In June 2018, it was announced that the Germany Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof – BGH) had issued an arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan, who until July 2019 was head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service. This measure is a milestone towards justice and accountability for all those affected by Assad’s torture system, particularly the 24 Syrian torture survivors and activists whose testimonies contributed to the arrest warrant.
In November 2017, ECCHR together with nine Syrian women and men as well as the lawyers and activists Anwar al-Bunni (SCLSR) and Mazen Darwish (SCM) filed a criminal complaint concerning crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria with the German Federal Public Prosecutor (Generalbundesanwalt – GBA).
The complaint is directed against ten high-ranking officials of the National Security Office and Air Force Intelligence, among them Jamil Hassan. The crimes addressed in the submission – killing, persecution, torture and sexual violence – were committed between September 2011 and June 2014 in five Air Force Intelligence branches in Damascus, Aleppo and Hama.
Torture in Air Force Intelligence detention facilities was also the subject of another criminal complaint filed by ECCHR and the group around Syrian defector “Caesar” in September 2017. In June 2020, ECCHR with a new submission stressed sexual and gender-based crimes in the Syrian detention centers.
ECCHR and its Syrian partner organizations SCLSR and SCM believe that Germany can play an important role in efforts to end impunity in Syria. The Federal Public Prosecutor uses the principle of universal jurisdiction and since 2011 investigates crimes of torture committed under Assad.
Claimants profiles: "We survived Assad's personal machinery of repression and extermination."
Witness 24 (referred to in the following text as W 24) is 30 years old and studied engineering in Damascus. As an activist, he was involved from the very beginning of the protest movement against Assad's government and was active as part of a group supporting political prisoners.
In November 2011, W24 was arrested along with three of his friends. His "offences" were: political activism, taking part in demonstrations and providing humanitarian help to internally displaced persons. W 24 spent four and a half months in various prisons belonging to the Air Force Intelligence al-Mezzeh Investigative Branch. After his release, he fled to Germany. His injuries from the torture were so severe that he will have to be operated on in Germany. W24 describes how when he arrived at the al-Mezzeh Investigative Branch, he was tortured for several hours with cables and wooden poles with nails attached at the ends. During this initial torture, the guards broke W 24's jaw. He received no medical care and could not eat for weeks. To survive, he had to rely on his fellow detainees, who would pre-chew his food for him. W 24 was tortured repeatedly.
He was regularly subjected to electric shocks. He also described to ECCHR how he was subjected to the shabeh torture method, whereby the guards tied his hands behind his back and hung him by the wrists from the ceiling. W 24 describes how he was sometimes tortured for up to ten hours. His wounds became septic and would often bleed. Once again he received no medical care. Instead he was subjected to more torture. Of the three friends who were arrested with him and brought to al-Mezzeh, W24 recognized the corpse of one of his friend in the Caesar Photographs.
W24 fled first to Egypt and then across the Mediterranean to Europe. He now lives with his wife in Germany.
Witness 20 (referred to in the following text as W 20) is a 51-year-old Kurdish man. Before his arrest, he lived in Afrin, north of Aleppo, where he worked as a taxi driver. From October 2011 onwards he took part in demonstrations against the Assad regime.
Early one morning in March 2012 as he had just finished his shift, W 20 was arrested by members of the political intelligence services. His friend, Witness 21 (see below) had been forced under torture to give W 20's name and address. After being detained in political intelligence and air force intelligence branch, among others, in Aleppo, W 20 and W 21 were flown in a freight plane, along with other detainees, from Aleppo to al-Mezzeh military airport. W 20 says that Air Force Intelligence is undoubtedly the most brutal of the four intelligence agencies in Syria. "When we were brought to the al-Mezzeh Investigative Branch we were greeted with the words: 'You are now in hell'," W 20 told ECCHR.
He spent part of his detention in a solitary cell which at times held 15 people, who would have to crouch to fit. There was no light, just a black iron door with a hatch that was opened when food was distributed. They could constantly hear the screams of other detainees. W 20 and other detainees were regularly degraded and tortured by Air Force Intelligence personnel. Guards at the al-Mezzeh Special Operations Branch used the falaqa method: W20 was forced to lie on his stomach while the guards beat the soles of his feet. On one occasion, they broke his right foot. He received no medical care for it. "Other times I would have to stretch out my arms in front of me and then they beat my arms with the green PVC pipe called the Lakhdar Brahimi," he added.
On 1 June 2013, W 20 left Syria via Turkey and now lives with his family in Germany.
Witness 21 (referred to in the following text as W 21) took part in several demonstrations in Aleppo from 2011 onwards. In February 2012, he was arrested by the political intelligence services. Under extreme torture, W 21 was forced to reveal W 20's name and to lead a group of intelligence officers and members of Assad's Shabiha militia to W 20's home.
W 21 was detained from February 2012 to June 2013, partly at the Aleppo Branch and the al-Mezzeh Investigative Branch. While at the Aleppo Branch, he once briefly saw his brother who was also detained there. At the Air Force Intelligence detention centers, both the one-person cells and the larger cells were always overcrowded. "It was unbearably cramped, there was hardly any daylight or fresh air. It was inhumane," says W 21 about the detention conditions. W 21 was tortured countless times. At the al-Mezzeh Branch he was beaten, including with water bottles, some of which had been filled with water and frozen. On several occasions, he was beaten with cables and pipes. He also told ECCHR that the guards would often use the dulab method of torture. This involved being forced to place his arms and legs in a car tire, leaving him completely vulnerable to the guard's beatings. Sometimes he was beaten over 70 times while in this position.
Alongside the physical torture, W 21 was also subjected to psychological torture. He still feels the effects of this torture in particular. While in Air Force Intelligence detention, he witnessed serious sexualized violence on several occasions. He was once present while a detainee was forced to insert a broken glass bottle into his anus, which was later violently removed by Air Force Intelligence officers. Another time, he saw and heard four naked men who were hanging from the ceiling of what was known as the "cold storage cell." The worst part of his ordeal, he says, was being forced to listen to others being tortured.
W 21 now lives in Germany with his family.
Witness 17 (referred to in the following text as W 17), aged 35, is a Sunni Muslim who lived in Damascus. In 2011, when Bashar al-Assad's government oversaw the quelling of the peaceful protests in Syria and a growing number of people were fleeing and seeking refuge within Syria, W 17 got involved in efforts to provide medical care to internally displaced Syrians in Duma, a neighborhood in northeastern Damascus. She was targeted by Assad's air intelligence service as a result of this work and was imprisoned.
W 17 was detained by Air Force Intelligence at the al-Mezzeh Special Operations Branch and the al-Mezzeh Investigation Branch. She was tortured several times. Around 15 days after she was arrested, while in the al-Mezzeh Intelligence Branch, she was blindfolded and brought to a room where, after removing her blindfold, she was forced to watch as a man she knew was being tortured. Afterwards, she was beaten until she was unconscious. When she regained consciousness, her back felt like it was broken. She was deaf in one ear for two months after this incident. And that was just the beginning, as she explained to ECCHR.
Over the next nine months, W 17 was regularly harassed, degraded and beaten. She witnessed the torture of other women and men several times. She was forced to listen to the desperate screams of the other detainees. One day, while walking towards the toilets, she saw a room with six men hanging from the ceiling, blood dripping from their bodies. When the guard noticed that W 17 had seen this, he beat her to the ground. The ground was covered in blood. This was because in many cases after the detainees were tortured, the unconscious or dead bodies were dragged across the hallway and back into the cells. W 17 also described to ECCHR the appalling conditions of detention in al-Mezzeh. For example, she explained how "one cell was in the cellar, it smelled like blood and death."
During most of her time there, she was crammed into a small cell with up to 19 other women. There were cockroaches, ants, and other insects everywhere; almost all detainees developed skin conditions such as scabies. To eat, W 17 says that the detainees were given moldy bread, halfcooked rice, and dirty tomato sauce. Basic things like accessing toilet facilities were transformed into acts of torture. Sometimes, the detainees would be beaten and humiliated as they made their way there; at other times, the corridor to the toilets would be blocked. Describing the toilet facilities, she says: "There was urine everywhere, it smelled horrible. Some of the toilets were blocked and you had to walk across urine and excrement." Once W 17 saw a guard forcing a man to eat his own excrement; and when the man refused, he was beaten.
When W 17 was released, she fled via Turkey and along the Balkan route to Germany where she has lived since early 2016.
Mazen Darwish is a Syrian human rights activist, journalist, and president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), which he set up in 2014 in Damascus. The organization documented numerous violations of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. It also worked on journalists' working conditions and assisted media professionals in disputes with the authorities. When the government refused to allow the organization to be officially registered, they went underground to continue their work.
Darwish was imprisoned several times on account of his work. One of these arrests occurred in April 2008, after Darwish and his colleagues reported on uprisings in Adra, a city near Damascus. Darwish was sentenced to ten days' imprisonment for "defamation and slander of state authority." Following the start of the peaceful mass protests against President Bashar al-Assad in the spring of 2011, the SCM began documenting the names of activists who had been imprisoned, disappeared or killed.
In 2012, he was named Journalist of the Year by Reporters without Borders. In February, Darwish and his colleagues were arrested at their offices by Air Force Intelligence. "After my arrest I was brought to various different secret military prisons, they kept taking me from one torture jail to the next," Darwish said in an interview with DIE ZEIT. He says the conditions in the torture centers are catastrophic. Aside from the lack of hygiene and cramped conditions, he also describes the torture methods, including: electric shocks, hanging detainees by the hands, beatings and sleep deprivation.
More than 70 human rights organizations campaigned for years for the release of the SCM team. The UN General Assembly and the European Parliament also called for their release. Darwish was freed in August 2015 on the condition that he appear one month later before the anti-terror court in Damascus. On 31 August 2015, the court held that the cases of Darwish and his colleagues were covered by an amnesty that had been declared in 2014. The judge also explicitly rejected the central charges of supporting terrorism.
Darwish, who has first-hand experience of the methods used and the conditions in Syrian prisons, told ECCHR that "torture was not an isolated case in Assa's prisons, it was something that was systematically used." As a key witness to the events in Syria, Darwish continues to be involved in the fight for justice in his country.
Anwar al-Bunni is a well-known Syrian human rights lawyer. He is one the founders of the Human Rights Association Syria (HRAS) and the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Reseachr (SCLSR), an organization which supports political prisoners.
As a lawyer, al-Bunni defended many human rights activists and others who were arrested and persecuted on account of their political positions in the wake of the protests in 2000 and 2001 in Damascus. Al-Bunni also became a target of repressive measures due to this work. He and members of his family were systematically threatened, persecuted and defamed by the authorities. He was debarred by the Bar Association in Damascus.
In May 2006, al-Bunni was arrested along with several other human rights activists after they signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, in which 274 Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals called for a normalization of the relations between the two states. During his pre-trial detention, al-Bunni was tortured several times. In April 2007, after proceedings that did not meet international fair trial standards, al-Bunni was convicted of "disseminating false information threatening the state." By that time, he had already spent almost one year in the infamous Adra prison in Damascus. "It's a miracle that I am still alive," al-Bunni told ECCHR. He was not held with the other political prisoners but instead with the non-political inmates. On one occasion, some detainees who were loyal to the regime tried to throw him from a second-floor balcony. He survived only thanks to the help of other detainees.
Al-Bunni was released in May 2011. He now lives in Berlin. In 2008, he received the Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. In the same year, he was also awarded the annual Human Rights Prize of the German Richterbund (Judges Association). In 2018, he was awarded the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights.
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, who was head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service until July 2019.
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.
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.