German court sentences former Syrian colonel to life in prison

The landmark ruling by a court in Koblenz sees Anwar Raslan convicted for crimes against humanity in Damascus jail a decade ago.

Syrian campaigner of the Caesar Families Association Yasmen Almashan stands outside the state court in Koblenz
Thursday's judgement marks a first step towards justice for countless Syrians who suffered abuse at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s government during the country’s years-long conflict [Bernd Lauter/AFP]

A German court has sentenced Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian colonel, to life in prison for committing crimes against humanity at a jail in Damascus a decade ago.

Thursday’s landmark ruling by the state court in Koblenz marks a first step towards justice for countless Syrians who suffered abuse at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s government during the years-long war.

“The prisoner was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, torture, aggravated deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault,” the court in Koblenz said in a press release.

It was the world’s first criminal case brought over state-led torture in Syria, and Raslan, 58, is the highest-ranking former government official to be tried for atrocities committed there.

Prosecutors had argued Raslan supervised the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 people at the Al-Khatib prison in the Syrian capital between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of at least 58 people.

Raslan served under al-Assad as mass anti-government protests against his rule were violently crushed.

He worked for 18 years in the Syrian secret services, where he rose through the ranks to become head of the domestic intelligence “investigation” service, according to a German investigator who testified at the opening of the trial.

Prosecutors say he oversaw rape and sexual abuse, “electric shocks”, beatings with “fists, wires and whips” and “sleep deprivation” at the prison.

He sought refuge in Germany in 2014, after defecting from his post and deserting Syria in 2012, and was arrested in 2019.

Raslan’s lawyers asked the Koblenz court last week to acquit their client, claiming that he never personally tortured anybody.

Prosecutors secured the trial under Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws, which allow courts to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

‘Justice can and will prevail’

Campaigners welcomed the sentencing, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) calling it a “long-awaited beacon of hope that justice can and will in the end prevail”.

“Germany’s trial against Anwar Raslan is a message to the Syrian authorities that no one is beyond the reach of justice,” Balkees Jarrah, HRW’s associate international justice director, said in a statement.

“Other countries should follow Germany’s lead, and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria,” he added.

Kristyan Benedict, a campaigns manager with Amnesty International, wrote on Twitter: “The Koblenz torture trial is the first of its kind worldwide. It won’t be the last.”

Eric Witte, a senior project manager with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which supported several witnesses in the case, told Al Jazeera that the verdict would bring a “measure of justice and solace … for some victims of systematic torture in al-Assad’s Syria”.

“This trial validates … efforts to hold the most senior official to date from the government of al-Assad to account for the torture of over 4,000 people,” he said.

Thursday’s ruling came almost a year after Eyad al-Gharib, a lower-ranking officer, was convicted by the Koblenz court of accessory to crimes against humanity.

He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

Like Raslan, he also arrived in Germany as an asylum seeker and was arrested in 2019.

Other such cases have also sprung up in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrian victims who have sought refuge in Europe turn to the only legal means currently available to them.

In another prominent case in Germany, the trial of a former Syrian doctor charged with crimes against humanity is due to open next week.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies