They survived torture and detention in Syria and fled to Europe, where they now hope to obtain justice. Austrian authorities should follow the example set in Germany, Sweden and France and initiate investigations into systematic torture under Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. To help achieve this goal, on 29 May 2018, 16 women and men from Syria filed a criminal complaint with the prosecutor in Vienna. The group of torture survivors – which include an Austrian citizen and several people who were detained while still minors, and who have lived in Austria and Germany for some time – are filing the complaint together with ECCHR, the Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni (Syrian Center for Legal Research and Studies) and Mazen Darwish (Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression) as well as the Center for the Enforcement of Human Rights International (CEHRI) in Vienna.
The complaint against 24 senior officials in the Assad government is the first of its kind in Austria and follows four similar complaints under consideration by the Office of the Federal Public Prosecutor in Germany (see right). The allegations of the criminal complaint include torture as a crime against humanity and as a war crime committed by military intelligence, air force intelligence and general intelligence. The torture and other crimes described in the complaint – including murder, extermination, serious bodily harm and deprivation of liberty – were committed between February 2011 and January 2017 in 13 detention centers in Damascus, Daraa, Hama and Aleppo.
Systematic torture against civilians in armed conflicts amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Therefore, the international community needs to speak up for the absolute prohibition of torture, including in armed conflicts. Without justice for the victims there will not be a political solution to the conflict. The government of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is accountable for numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially for the systematic torture of political dissidents and activists – not only since the peaceful protests in 2011, but for decades. Those responsible for the crimes have nothing to fear; impunity in Syria is nearly absolute.