The Syrian intelligence services, especially the military intelligence, have been collecting without cause information about political opponents, members of the opposition and human rights activists. Numerous reports from Syria indicate that the government of Bashar al-Assad uses the intercepted data in part to identify, arrest and interrogate critics. Spying in this case goes hand in hand with torture and forced confessions.
According to information from Syria, software from corporations like German firm Utimaco and their French and Italian partner firms Qosmos SA and Area SpA may have played a role in the surveillance. Legal proceedings were initiated in France and in Italy but to do date there have been no transnational investigations.
In order to close this gap, ECCHR worked with two Syrians to submit in January 2018 a criminal complaint to the German Federal Public Prosecutor (Generalbundesanwalt, GBA) in Karlsruhe against high-ranking employees of the Syrian military intelligence service, Syrian Telecom as well as Utimaco. The crimes alleged: aiding and abetting crimes against humanity and war crimes.
According to ECCHR’s information, Utimaco supported a centralized surveillance system run by Syrian Telecom – even as late as 2011 when protests against Assad’s government started. Syrian Telecom is close to the government and apparently controlled by Syrian intelligence. Utimaco partnered for this work with Italian company Area SpA and Qosmos SA from France.
According to various sources, high-ranking employees from Syrian Telecom and members of the military intelligence service passed the secretly collected information to the repressive Syrian regime. The regime apparatus used the information to carry out intimidation, abuse, torture and the killings of human rights activists and oppositionists.
The case of Utimaco/Syria is emblematic of how complex export paths for dual use products, like surveillance software, can be obstacles to efficient controls and prosecution within the EU. While economic actors operate globally, the judiciary is limited to national investigations.
The Federal Public Prosecutor did not take up investigations against Utimaco but added the information from the criminal complaint to the structural investigation underway, on the basis of the German Code of Crimes under International Law, into crimes committed in Syria.
In 2014, criminal proceedings were opened in France against Qosmos for aiding and abetting torture and crimes against humanity. In Italy, investigations were initiated against Area SpA in connection with breaches of foreign trade law.