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.


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.


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.


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.


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 The Hague. 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 five 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 (CCIL), which entered into force in 2002, enables German courts to prosecute international crimes committed in Syria. By adopting the CCIL, 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 CCIL 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 CCIL, 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 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 complaint 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.

The criminal complaints, submitted by ECCHR and the Syrian complainants, address the policy of systematic torture in prisons of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service. According to the CCIL, systematic torture is to be qualified as a war crime and a crime against humanity.
For example, the first criminal complaint targets five officials known by name and further unknown officials of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service and the Syrian Government, who bear the responsibility for the addressed crimes.

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 al-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 al-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 a person-related investigation, which will legally address the described crimes in a dignified way.
Since 2011, the Federal Public Prosecutor has been investigating the crimes committed in Syria. It was an important first step. Six years later, 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. 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.
ECCHR hopes that the investigation concerning the criminal complaints will be followed by charges and international arrest warrants against the responsible officials. These steps would also raise public awareness about the human rights violations in Syria and increase pressure on the international criminal justice to prosecute the crimes.

The criminal complaints are based on testimonies of women and men, who were imprisoned in different "branches" (prisons) 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."
For years, prisons of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service and the Syrian Military Police have served as torture centers. The witnesses, who are also co-complainants, have been imprisoned in three of these "branches" (227, 235, 215) at various times between October 2011 and July 2015 and for different periods (several days to several months). Their testimonies shed light on the crimes of torture that prisoners have been constantly exposed to. The "Caesar photos" were taken in Syria between May 2011 and August 2013. According to the "Caesar Files Group," more than half of the total 26,948 files show the bodies of detainees who died in Syrian government detention facilities. Furthermore, the metadata attached to the image files contains information on the camera model used to take the photograph. In many cases, it also indicates the serial number of the device. This information is highly valuable for the verification of the photos.
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.

ECCHR designated the crimes of torture committed in prisons of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service as the focus of the complaints for several reasons. The crimes of torture are well documented and constitute an example of Assad’s long-standing policy of systematic and violent repression against the Syrian population. This applies particularly to the brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters which started in 2011. Furthermore, the Federal Public Prosecutor has started a general investigation into the crimes of torture based on the so-called "Caesar Photographs."
The criminal complaint focuses on three crime scenes that have been used as prisons by the Military Intelligence Service. The so-called "branches" (227, 235, 215) are well-known sites of violent oppression against the prisoners.
The choice of the sites of crime should not be seen as a result of assessment of other similar prisons and Intelligence Services in Syria. The choice is solely linked to the necessity of presenting the concerned crimes in a precise manner so that they can be used for a legal evaluation.

The Office of the German Federal Prosecutor reacted promptly to the first criminal complaint in relation to systematic Torture in Syria. At beginning of May 2017, the claimants as well as other persons gave their witness testimony in Berlin and Karlsruhe. From the perspective of the torture survivors, this was an important for step to achieve justice. Furthermore, on 21 September 2017, the group around the former Syrian military police employee "Caesar" for the first time took legal action by filing together with ECCHR a criminal complaint at the Office of the German Federal Prosecutor in Karlsruhe against senior officials working for three out of the four Syrian intelligence services and military police concerning crimes against humanity and war crimes.
On the basis of the findings and evidence of the criminal complaints submitted by ECCHR as well as the structural investigation, the Federal Prosecutor can now proceed against the responsible officials of the Syrian Military Intelligence.  
ECCHR considers the findings and evidence at hand sufficient in order to identify and investigate those responsible for the grave human rights violation in Syria. They are at risk of having issued international arrest warrants and worldwide investigations against them.

There is no doubt that further legal interventions should be undertaken to ensure that all systematic and widespread human rights violations in Syria will be addressed in an appropriate way.
ECCHR has already looked into other sites of crime and other possible suspects, and plans to bring further criminal complaints in Germany. These might concern the crimes of torture committed by other bodies of the Syrian Intelligence Service or different crimes and locations, like executions in the Saydnaya prison.

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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.