Koblenz, Germany – The world’s first trial of a senior member of the Syrian military for war crimes got under way in Germany on Thursday, despite ongoing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The accused – Anwar Raslan, a former colonel in the Syrian military, and co-defendant Eyad al-Gharib, who allegedly worked under Raslan, had been living in Germany as refugees and were arrested in February last year.
Because both are in custody, German law says it is important to proceed with the case quickly in the interests of justice and an efficient legal system, a spokeswoman from the Higher Regional Court in the southwestern German city of Koblenz told Al Jazeera.
“The conditions for the trial had to be adapted to current circumstances so that the schedule could be kept,” she said.
The trial began on Thursday in Koblenz, with benches carefully spaced out in the press and public galleries.
Witnesses, lawyers and translators sat at tables separated by transparent screens.
The process started with the indictment, about 100 pages long, being read aloud due to the German legal “principle of orality”, which requires oral evidence to be given live in an open court before the accused and judges.
It included stark details of what happened to anti-government, opposition activists after they were brought to Branch 251 of military intelligence in Damascus, where Raslan supervised investigations.
Reading testimony from 24 Syrian witnesses, it took two German prosecutors almost an hour to complete a list that repeatedly recounted similar methods of interrogation and torture, including being hung in stress positions from the wrists, being beaten by metal rods and electric cables, as well as electrocution and sexual violence.
Detainees were often denied medical treatment and food, and at least 58 people died at Branch 251 during that time.
German prosecutors accuse Raslan of complicity in crimes against humanity and allege he was well aware of the torture, inhumane conditions and resulting deaths of anti-government activists at the branch.
Besides being in charge of investigations, Raslan’s office was in the same building, they said.
Witnesses who were jailed at Branch 251 said they often heard the screams of those being tortured.
The case against Raslan is based on the period between April 2011 and September 2012, when at least 4,000 prisoners were tortured at Branch 251.
Detainees were often denied medical treatment and food and at least 58 people died there during that time.
Prosecutors expect to be able to prove the case by placing both defendants at the branch over those 17 months.
“We believe that such crimes against civilians should not go unpunished,” Jasper Klinge, a senior public prosecutor from Germany’s federal supreme court, told journalists afterwards.
“Our historical responsibility means that we [Germans] must pursue this kind of case, as far as it is possible for us to do so.”
There are no jury trials in Germany and the entire case, which is expected to take up to two years, will be decided upon by five specially appointed judges.
The panel – three women and two men – is presided over by senior Koblenz judge, Anne Kerber.
On the first day of the trial, the accused and their defence lawyers had a chance to make an opening statement to the court.
But Raslan’s lawyer declined the opportunity, saying his client was preparing a written statement which would be presented in the next few days.
Al-Gharib’s lawyer made a statement, questioning the admissibility of his client’s statements to German police, in which he admitted his own guilt.
Al-Gharib is accused of rounding up at least 30 anti-government demonstrators in the autumn of 2011 and bringing them to Branch 251, where he knew they would be tortured and mistreated.
In 2018, he had been invited to give federal police a statement about this, his lawyer told the court, but was told he would be a witness in a case to do with war crimes. Al-Gharib was not told that the evidence he gave could be used against him, his lawyer argued.
The case marks the first time a high-ranking official in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s administration has been held to account in court.
Germany is using a legal principle called universal jurisdiction to trial Raslan and al-Gharib.
This allows German prosecutors to work on war crimes cases, whether they have a close connection to Germany or not.
Universal jurisdiction could result in an alternative means for the international community to bring war criminals to account.
“The trial will provide an overall picture of the crimes committed by the Syrian government,” Wolfgang Kaleck, a lawyer whose Berlin-based organisation, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, will represent 16 witnesses – Syrian survivors of torture and former detainees – said in a statement before the trial.
“This knowledge can then be used by others and in other trials, be it in Arab countries or on the international level.”
Feras Fayyad, one of the witnesses in the trial, said after proceedings ended for the day: “We need something like this to remind the people of Syria that there is justice, and there is law.
“I am 100 percent certain that this is a strong message to the al-Assad regime [and] all the other dictatorships, elsewhere in the world.”
This first session of the trial continues until Wednesday next week, before adjourning until May.