German court convicts ex-Syrian agent in landmark trial

Court ruling is the first in the world related to the brutal repression of protesters by the Syrian government.

Germany Syria trial
Lawyer Patrick Kroker, centre, and co-plaintiffs Wassim Mukdad, left, and Hussein Ghrer, right, answer questions outside the German courtroom during a break in the trial against two Syrian defendants accused of state-sponsored torture [File: Thomas Lohnes/AFP]

A former Syrian intelligence service agent was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail for complicity in crimes against humanity in the world’s first court case over state-sponsored torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Eyad al-Gharib, 44, was convicted on Wednesday of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity while helping to arrest protesters and deliver them to a detention centre in Damascus in autumn 2011.

Almost 10 years since the Arab Spring reached Syria on March 15, 2011, the judgement was the first in the world related to the brutal repression of protesters by the government in Damascus.

Al-Gharib was a low-ranking member of the Syrian intelligence service.

Germany Syria trial
Syrian defendant Eyad al-Gharib arrives at court for an unprecedented trial on state-sponsored torture in Syria at court in Koblenz, western Germany [File: Thomas Lohnes/AFP]

The former colonel allegedly helped arrest at least 30 protesters and delivered them to the al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus after a rally in Duma, northeast of the capital, in the autumn of 2011.

The verdict gives hope to the 800,000 Syrians in Germany who say they were tortured in government facilities after attempts to establish an international tribunal for Syria failed.

“This is an important step forward in the process of securing accountability for the Syrian government’s systematic use of torture against civilians,” said Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative, which is representing Syrian plaintiffs.

The al-Assad government denies it tortures prisoners.

Al-Gharib’s lawyers had asked for an acquittal, saying he had carried out the arrests in and around Damascus under duress by his superiors. He had asked the court to consider him a witness in broader legal efforts against the Syrian government.

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said the unprecedented verdict would speed up efforts to bring charges against former members of the Syrian government suspected of war crimes who have fled to Europe.

“History has been made,” said al-Bunni. “The first verdict against a member of the Syrian regime’s torture and murder machine is a verdict against the whole regime, not just against one individual. It gives hope that justice is possible.”

Al-Gharib was the first of two defendants on trial since April 23 to be sentenced by the court in Koblenz, after judges decided to split the proceedings in two.

The second defendant, Anwar Raslan, 58, is accused directly of crimes against humanity, including overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others.

Raslan’s trial is expected to last until at least the end of October.

During the trial, more than a dozen Syrian men and women took the stand to testify about the appalling abuses they endured in the al-Khatib detention centre, also named “Branch 251”.

Prosecutors said they had suffered rape and sexual abuse, “electric shocks”, beatings with “fists, wires and whips” and “sleep deprivation” at the prison.

Some witnesses were heard anonymously, with their faces concealed or wearing wigs for fear of reprisals against their relatives still in Syria.

Universal jurisdiction

The two men are being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity, including war crimes and genocide, regardless of where they were committed.

Other such cases have also sprung up in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrians who have sought refuge in Europe turn to the only legal means currently available to them due to paralysis in the international justice system.

Prosecutors in Koblenz are seeking five-and-a-half years for al-Gharib, who defected in 2012 before finally fleeing Syria in February 2013.

After spending time in Turkey and then Greece, al-Gharib arrived in Germany on April 25, 2018.

He has never denied his past, and, in fact, it was his stories told to German authorities in charge of his asylum application that eventually led to his arrest in February 2019.

Prosecutors accused him of being a cog in the machine of a system where torture was practised on an “almost industrial scale”.

With attention focused mainly on Raslan during the 10 months of hearings, al-Gharib remained silent and hid his face from the cameras. He wrote a letter read out by his lawyers in which he expressed his sorrow for the victims.

And it was with tears streaming down his face that he listened to his lawyers call for his acquittal, arguing that he and his family could have been killed if he had not carried out the orders of the regime.

His defence also said he lived in fear of his superior Hafez Makhlouf, a cousin and close associate of Assad who was notorious for his brutality.

Appalling abuses

But Patrick Kroker, a lawyer representing the joint plaintiffs, argued that al-Gharib could have been more forthcoming during the trial, rather than keeping silent throughout the hearings.

People like him “can be very important in informing us about the [Syrian officials] we are really targeting, but it is something he chose not to do”, said Kroker.

The trial also marked the first time that photos from the so-called Caesar files were presented in a court of law.

The 50,000 images taken by Syrian military police defector “Caesar” show the corpses of 6,786 Syrians who had been starved or tortured to death inside the Assad government’s detention centres.

They were scrutinised during the trial by forensic scientist Markus Rothschild, whose analysis were deemed to have constituted overwhelming material evidence.

Last year, the New York Times newspaper published a report on how the Syrian government has been running a network of secret torture facilities across Syria while the country’s civil war unfolded.

The exact number of civilians detained in these prisons is unknown, but about 128,000 Syrians are either considered to be detained or dead, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Although the Syrian government has denied that it carries out systematic abuse, it has recently acknowledged the death of hundreds in detention by issuing death certificates, or “listing them as dead” in family registration files.

Today, there are nearly six million Syrian refugees who fled the war in Syria. Even as the war ends, many fear persecution upon returning and have voiced their need for a UN-sponsored safe return process.

The ongoing trial has inspired Syrian activists and NGOs across Europe to prompt their federal prosecutors to issue international arrest warrants against high-ranking members of the Syrian government.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies