Assad torturers’ on trial in Germany?

Two Syrian men are accused of crimes against humanity during civil war

Two Syrian men accused of working for the oppressive Bashar al-Assad regime have gone on trial in Germany accused of war crimes.

Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib deserted in 2012 and claimed political asylum in Germany, a process usually reserved for victims of oppression rather than those inflicting it.

However, The New York Times reports that Germany has taken the “rare step” of putting the men on trial, in a case that activists say is the “first, limited step toward justice”.

What are they alleged to have done?

Both men were members of the notoriously vicious Syrian intelligence service, which arrested, tortured and killed protesters and opposition figures, says The Guardian.

Raslan, 57, is charged with crimes against humanity, 58 murders, rape and aggravated sexual assault while working at Branch 251, a Syrian intelligence unit with its own prison in Damascus.

As a former colonel in Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, the paper says that he allegedly oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 people at the notorious al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus between April 2011 and September 2012.

Documents provided to the court include evidence that claims Raslan was in charge while prisoners were hung from their wrists, electrocuted, beaten until unconscious and subjected to a method called dulab, or wheel, where victims were forced into a vehicle tyre and then hoisted up and beaten.

These “brutal acts of psychological and physical abuse” were intended to extract “confessions and information about the opposition”, The Times reports.

Raslan is thought to have deserted from the Assad regime in 2012 after the Syrian president’s forces carried out a massacre in his home town. He sought asylum in Germany in 2014, not changing his name or hiding his identity, and was identified by other refugees, including opposition supporters and a prominent human rights lawyer.

He brought himself to the attention of German authorities in February 2015 when he walked into a Berlin police station to request protection from Syrian and Russian intelligence officers he said had been following him.

“He appeared to think there was nothing to it,” Christian Ritscher, an investigator for the German public prosecutor general in Karlsruhe, told the Suddeutsche Zeitung.

Eyad al-Gharib, 42, was a lower ranking official and is charged with 30 counts of assisting torture and murder.

When he was interviewed by German officials for his asylum application in 2018, Gharib admitted rounding up protesters and transporting them to Branch 251. He claimed to have deserted in 2012 after three of his colleagues died in fighting around Damascus, and because he was asked to kill civilians.

His knowledge of Syrian intelligence processes led to him being taken in for further questioning, initially as a witness, before being reclassified as a suspect.

The reclassification followed Gharib “revealing extremely detailed knowledge of torture methods, including the use of kettles to burn victim’s backs and the breaking of detainees’ legs with iron bars to stop them taking part in future demonstrations”, says the Guardian.

What will happen next?

Raslan and Gharib appeared at a regional court in Koblenz, in west Germany, on Thursday, facing the first trial for war crimes relating to state torture in Syria since the start of the conflict nine years ago.

In 2002, Germany introduced the legal principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, meaning that serious crimes that have happened anywhere in the world can be tried in Germany.

Germany’s federal war crimes unit received more than 2,800 tip-offs about crimes allegedly committed under the regime of Bashar al-Assad from the large number of Syrian refugees who arrived in the country between 2015 and 2017.

The trial is a milestone, says the Times, because the “International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague cannot act because Syria is not a signatory, and China and Russia have vetoed the UN’s attempts to allow the ICC or a special tribunal to proceed”.

Wolfgang Kaleck, founder of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, a Berlin-based legal group supporting the plaintiffs, said the trial was crucial to those who had survived trauma at the hands of the Syrian regime.

“This trial is the first occasion on which they are speaking out, not only in public, but before a court, about what happened to them and what is still happening in Syria. But the trial is also important for the relatives of those who died in detention or have been ‘disappeared’ and for all those still in prison,” said Kaleck.

The Berlin group supports 16 Syrian women and men in the Koblenz trial, some of whom are plaintiffs, and some who are witnesses. One is Nouran al-Ghamian, a politics student who was arrested while demonstrating and taken to al-Khatib prison in Damascus in 2011.

“There were bodies lying in the corridors covered in torture wounds that were bleeding. Every day corpses were taken away, people who died under torture or who asphyxiated in the overcrowded cells. That wasn’t a prison. It is a coffin, in which people are tortured and die each day,” she told German public broadcaster ARD.

Michael Bocker, Raslan’s lawyer, said he would submit a written statement in the days ahead, though he remained silent in court on Thursday. Gharib’s lawyer attempted to question whether his client’s earlier statements to German police, in which he admitted his guilt, should be allowed to be heard in the trial.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 60,000 people have been killed by torture or the appalling conditions in the Assad regime’s prisons, according to the Times.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “The case in Koblenz should serve as a stark warning to those who are currently committing abuses in Syria that no one is beyond the reach of justice.”

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