Syria - Torture - Al-Khatib trial

First criminal trial worldwide on torture in Syria before a German court

Anwar R and one of his lawyers © Nasser Husein
Anwar R and one of his lawyers © Nasser Husein

Syria - Torture - Al-Khatib trial

First criminal trial worldwide on torture in Syria before a German court

The first trial worldwide on state torture in Syria started in Germany in April 2020. The defendants: Anwar R and Eyad A, two former officials of President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus. In February 2020, the Koblenz Higher Regional Court sentenced Eyad A to four and half years in prison, and in January 2022, the conviction of Anwar R followed.

The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office charged Anwar R and Eyad A with crimes against humanity in October 2019. ECCHR supported 29 Syrian torture survivors in the so-called al-Khatib proceedings, 14 of whom were joint plaintiffs. We also published trial updates after every day of the proceedings.

Case

In January 2022, the Koblenz court for the first time convicted a senior Assad government official for crimes against humanity in Syria, Anwar R, to a life-long sentence. The court found him guilty of being the co-perpetrator of torture, 27 murders and cases of sexual violence and other crimes in the al-Khatib Branch. Already in February 2021, the court sentenced Anwar R’s associate, Eyad A, to four and a half years in prison for aiding and abetting 30 cases of crimes against humanity.

“This process in Germany gives hope, even if everything takes a long time and nothing happens tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow. The fact that it continues at all gives us as survivors hope for justice. I am ready to testify,” said a Syrian who was tortured in the al-Khatib detention facility.

Testimony from witnesses supported by ECCHR contributed to the German Federal Supreme Court issuing arrest warrants for Anwar R and Eyad A in February 2018.

Context

The trial in Koblenz is also the result of a series of criminal complaints regarding torture in Syria, which ECCHR and nearly 100 Syrian torture survivors, relatives, activists and lawyers filed since 2016 in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway.

In June 2018, the German Federal Court of Justice issued an arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, which can be enforced internationally. Hasssan headed the Syrian Air Force Intelligence until July 2019. ECCHR and its Syrian partners’ submissions to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office played an important role in that case as well.

Background

Q&A on the legal background of the case

Anwar R was allegedly head of the Investigation Unit in the General Intelligence Service’s  detention center in Damascus known as Branch 251. He is charged with being a co-perpetrator in 4000 cases of torture, 58 murders, and individual cases of sexual assault and rape. These alleged crimes took place between April 2011 and September 2012, and can be classified as crimes against humanity.

If found guilty of murder or killing as a crime against humanity, Anwar R faces a mandatory life sentence. In that case, German law allows for parole after 15 years of imprisonment. If Anwar R is found guilty of lesser charges, he faces a three to 15-year sentence.

Eyad A was employed in a subdivision that worked with Anwar R’s investigative unit. In fall 2011, he allegedly permitted the torture and deprivation of liberty of at least 30 people. He is therefore suspected of aiding and abetting a crime against humanity.

If found guilty of aiding and abetting torture as a crime against humanity, Eyad A faces two to 15 years in prison. If found guilty of lesser charges, he faces between six months and roughly 11 years.

The Syrian regime has violently suppressed activities critical of the government since at least April 2011. The Syrian secret services (Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, General Intelligence Directorate and Political Security) play an essential role. The government’s aim has been to stop the protest movement at the earliest possible stage, and intimidate the population. Anwar R and Eyad A worked for the Syrian General Intelligence Service, specifically Branch 251, which is responsible for the Damascus area.

The case is being heard before the Koblenz Higher Regional Court because Eyad A was arrested in Rhineland-Palatinate, over which the Koblenz court has jurisdiction.  Alternatively, the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office could have filed charges at the Higher Regional Court in Berlin, where Anwar R was arrested.

Since 2011, the federal public prosecutor has been investigating several people, as well as conducting a structural investigation (Strukturermittlungsverfahren) into the overall situation in Syria and go beyond individual cases. The former investigation led to the al-Khatib trial.

The trial in Koblenz is also the result of a series of criminal complaints regarding torture in Syria, which ECCHR and nearly 100 Syrian torture survivors, relatives, activists and lawyers filed jointly in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway beginning in 2016.

The al-Khatib trial in Koblenz is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. According to this principle, which was enshrined in the German Code of Crimes against International Law (CCAIL) in 2002, grave crimes like genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity do not only affect individuals and single countries, but the international community as a whole. If international legal fora are not an option for criminal prosecution, universal jurisdiction offers national proceedings as another path to justice. This allows Germany (and other states that apply the principle) to prosecute international crimes no matter who committed them, where they were committed, or who they were committed against.

Syria is not a state party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Therefore, the only way for the ICC to have jurisdiction over Syria is by referral from a UN Security Council resolution. Such a resolution has been vetoed by China and Russia, preventing the ICC or a special tribunal from taking action. This means that for the time being, the only proceedings possible outside of Syria are those that evoke the principle of universal jurisdiction in third states, or where third states can claim jurisdiction because one of their nationals was involved in a crime as a victim or perpetrator.

This is the first trial worldwide against the Syrian regime for crimes against humanity. Therefore, the al-Khatib trial is of considerable importance worldwide. As the trial will also provide an overall picture of the crimes committed by the Syrian government, it will help collect evidence and knowledge that can then be used by others and in other trials, whether on regional or international level. The trial is thus a key first step on the long road to justice for victims of state oppression in Syria. At the least, it helps make the crimes and their impact visible.

Apart from that, the criminal proceedings are crucial for survivors involved in the trial. This is the first occasion on which they are speaking out – not only in public, but before a court – about what happened to them and what is still happening in Syria. The trial is also significant for the relatives of those who died in detention or have been “disappeared,” and for everyone still in prison.

Witnesses testify in court because they have information relevant to the trial, but have not necessarily suffered the charged crimes. In the al-Khatib trial, witnesses have for example been heard who know either of the accused or could report of the general situation of repression in Syria.

A joint plaintiff is a party to the proceedings. Only those who personally suffered from one or more of the crimes charged can request to become a plaintiff. If the court decides to admit them as a plaintiff, they have certain procedural rights. Among others, they have a right to be present in the courtroom, ask questions, give statements and request the introduction of evidence.

Survivors and witnesses of human rights violations are crucial in the fight against impunity. It is key that victims’ voices are heard. If legal trials are to positively affect Syrian society and potential future transitional justice process, affected people need to gain a sense of ownership from these proceedings.

In the al-Khatib trial (and potential future trials), witness testimony can provide details about crimes they witnessed or suffered personally, give insights into command structures, identify perpetrators, and assist in establishing individual criminal liability. They can also support other ongoing investigations by providing evidence and naming other witnesses.  
Some torture survivors have joined the trial as joint plaintiffs and are therefore party to the proceedings. They have a right to be present in the courtroom, ask questions, give statements and request the introduction of evidence.

Obwohl primär die syrische Gemeinschaft von den verhandelten Verbrechen betroffen ist, war es den meisten Syrer*innen zunächst nicht möglich, das Verfahren zu verfolgen –Gerichtssprache ist deutsch. Erst auf eine vom ECCHR unterstützte Verfassungsbeschwerde erhielten zumindest akkreditierte Medienvertreter*innen Zugang zur arabischsprachigen Simultanübersetzung, die den Angeklagten sowie den Nebenkläger*innen zur Verfügung gestellt wurde. Faktisch blieben die meisten arabischsprachigen Journalist*innen aber weiterhin ausgeschlossen, da sie vorab nicht den nötigen Akkreditierungsprozess durchlaufen waren. Positiv war jedoch, dass das Gericht sowohl im Verfahren gegen Eyad A. als auch im Verfahren gegen Anwar R. die Urteilsverkündung simultan übersetzen lies.

Weiterhin bleibt zu kritisieren, dass sich das Gericht trotz mehrfacher Anträge aus der Zivilgesellschaft weigerte, Tonaufnahmen des Verfahrens anzufertigen. Diese hätten eine wichtige Quelle für die Erinnerungs-, Bildungs-, sowie Forschungsarbeit zukünftiger Generationen bilden können.

Obwohl zwangsweises Verschwindenlassen eins der emblematischsten Verbrechen ist, das das syrische Regime zur Unterdrückung der Zivilbevölkerung einsetzt, wurde dieser Tatbestand angeklagt – trotz eines dringenden Antrags der Nebenklage.

Kontrovers diskutiert wurde zudem, dass sowohl Anwar R. als auch Eyad A. nach ihrer Arbeit beim syrischen Geheimdienst desertiert waren, sich also schon selbst vom Assad-Regime abgewandt hatten, bevor sie in Deutschland vor Gericht gestellt wurden. Das Gericht hat diesen Umstand schließlich im Rahmen der Strafzumessung zugunsten der Angeklagten berücksichtigt.

ECCHR currently supports 17 torture survivors who gave witness testimony to the German Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt) prior to the trial. Seven are joint plaintiffs in the al-Khatib trial, and are represented by our partner lawyers Patrick Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer.

The trial in Koblenz is the result of years of work, including a series of criminal complaints regarding torture in Syria, which ECCHR and nearly 100 Syrian torture survivors, relatives, activists, and lawyers jointly filed beginning in 2016 in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway.

Deutschland nimmt in der Aufarbeitung der Verbrechen spätestens seit dem Al-Khatib-Verfahren vor dem Oberlandesgericht Koblenz eine wegweisende Rolle ein. Eine Woche nach der Urteilsverkündung im Fall Anwar R. eröffnete das Oberlandesgericht Frankfurt im Januar 2022 das Verfahren gegen den ehemaligen syrischen Militärarzt Alaa M. Der Grund: Dringender Verdacht der Mittäterschaft an Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit, die das syrische Regime seit 2011 begangen hat. M. soll als Arzt Menschen gefoltert, getötet und sexuell misshandelt haben. Das Verfahren, in dem ein ECCHR-Partneranwalt einen Nebenkläger vertritt, kann mehrere Jahre dauern – und es wird womöglich nicht das letzte Verfahren zu Staatsfolter in Syrien bleiben.

As head of state, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has immunity and is therefore shielded from prosecution before national courts in third countries. However, as part of investigations that led to the al-Khatib trial, the German federal public prosecutor is gathering evidence on potential crimes Assad himself committed. This information could be used in the future, for instance, when he is no longer president, or if charges are leveled against him by the International Criminal Court or a UN special tribunal.

Related Topics

Related Cases

documents

glossary

Sexual violence is defined as a violent act of a sexual nature. It is the deliberate exertion of power over another person, not an act of lust.
Crimes against humanity are grave violations of international law carried out against a civilian population in a systematic or widespread way.
The UN Convention against Torture was adopted to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The principle of universal jurisdiction provides for a state’s jurisdiction over crimes against international law even when the crimes did not occur on that state's territory.
War crimes are serious breaches of international humanitarian law committed in armed conflict.

Partners