Syria - Torture - Military Intelligence

Torture under the Assad Regime

Germany paves the way for first Syrian cases under universal jurisdiction laws

Syria - Torture - Military Intelligence

Torture under the Assad Regime

Germany paves the way for first Syrian cases under universal jurisdiction laws

The Syrian government led by president Bashar al-Assad is responsible for systematic and widespread torture targeting opponents and activists not only as a reaction to the protests in 2011. There are currently only a few avenues left to prosecute international crimes committed in Syria. One of them is the principle of universal jurisdiction which allows the German judiciary to become active and initiate first steps towards the road to justice without citizenship of the victims or perpetrators being a prerequisite.

Case

In March 2017, ECCHR together with seven Syrian torture survivors as well as the Syrian lawyers Anwar al-Bunni (Syrian Center for Legal Researches & Studies) and Mazen Darwish (Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Speech) submitted the first criminal complaint against six high-level officials of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service to the German Federal Prosecutor. The German Federal Prosecutor responded promptly to the first criminal complaint. At the beginning of May, the claimants gave witness evidence in Berlin. From the torture survivors' perspective this was an important for step to achieve justice.

Context

The criminal complaint targets six officials known by name and further unknown officials of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service. The claimants were tortured or witnessed torture in the prisons of the intelligence services. The aim of this criminal complaint – the individual cases of which are exemplary for the system of torture under the Assad regime – is the issue of international arrest warrants and the beginning of investigations by the prosecutor's office with respect to the persons identified as responsible for the committed crimes.

Persons

Complainants' profiles: "They hit you with a cable and a kind of a pipe until you sign all of the accusations."

At the end of July 2014, W5 was arrested at a checkpoint in Damascus for her participation in peaceful demonstrations. She was detained in branch 227 for one month. Unlike other prisoners, W5 was placed in a single cell. "The interrogations took place in the corridor. During the first ten days I was repeatedly dragged out of the cell and forced to stand on one leg in the corridor for half an hour. Meanwhile I could hear how other prisoners were being tortured. It was a common practice of "psychological torture." I could hear it even from inside my cell," said W5. The chief of the prison repeatedly ordered officers to drag the prisoners out of their cells to beat them with a green pipe or a hard plastic tube or to abuse them with a cable ("fira"). On the 13th day of her detention, W5 was beaten during an interrogation with the repeated use of a hand and a hard plastic tube. She remembers that it lasted for about ten hours. W5 was allowed to use the bathroom three times a day. While there she had to stand and look at the ground. One day she heard a rattle and turned around. "There was a man lying, he was covered and the blanket was covered in blood. His face was yellow; one could only see his bones." She asked the guard, who was accompanying her to the bathroom, to allow her to give him some water. As a result the guard punished her and prohibited her to use the bathroom for two days. "Furthermore they brought that man into my cell, and I was forced to watch how they were beating him." One day W5 glanced into a large male-only cell. Later, the chief of the prison dragged her to that cell. "There were a hundred people crouching on the floor in bright light. They were emaciated and shaven, their faces were yellow." W5 saw a 15-year old boy among the men and the oldest prisoner was approximately 80 years old. After her mother paid one million Syrian pounds as a first payment for her release, W5 was first transferred to branch 235 for one month and subsequently to Adra female prison for another month. Each time, her dossier was forwarded to the relevant prison. According to this dossier, she was accused of funding terrorists, supply of weapons, and participation in combat. Finally, W5 was brought before the Counter-Terrorism Court and acquitted, after the court usher was given a second bribery payment by her mother. However, she had to return to Adra prison because the Political Security Directorate was looking for her. She saw her mother for the last time there. W5's cell in Adra prison was as big as an office desk, and it was completely dark inside. "No one interrogated me anymore. No one wanted anything from me anymore." 15 days later she was finally released at the end of November 2014.

W1 was arrested in April 2015 for the following reasons: he hosted an internal refugee in his house, distributed UN aid supplies and published a newspaper article that was critical of Assad. He was accompanying his son, who was going to Lebanon, when the border control arrested him. An employee of branch 235 (which, according to W1, is known as the "branch of death") transferred him to Damascus. "When we arrived in Damascus, I was brought to the first basement-level. There, all of my personal belongings were taken away. Then I was brought to another basement level, where I had to undress myself naked – and stay so until I was released," said W1. "I had to stand in a row with other prisoners facing the wall. I lost track of time, but I assume that I had to stand there for almost 24 hours. Every time I leaned against the wall, the guards slammed me immediately. At some point I lost consciousness." Later, he was brought into a cell. "I stayed in this cell throughout the whole period of my detention. The cell was four by eight meters in size. It was pitch-dark, one could not see anything. The stink was horrible. We were 91 men." Many prisoners were seriously ill, W1 told ECCHR. "Many had skin diseases and abscesses, but had no energy to scare away the rats that abounded in the cell and gnawed on prisoners' wounds." There was nothing to drink or to eat. "There were people dying around me. Their bodies stayed up to three days in our cell until the guards would bring them away." Beginning on the fourth day of his imprisonment, W1 was tortured with electroshocks every day until he lost consciousness. In addition, the guards slammed the back of his head using a hard object, while exposing him to electric shocks. From the ninth day of the interrogations onward, he did not see anything, did not hear anything, and did not know anything. 13 days later, he was suddenly released. "I was so weak that two guards had to bring me out of the cell. Then, they gave me a glass of sugared water and literally threw me out of the prison." He later discovered that a colleague of his wife used personal connections he had with the chief of the prison to assist with his release.

W8 was originally detained in his home town in the south-west of Syria in November 2012, after meeting three activists in a friend's flat and printing flyers about Assad's violent oppression against the population. Later, when they left the house, the police were already waiting and transferred them to the branch of the local Military Intelligence Service. W8 was detained there for ten days, threatened with a life sentence and subsequently released. In June 2013, he was arrested by a border official at the border with Lebanon, because his name was on the list of people wanted by branch 235 of the Military Intelligence Service. W8 was detained in a small border prison overnight and transferred to branch 235 in Damascus the next morning. While in detention, he was called 17/8 (Prisoner 17 from the cell no. 8), W8 told ECCHR. "The cell was located in the basement of branch 235 and was approximately seven by four meters in size. At first we were 86 prisoners, later 112. In the daytime, the prisoners were standing pressed together, in the nighttime we were sleeping on top of each other. There was always someone to suffer bruises or other injuries. Given the constant physical contact among the prisoners and the lack of air and light, skin diseases spread rapidly." W8 was tortured while being interrogated about his activities as an activist. "The guard kicked and hit me heavily, sometimes with a plastic tube. And he pushed my head against the wall." He was blindfolded throughout the entire process. W8 was forced to reveal the names of other activists, to match them with the numbers on his phone and to sign different papers without reading them beforehand. Two months later, W8 was brought before a Military Court. He explained to the judge that all of his confessions were obtained under torture. This explanation was made in vain: he was brought to a military prison in Khabun for the last night. "The conditions of this prison were even worse than those of branch 235. It was the hell," said W8. In September 2014, W8 was given a type of permission that allowed him to leave Syria within 14 days. If he returned to Syria, he would be brought back to branch 235. After that, he left his homeland.

W3 was arrested for the first time in Damascus in August 2011 and detained for two weeks. He was accused of carrying a weapon at a demonstration and passing on pictures taken at the demonstration to the TV-channel Al Jazeera. In December 2011, he was arrested for the second time for participation in a demonstration in Damascus and detained in branch 215. During the arrest he was tied with cable straps, while his t-shirt was pulled over his head so that he could hardly see anything. "After we had arrived in prison, I and another 20 prisoners were forced to go upstairs to the sixth storey. The guards, who were standing along the stairs, hit us randomly. Some guards used wooden sticks, others used belt buckles or sawn-off plastic tubes. A few guards hit us with a stun gun. Whereby my glasses fell and were trampled down by another prisoner," said W3. Then, the prisoners had to stand in the corridor facing the wall. "We were blindfolded and beaten by the guards with all kinds of objects on our backs. Almost two hours later, we were brought back to a cell. We had to undress ourselves naked there and were subsequently searched." While detained in branch 215, W3 shared his four by two meter large cell with almost 30 other prisoners. He stayed there for six days and was interrogated twice. "They hit you with a cable and a kind of a pipe until you sign all of the accusations." After 28 days of detention, W3 was transferred to a military prison in Khaboun. Two days later, he was released under the large-scale amnesty arranged by Bashar al-Assad.

Since the beginning of the revolution in Syria, W7 has been politically active, participated in demonstrations and hosted internal refugees. In December 2011, she attended a meeting with eight (of 15) members of her "Coordination Team" in a café in Damascus. Syrian security forces stormed the café, arrested W7 and other activists and brought them to branch 215. Once there, a prison guard forced her to undress herself and touched her in intimate places. "After this humiliating body search, I was brought into a cell, which was 3,5 by 6,5 meters in size. Twenty people were temporarily hosted in this cell, including a 14 year old girl with her mother as well as two 17 year old young women, who were on their own," said W7. She stayed in this cell for 33 days. During the interrogations at branch 215, W7 was insulted as a "whore" and her friend from the opposition movement was referred to as her pimp. She was accused of having had a "jihad-al-nikah" (intercourse with several men belonging to the Free Syrian Army). In addition, officers threatened to check whether or not she was a virgin, and to hang her naked in a hall full of men. Unlike her cell mates, W7 was slapped in her face only once (during her last interrogation) and was never exposed to torture with electroshocks or other instruments that were commonly used in branch 215. For a long time she could not explain this privileged treatment. "After a while I knew the reason: the officer, who had been interrogating me throughout the whole period, proposed marriage to me." 33 days later, W7 was brought to Adra prison, where she was detained for another month. Finally she was brought before a judge who found her guilty for her political activities. Her parents bribed a staff member of the court, and W7 was subsequently released.

Principles

Q&A: Legal background of the criminal complaint on Syrian torture cases filed in Germany.

Currently, there is absolute impunity in Syria, and the Assad regime is neither interested in investigating the cases of torture, nor in bringing the perpetrators and the responsible officials before a court.

Through adoption of the Rome Statute, and establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, international criminal justice was enabled to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide before the court in Den Haag. However, this option is currently not available for the crimes committed in Syria. The ICC is not authorized to start an investigation into the crimes, as Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute. At the same time, a referral to the court by the UN Security Council is currently blocked by Russia and China.

However, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (UN CoI Syria) was established in August 2011 by the Human Rights Council through resolution S-17/1 adopted at its 17th special session with a mandate to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic.

On one hand, UN CoI Syria’s investigators have been gathering evidence against all parties to the conflict for more than six years. They also work in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. On the other hand, recently established "International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011" (IIIM) is tasked with collecting, preserving, and consolidating evidence, while also preparing strong evidentiary files that can be used by prosecutors for independent criminal proceedings. The information gathered by the corroboration of the UN-Commission and the UN-Mechanism is therefore essential for future legal proceedings in national, regional, or international courts. The principle of universal jurisdiction enables domestic courts to initiate judicial proceedings and to hold perpetrators of all ranks accountable. In Germany and other European Union (EU) Member States, investigations have been brought in this regard.

Serious crimes concern international society as a whole, and must be responded to. For this reason, it is a duty of the national jurisdictions of third party states, like Germany, to investigate the serious crimes committed in Syria and to prosecute the responsible officials.

The German Code against International Crimes (CCAIL), which entered into force in 2002, enables German courts to prosecute international crimes committed in Syria. By adopting the CCAIL, Germany adapted its national criminal law to the standards set by International Criminal Law, and in particular by the Rome Statute of the ICC.

The CCAIL affirms the principle of universal jurisdiction, which constitutes the legal basis for prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes by German courts. According to the CCAIL, the Federal Public Prosecutor can investigate international crimes, even if they were committed outside of Germany. This means that jurisdiction of the courts is independent from the location of the crime as well as from its victim or perpetrator.

Since 2011, the Federal Public Prosecutor has been conducting several person-related investigations as well as a general investigation (Strukturverfahren), which addresses the overall situation in the country and goes beyond individual cases.

A criminal complaint presents an avenue in the German legal system to report an assessment of facts in form of a crime or multiple crimes. It is the task of the investigative authorities to determine the suspect responsible.

The criminal complaints submitted by Syrian torture survivors as well as ECCHR, SCM and SCLRS address the policy of systematic torture in prisons of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service. According to the Code of Crimes against International Law (CCAIL), systematic torture is to be qualified as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

For example, the first criminal complaint lists five officials known by name and further unknown officials of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service and the Syrian government as those who bear responsibility for the addressed crimes.

A criminal complaint is often the first step to initiate an investigation by the authorities of a third country. The complaints should make the Public Prosecutor aware of a certain situations or acts which from the perspective of the complainants meet criteria of a criminal offence.

Within the general investigation of the situation in Syria, the Federal Public Prosecutor has already gathered and secured evidence. However, this investigation mostly targeted the perpetrators of lower ranks. The criminal complaints submitted by ECCHR should persuade the Federal Public Prosecutor to target high-level officials of the Syrian Intelligence Service, to investigate their crimes and to issue international arrest warrants against them.

In June 2018, it was finally time: German authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service.

Arrest warrants against those responsible for systematic repression and torture under Assad would be an important signal for survivors, relatives of those affected, and those still detained in the prisons of the Assad regime.

The fact that the German Federal Prosecutor opened investigations focusing on Jamil Hassan as a specific Syrian officials concerning international crimes in Syria, and the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) issued an international arrest warrant, is a milestone and represents an important step towards ending impunity for torture in Syria.

Like Jamil Hassan, most of the high-ranking officials responsible for torture and other human rights violations in Syria still live in the country. But if they are subject to an international arrest warrant and were to travel outside Syria, they can be arrested and extradited to Germany. Germany could then file charges and open criminal proceedings.

The case of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shows that international arrest warrants against high-profile politicians and military figures are possible and effective. In 1998, the Spanish investigative judge Baltasar Garzón issued an international arrest warrant against Pinochet for genocide and other crimes. While Pinochet was visiting London, he was arrested by Scotland Yard and his extradition to Spain was approved by the then Home Secretary Jack Straw. The Chilean government negotiated that he be freed on humanitarian grounds, but Pinochet's arrest in London ultimately triggered a broader process of legal reckoning with the crimes of the dictatorship in Chile.

As president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar al-Assad is at the top of the military chain of command. He has ultimate command over acts of all security and military institutions, including the four Syrian intelligence services, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Security Bureau. President Assad thus undoubtedly bears responsibility for their crimes.

As a sitting head of state, however, al-Assad is shielded from prosecution before national courts in third countries. In Germany he is protected by the international law concept of immunity ratione personae as set out in Paragraph 20(2) of the Courts Constitution Act (GVG) and Article 25 of the German Basic Law (GG). This means that no criminal proceedings can be undertaken against him at this time. However, as part of its investigations, the German Federal Public Prosecutor is gathering evidence on potential crimes by Assad. 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 Special Tribunal.

The primary goal of submitting criminal complaints is to initiate further person-related investigations, which will legally address the described crimes in a dignified way.

The investigations initiated by the Federal Public Prosecutor in 2011 were an important first step. Seven years later, however, it is time to take further steps: the German judiciary should not focus on low-rank perpetrators, but must investigate the acts of those officials who bear the actual responsibility for the crimes. Even though those officials are still in Syria, certain steps can be taken, e.g. by issuing international arrest warrants like the one for Jamil Hassan. To take these steps, the Federal Public Prosecutor and the Courts should be given additional resources by the state. There is a growing need for educated investigators and better protection for witnesses.

The criminal complaints are based on testimonies of women and men, who were imprisoned in different 'branches' (detention facilities) of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service in Damascus, and photographical evidence accompanied with metadata that was provided by the group around the former Syrian military police employee, "Caesar."

In addition to the testimonies of the victims, photographical evidence, and metadata, numerous public documents and reports have also been used as sources for the criminal complaints. Many of the crimes committed in Syria, including the crimes of torture, have been well documented through the years by international and Syrian human rights NGOs.

Testimonies of the survivors and witnesses, official documents, as well as pictures of the victims and sites of crime, considered as a whole, demonstrate that the Syrian regime is guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In order to achieve accountability for the systematic and widespread human rights violations in Syria further legal interventions have to follow – against the Assad government, against transnational corporations, against third states involved in military intervention in the conflict as well as against organizations such as IS.

Without justice for those affected by the crimes committed in Syria, there is no prospect of a political solution. Justice for human rights crimes are essential for affected individuals. However, accountability has contributed to the prevention of other conflicts and for the development of the rule of law as well as democratic principles after the end of war in Syria.

Further fields of possible legal interventions may be exports of conventional weapons, other armaments or surveillance technologies to the conflict parties, as well as targeted sexual violence against women and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Related Topics

Related Cases

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glossary

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 sets out rights to be enjoyed by every person, regardless of sex, religion, or where they are from.
The Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor is Germany's highest prosecutory authority.
War crimes are serious breaches of international humanitarian law committed in armed conflict.
A special tribunal is an ad-hoc criminal court set up by the United Nations.
A criminal complaint provides prosecutory authorities with information on a potential crime.
A structural investigation examines a suspected criminal act but without yet looking into specific potential perpetrators.
Crimes against humanity are grave violations of international law carried out against a civilian population in a systematic or widespread way.
Universal jurisdiction allows states to prosecute crimes against international law that were committed elsewhere.

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