Two Syrians have been charged by German prosecutors with crimes against humanity - including torturing and killing opposition activists. It sets the stage for the first trial of suspected members of President Bashar al-Assad's infamous security services.
The two men were detained in Germany in February under its "universal jurisdiction" laws that allow it to prosecute people for crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world. A third suspect was arrested in France in a joint operation, the federal prosecutor's office in the German city of Karlsruhe said.
Prosecutors said the main suspect, identified as Anwar R under Germany's privacy rules, faces charges including 58 murders and multiple sexual assaults in a Damascus prison, where at least 4,000 opposition activists were tortured.
The 56-year-old is alleged to have overseen interrogations at the facility, and is suspected of involvement in crimes against humanity between 2011 and 2012. He allegedly led an investigative unit with its own prison in the Damascus area before leaving Syria in 2012 and arriving in Germany in July 2014.
The second suspect, Eyad A, is charged with facilitating the torture of at least 30 opposition activists arrested after intelligence agents opened fire on an anti-Assad demonstration in Douma near Damascus in autumn 2011. He is believed to have rounded up and helped capture fleeing demonstrators before handing them over to Anwar R.
Eyad A, who left Syria in 2013 and arrived in Germany in April 2018, worked for Anwar R's intelligence unit.
'The fight against impunity'
"The first trial worldwide about state torture in Syria is expected to start in Germany in early 2020," read a statement from the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. "[It is] an important step in the fight against impunity."
Both suspects had applied for asylum in Germany.
"Eyad A knew before the arrest of demonstrators of the systematic and brutal torture methods practised at the facility," the Federal Prosecutor's Office (GBA) said in a statement.
No date was set for a trial and no comment was available from the two Syrians.
Efforts to prosecute members of Assad's government have repeatedly failed, as Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Russia and China have also vetoed attempts to give the ICC a mandate to set up a special tribunal for Syria.
But human rights lawyers in Europe have been collecting testimonies from survivors among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have sought refuge, mainly in Germany and Sweden, to prosecute members of al-Assad's government.
Prosecutors outlined a system of brutal interrogations of opposition members including a variety of torture methods including "blows with fists, truncheons, pipes, cables, whips and hoses as well as electric shocks".
Prisoners were also suspended from the ceiling by their wrists and beaten, sexually assaulted, deprived of sleep and threatened with harming their loved ones.
"The systematically brutal physical and psychological mistreatment served to force confessions and extract information about the opposition movement," prosecutors said.
The ECCHR, which supports Syrian torture survivors as co-plaintiffs in legal proceedings, said 14 witnesses had participated in the German investigation.
"This process in Germany gives hope, even if everything takes a long time and nothing happens tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow," it quoted an unnamed Syrian, who was tortured in the al-Khatib detention facility where the suspects worked, as saying.
"The fact that it continues at all gives us as survivors hope for justice. I am ready to testify."
German prosecutors last year issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hussein, the head of the Syrian air force intelligence agency, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Several other legal cases are now pending against Assad's regime in Germany, which has taken in more than 1.2 million asylum seekers since 2015, including hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Syrian human rights lawyers in Germany say their goal is to collect enough evidence from survivors of torture and sexual violence, as well as from the families of victims to convince German prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for al-Assad himself.
The Syria conflict began in March 2011 with a series of mass protests demanding civil liberties, which were met with a harsh crackdown by the regime which quickly began using brutal force against anti-government protesters.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the Syrian conflict with millions more displaced.