France to try Syrian regime officials for crimes against humanity

French judges charge three senior advisers to Bashar al-Assad with complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A member of Syrian forces stands guard in front of destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, April 2, 2018
A member of Syrian forces stands guard in front of destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, April 2, 2018 [File: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]

French judges have ordered three senior members of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to stand trial for collusion in crimes against humanity over the deaths of two French Syrian men.

The order, signed last Wednesday, says the three senior al-Assad advisers are charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

They are Ali Mamlouk, head of the National Security Bureau of the Baath party, Jamil Hassan, former head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, another air force intelligence officer. France has issued international arrest warrants for the three.

The trial will be the first in France related to the Syrian regime but not the first in Europe, where Syrian refugees have drawn on the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring suspected war criminals to account.

French prosecutors believe the trio, who are not expected to show up for the trial or have lawyers represent them, are responsible for the deaths of two French Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, who were arrested in 2013.

A preliminary investigation into possible forced disappearances and acts of torture constituting crimes against humanity was launched in 2015 after the family of the two filed a complaint, which widened into a full-blown inquiry in 2016 and led to international arrest warrants two years later.

Mazzen Dabbagh, a pedagogical adviser at the French school in Damascus, and Patrick Dabbagh, who was studying in the literature and humanities faculty at Damascus University, were arrested in November 2013 by officers identifying themselves as members of the air force intelligence services.

According to Mazzen Dabbagh’s brother-in-law Obeida Dabbagh, who was also arrested but released two days later, the two were taken to Mezzeh prison, believed to be the government’s main torture centre.

They were not heard from again, and in 2018 the government declared them dead, dating Patrick’s death to 2014 and his father’s to 2017.

According to witness statements collected by French investigators and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability NGO, they were beaten with iron bars on the soles of their feet, subjected to electric shocks and had their fingernails torn out.

The French investigating judges said it “seems sufficiently established” that they were subjected to torture “so intense that it killed them”.

Their house was confiscated and later rented to Hassan, the former head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, for about 30 euros ($32) a year, a fact that makes him an accomplice to war crimes, according to the judges.

“It is a great victory for my family and for all Syrian victims, that after all these years of fighting for the truth to come out, high-level officials are finally brought to justice. I call on the French judicial authorities to organise this trial as soon as possible” said Obeida Dabbagh in a statement published by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The NGO called the indictment “a historic decision”.

While this is the first time the French judiciary prosecutes Syrian officials for serious crimes, neighbouring Germany has already brought similar cases to court.

In January of last year, a German court sentenced Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian colonel, to life in prison for crimes against humanity in the first global trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria.

Raslan, 58, was found guilty of overseeing the murder of 27 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus in 2011 and 2012.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies