In a landmark decision, the German court on Wednesday sentenced a former member of the Syrian intelligence services to four and a half years in prison for crimes against humanity through torture and deprivation of liberty.
This is the first process in the world linked to the abuses attributed to the government of Bashar al-Assad and the civil war that erupted in the country ten years ago, in 2011.
The trial of Eyad al-Gharib, 44, began last year with that of a senior intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, 57, who allegedly carried out investigations in a branch of the Syrian Intelligence Directorate. Both had applied for asylum in Germany.
A court in the German city of Koblenz found Al-Gharib guilty of detaining at least 30 opposition activists after anti-government protests began in 2011. The court said it sent protesters to a intelligence center where he knew they would be subjected to torture. Raslan is still on trial.
Al-Gharib hid his face from the cameras with papers and heard the verdict with folded arms – the court sentence was less than the five and a half years requested by the prosecution.
Defense lawyers demanded his acquittal on the grounds that he had made the arrests in Damascus and the surrounding area under duress from his superiors.
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 Section 251. More than ten Syrian men and women testified, some anonymously with their faces hidden, or wearing wigs, for fear of reprisals against their families who are still in Syria.
Eyad al-Gharib joined the lower echelons of government intelligence, until he deserted in 2012 and fled Syria in February 2013. He arrived in Germany on April 25, 2018 after a trip during which he crossed the Turkey and Greece. He was detained in February 2019.
The prosecution said he was a cog in a system in which torture was practiced “on an almost industrial scale.”
Although Al-Gharib may have been a lower-ranking officer, the trial highlighted how the Syrian state apparatus has used torture and war crimes to quell mass protests.
“This is the first sentence that blames those responsible for torture in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote on social media, stressing the “high symbolic meaning” of the sentence.
In delivering the verdict, the president of the tribunal, Anne Kerber, mentioned that the Syrian government had carried out a “massive and systematic attack against the civilian population” at least since April 2011.
The same court will continue hearings in the case of a second suspect identified as Anwar R., a former intelligence officer accused of 58 murders in a Damascus prison, where prosecutors say at least 4,000 opposition activists have were tortured in 2011 and 2012.
The second accused, Anwar Raslan, 58, considered an important figure in the Syrian government’s security apparatus, is on trial for crimes against humanity for the deaths of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 prisoners. The ex-colonel’s process is expected to continue until October.
Prosecutors have secured a trial under Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws, which allow courts to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
“[A decisão] opens a door to hope. The existence of a verdict is even more important than the length of the sentence because it is the first step towards obtaining justice ”, declared the Syrian Wassim Mukdad, victim of torture in Al-Khatib, who testified during the trial.
Russia and China have vetoed attempts by the United Nations Security Council of Western powers to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court, leaving survivors of torture and attacks with limited options to seek justice.
The demands of the courts in Germany, Sweden and France have multiplied thanks to the Syrian diaspora which has taken refuge in Europe. The verdict gives hope to the 800,000 Syrians in Germany who say they were tortured in government facilities after failed attempts to create an international tribunal for Syria.