In order to end impunity for state torture in Syria, five Syrian torture survivors filed a criminal complaint in November 2019 in Norway. The complaint is the next step in a series of criminal complaints against 17 high-ranking officials of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government that have been submitted in Germany, Austria and Sweden. The survivors are using the principle of universal jurisdiction to hold those responsible for torture and crimes against humanity to account.
The Syrians filed the complaint together with ECCHR, the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research (SCLSR), Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the Caesar Files Group, as well as the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC).
Crimes against humanity, torture, murder and rape – these are some of the crimes that the five Syrians suffered or witnessed between May 2011 and September 2013. Because these crimes are not been addressed in Syria, the affected women and men filed their complaint in Norway. Their aim is for Norwegian authorities to investigate and issue arrest warrants. The criminal complaints are directed against 17 high-ranking officials of the Syrian intelligence services and military, who were directly involved in or ordered the crimes.
“When I fled from Syria, I was desperate. Now, I am hopeful: with this criminal complaint, we are taking the first step on a long path to justice. In Norway, we have laid a foundation to address the crimes in Syria, work that will involve many generations to come,” Witness 5, whose name is withheld for security reasons. Like the other complainants, she has lived in Norway for several years.
The complainants were imprisoned because, for example, they were involved in peaceful protests against the Assad regime, or because they provided humanitarian aid. While imprisoned, they were severely tortured in 14 different detention centers, included being suspended by their wrists, subjected to electric shocks, pulling their fingernails, and being beaten with sticks and plastic pipes.
Sweden, Germany, France, Austria and other European countries are working to legally address the grave crimes committed in Syria – Norway would be the next country to initiate investigations.
In early 2020, the first criminal trial worldwide on state torture in Syria started in Germany, following investigations by French and German authorities. Syrian torture survivors support the German proceedings as joint plaintiffs. Witnesses of similar cases, as well as photos and documents from the Caesar Files Group led to the issue of an international arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan in June 2018, who was Director of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service until July 2019.
In April 2012, Witness 1 (W1) was detained at age 22 for a total of seven months. He was knocked unconscious and taken to the Damascus "Section 40" prison. W1 was accused of instigating violence and civil disobedience. He was subjected to various forms of torture, including electric shocks, flogging, and a torturing device called the German chair – a metal chair that stretches and puts severe stress on the neck, back and limbs, sometimes causing permanent damage.
W1 was later transferred to Syrian General Intelligence Directorate Branch 251, where he stayed for four weeks, and then to Branch 248. In both branches, he was held in solitary confinement. During interrogation sessions, he was regularly tortured – beaten on the soles of his feet, dulab (forced into a vehicle tire that is often then hoisted up, and beaten on the feet or elsewhere on the body with fists, sticks, whips or cables) and shabeh (being suspended by his wrists for hours or days).
W1 was later transferred to the Al-Qabun military court, to the Hamadi civil court in Damascus, and subsequently to Adra prison, where he was released in November 2012. W1 has lived in Norway since 2014.
Witness 4 (W4) was arrested at age 25 in July 2011. He and a friend, who had been previously detained, attended demonstrations and publicly spoke out against the Syrian government. Syrian General Intelligence agents came to W4's house and asked him to accompany them. When he arrived at the General Intelligence Branch 322 in Aleppo, he handed over his belongings, was taken to an interrogation room where he was screamed at and hit several times with a stick, and accused of participating in illegal demonstrations, insulting the reputation of the state, and being involved with a religious leader in Saudi Arabia.
After one day, W4 was transferred to Criminal Security in Aleppo, where he was forced to stay in a 5x4 meter overcrowded, underground cell. There was not enough space for all detainees to sit down or sleep. There was hardly any fresh air; and detainees were reluctant to eat the food they were given, as they all had to use the cell’s one toilet.
During his six days in detention, W4 endured daily interrogation and torture sessions. He was usually handcuffed, forced to kneel, and then, for example, beaten with a stick on the soles of his feet. W4 was then brought before a judge in Aleppo. He was subsequently taken to Aleppo's central prison and released 11 days later. He was arrested a second time in November 2011, but only for several hours.
W4 left Syria in September 2013 and arrived in Norway in March 2014.
Witness 5 (W5) is 55 years old and was detained three times between November 2011 and early 2013. She owned a gym in Damascus and organized humanitarian aid with friends, especially for children suffering from the Syrian conflict. W5 was first arrested at a meeting of her humanitarian support group, together with four friends. People entered the office, put black bags over the five women's heads and took them to a detention facility.
The women stayed in an underground 3x4 meter cell, together with about 20 other women, for around 20 days. There was not enough space for everyone to sleep. There was no toilet in the cell; the women were given two bathroom breaks per day. Food was insufficient and of poor quality. Even though there was medicine available, they were denied medical treatment. Every day, W5 was brought to one of two interrogation rooms for an interrogation and torture session, including having her fingernails pulled out, flogging and shabeh. W5 saw one of her friends who was detained with her die from torture. Her body was thrown into W5's cell for an entire day.
W5 was transferred to four other detention facilities. After being tortured daily in the first two facilities, she was subsequently treated less violently due to her poor physical condition. Prison conditions were extremely poor. Despite being sick and injured, W5 was denied the medication she was carrying with her when she was detained. Her last detention was in Damascus Central Prison, where she was reunited with the three living friends who were arrested with her. W5 was released on a court order in February or March 2012.
W5 was arrested for the second time in early summer 2012, when she was called to the Criminal Intelligence Branch in Damascus under the pretext of having to sign documents for her acquittal. She was released two months later. In November 2012, she was arrested for the third time. Officers entered her house claiming they wanted to search it. They then blindfolded and detained her. She was held for three months without physical abuse.
W5 left Syria in April 2013 and arrived in Norway in December 2015.