Syria - Torture - Trial monitoring

Trial updates: First trial worldwide on torture in Syria

Context

ECCHR supports 17 torture survivors who gave witnesses testimony to the German Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt). Seven are joint plaintiffs in the trial and are represented by our partner lawyers.

Background

ECCHR’s work on the al-Khatib trial is part of a series of criminal complaints we and nearly 100 Syrians submitted in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway.

Updates on the trial:

On 2 July, steps away from where visitors, administrators and journalists queued to enter the court for day 16 of the al-Khatib trial, once again 122 photographs of disappeared Syrians had been placed. The photographs, which included men, women and children, were laid flat on the ground and decorated with white flowers, in memoriam. The exhibition had been organized by Caesar Families and Families for Freedom, a women-led movement mobilized against unlawful detention and disappearances.

Once inside the courtroom, visitors could still see the work of conceptual artist and activist Khaled Barakeh, who had organized an exhibition the day before (see court report day 15). Fifty figures dressed by the artist in clothing from the Syrian diaspora had been gathered as if in silent demonstration. The exhibition was an echo of anger and dismay felt about those who disappeared, their fists raised against the very crimes that the defendants who sat in the courtroom had been charged with.

The testimony of one major witness, Mr I, was featured over the course of day 16 and 17 of the al-Khatib trial. His testimony was detailed, convincing, and delivered with confidence. He worked as a guard in Branch 251 from 2011 until summer 2012.

Mr I testified that Anwar R – whom he identified in the courtroom – was present in Branch 251 through the time that the witness held his post. In painstaking detail, he took the court through a drawing he had made of Branch 251. As he described the layout of the site, again and again, the prosecutors’ and judges’ questions focused on one crucial point – the location of the detention cells in relation to the offices of Anwar R and his colleagues. The reason was clear: they were seeking to establish Anwar R’s knowledge of the torture and mistreatment in Branch 251.

Mr I described how, even from his post outside the branch buildings, he observed the mistreatment and subsequent detention of hundreds of people arriving at Branch 251. They were ushered into investigation rooms or into detention. He also described hearing them calling out in pain from the basement of the branch while they were being beaten, sobbing that they “had done nothing.”

The witness’s sketch demonstrated to the proximity of Anwar R’s office to the sites of torture. R had insisted in his recorded statement that he had no knowledge of it. In the view of many spectators, the witness’s testimony further eroded the credibility of R’s statements before the court (see court report day 5).

Testimony from the police and migration officers who had been responsible for initial interviews of Mr I was given on 3 July, day 17 of the trial. Their testimony was in keeping with Mr I’s, and lent support to the impression that I’s recollections and reflections in court were consistent with his earlier testimony.

Near the end of the session, a joint plaintiff counsel moved to hear an additional witness. The witness, who lives in Turkey, was a popular Imam who was held in Branch 251 and tortured in 2011.

In his motion, the counsel described that as the witness was being released, he saw Anwar R being scolded by his superior for his decision to detain and torture such a popular religious figure. Later, after both Anwar R and the witness had fled Syria, R called the witness to say that he was sorry “for everything that had happened” and that they were “both on the same side now.”

Hearing testimony from this witness, which would require diplomatic or technological support for German authorities, would further establish Anwar R’s knowledge and authority for the detention, treatment, and torture of those who languished and suffered in Branch 251.

The trial will continue on 6 July 2020.

They will not be silenced: this is the attitude Syrian activists protesting outside the court building in Koblenz have in common with the torture survivor who testified on day 15 of the al-Khatib trial.

In front of the courthouse: The artwork that Khaled Barakeh, conceptual artist and cultural activist from al-Golan, Syria, installed opposite a side entrance of the court is entitled “MUTE.” Fifty figures dressed in clothes belonging to Syrian activists in the diaspora “demonstrate” peacefully against the oppression, violence and crimes by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The art demonstration is supported by Adopt a Revolution, Families for Freedom, The Syrian Campaign and ECCHR.

“Artwork and legal action can complement each other. The common goal is a social process of coming to terms with torture and other crimes,” explained Andreas Schüller, head of ECCHR’s International Crimes and Accountability program, as to why ECCHR supports the project.

Barakeh’s art demonstration impacts those in courtroom 128. Judges, representatives of the German Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, lawyers for the joint plaintiffs, Anwar R and Eyad A’s defense lawyers, and almost all of the visitors stand by the windows to look at the “muted demonstrators.” The torture survivor who testifies today looks at the art after the hearing.

The 30-year-old, former hotelier and building contractor torture survivor from Sid Zaynab (10 kilometers south of Damascus), now a roofer in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, appears in court without a lawyer. After the judge informs the survivor about the formalities of the court, the Syrian begins to tremble noticeably, but quickly catches himself. He reports about the situation in his home region beginning in 2011, the Assad government’s pervasive violence, the Free Syrian Army, foreign militias, and internally displaced people, many women and children, most of them Sunni like himself. The fact that he gave shelter to the refugees put him in danger.

The witness reported that he was arrested in July 2012, and first imprisoned by the secret service in Sid Zaynab. Militiamen brutally tortured him for five days. Then he was transferred to the General Intelligence Service al-Khatib detention center, also known as Branch 251, which is at the core of this trial.

The witness testified to the drastic conditions in al-Khatib. He told the judge to imagine the mass cells as being like pig transporters or a pot of boiling noodles: filled with hundreds of naked and ill-treated people, crammed together in a very confined space. There were screams from other cells; injured people and corpses lay in the hallways. He experienced and saw much of this himself, partly hearing of it from other prisoners. Thanks to his fellow prisoners, he finally learned that he was imprisoned al-Khatib.

He was interrogated several times, but above all was beaten. It was not clear who exactly interrogated or tortured him, nor exactly when or where it happened from the witness’ statement. He mentioned Anwar R, the main accused, only in passing, and did not name Eyad A at all. The judges tried to sort out some of the contradictions to statements made to the police in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, in 2019. Nonetheless, some things remain unclear. The witness left no doubt about two points: he still suffers massively from the consequences of his imprisonment and torture, and he will not be silenced.

A cameraman took some final pictures of defendants Anwar R and Eyad A before day 13 of the al-Khatib trial kicked off in Koblenz courtroom 128. Testimony by a former Syrian General Intelligence Service employee – the first of the trial – and two Federal Criminal Police officers were planned.  It became quickly clear to those in court that the day would not go as planned.

A security guard accompanied the insider witness into the courtroom. He had slim shoulders, and was wearing a dark leather jacket and mask covering his mouth and nose: he seemed shy, maybe even frightened. Even visitors in the gallery could clearly see: he does not want to be here.

In 2015, the young Syrian fled to Germany. He studied electronic engineering and computer science in Syria – and worked in General Intelligence Service Branch 295 starting in November 2010. He worked in the central mail office and is assumed to have had access to the branch’s files, information on mass graves, and lists that the Tishreen, Mezzeh and Hamish hospitals sent to branch management. These lists documented how many and which bodies would be transported from intelligence branches and hospitals to Damascus mass graves. They listed hospital names, branch numbers, dates, and the numbers assigned to each corpse. The witness testified that it was generally known that these people would not have died from natural causes, but were killed by the secret services.

There was considerable confusion as soon as the judge began questioning the witness. Did he not understand the questions correctly? Was the translation problematic? The witness rarely seemed to answer questions at all, and avoided them, repeating himself. The judge and everyone else in the courtroom were growing impatient. Why did the witness’s testimony contradict what he told the police in previous months? Why did he now refuse to say anything concrete about the mass graves? He said he no longer remembered.

During police questioning in summer 2019, the witness said that he had seen defendant Eyad A – whom he already knew – and his unit near the mass graves. But the court could not extract any more details. The witness also stated that he had only met Eyad A once – again contradicting previous statements to the police.

The judge became indignant and the atmosphere in the courtroom changed perceptibly. She asked whether the witness was afraid. Did it have anything to do with the fact that his family – who lives in Turkey – had been threatened? Perhaps even by defendant Eyad A’s family? Shortly before the recess, the public prosecutor intervened. Did the witness understand that he was close to giving false testimony? Germany is trying to address the injustices in Syria. Does the witness understand that he has an obligation to assist Germany in this matter?

After the break, the courtroom was filled with nervous silence. Would the witness remember more now?

But he still had large gaps in his memory. On satellite pictures, he clearly identified branch buildings, intelligence service trainings camps, and the so-called martyr cemetery in Damascus. But when the public prosecutor questioned him, the witness evaded answering and contradicted himself, leading to the prosecutor snapping at him, “This is enough…You will answer this question now.”

That was all the courtroom heard from the witness: some general information about the intelligence service and the lists of the dead. The question remained: was the young man so afraid of Eyad A and his family that he did not dare testify against the defendant in court?

On the following day, the two Federal Criminal Police officers who questioned the Syrian witness in 2019 testified. Both stated that they had informed the witness of his rights and that they did not have the impression that he had any problems with the interpreters. The first officer said that the witness had not seemed frightened or insecure in any way. Both officers said that the witness provided detailed and credible information, for example on the mass graves that matched the results of their own investigations.

Lawyers for the defense and joint plaintiffs could only elicit some important details from the witness. In response to a lawyer for joint plaintiffs, the Syrian drew a sketch of the dead lists: including columns for names, hospital numbers, date of death, and delivery date of the bodies. The insider witness thereby made the Syrian intelligence services’ work eerily present in the Koblenz courtroom.

Persecution, forced disappearances and torture by the Syrian secret services: Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni has been working on these and other crimes by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for more than 30 years. But that is not the only reason he was called as an expert witness on days 11 and 12 of the al-Khatib trial – he branch 251 from his own experience, and in another Syrian prison met the main defendant Anwar R in person. In addition, in 2012, he represented filmmaker and joint plaintiff Feras Fayyad, who testified on days 10 and 11 of the trial (see day 10/11 trial report).

Al-Bunni is well-known among the Syrian exile community and all those interested in the Syrian human rights situation, so many visitors and journalists were waiting to enter the courthouse to hear his testimony. Prior to his court appearance, however, al-Bunni took few minutes to participate in a Families for Freedom  sit-in with Wafa  Mostafa, an activist whose father has been imprisoned for nearly 7 years, and his former client Fayyad,  amid portraits of 61 Syrians who Assad’s security forces have “disappeared.”

In court, al-Bunni got to the point right away: the al-Khatib trial is about much more than the crimes Anwar R and Eyad A are accused of committing. For decades, the Assad family has used arbitrary detention and torture to stay in power, he testified.

Al-Bunni was first arrested in 1978. He was detained for one week and tortured in Syrian General Intelligence Service branch 251, the very prison in which defendant Anwar R reportedly led the investigations department years later.

Al-Bunni stated that he did not meet Anwar R until 2006. At that time, he had been a lawyer for almost 20 years, representing members of the opposition and countless other government critics. On the evening of 17 May 2006, he was arrested and taken to branch 285, where Anwar R worked at the time. Fifty men were crammed into about 20 square meters, the Syrian lawyer described. At night, he heard terrible screams from other cells and the prison hallways, a clear indication that prisoners were being tortured, he recounted.

Almost exactly five years later, al-Bunni was released (from Adra prison where he had been transferred). The witness emphasized that the Assad government massively intensified its the repression and torture of alleged critics in response to the peaceful protests at the time, saying, “Before 2011, Assad’s people tried to obtain information through torture. From 2011 on, it was all about revenge. Those who demanded freedom were tortured, sometimes to death.”

Al-Bunni spoke of many details he learned from numerous clients who were held in the al-Khatib prison after 2011, where they were severely tortured before being transferred to branch 285 for further interrogation. He saw people who looked like ghosts after their release, al-Bunni said.

The judge then questioned the witness about the photos documenting the bodies of thousands of prisoners, which former Syrian military police employee “Caesar” smuggled out of the country and shared with German judicial authorities. Al-Bunni in detail explained the system of numbering corpses, which provides information about their deaths in various Syrian secret service prisons.

Day 11 of the al-Khatib trial, as expected, was also about when, where and how the witness met the main defendant Anwar R in Germany. Al-Bunni reported that their paths first crossed in Germany in fall 2014 or winter 2014/15, initially in the Marienfelde refugee camp in Berlin. Later, al-Bunni ran into Anwar R at a hardware store.

Day 12 of the trial focused on al-Bunni’s comprehensive knowledge of the Syrian security apparatus and the al-Khatib prison – the different secret services’ roles and responsibilities, individuals and subdivisions’ function in this system, geographical and spatial conditions, and different torture methods, including sexual and gender-based violence, and their long-term consequences. The witness repeatedly referred to his research and accounts of numerous clients – torture survivors and their relatives – for legal proceedings.

Some of al-Bunni’s testimony clearly conflicted aspects of Anwar R’s statement (see day 5 trial monitoring). According to al-Bunni, Sunnis (such as Anwar R) were able to have careers in the secret service careers, and some were known to treat prisoners particularly brutally. Al-Bunni rejected the assertion that in 2011, sub-division 40, led by Hafiz Makhlouf, took control of the al-Khatib prison.

The trial will continue on 24 June.

Days 10 and 11 of the al-Khatib trial were important, especially for Syrian victims and activists as a torture survivor testified for the first time. Also a first in the trial: a lot of Arabic was spoken. Feras Fayyad, a Syrian filmmaker and joint plaintiff, sat before the judges with his translator on his left and lawyer on his right. Fayyad spoke Arabic loud enough for the room to hear; his interpreter then translated into German. Finally, the numerous Syrian activists and torture survivors in the gallery could understand what was being said in the courtroom.

Fayyad spoke about his life as a student and filmmaker in Syria, and about the moment that changed everything – the beginning of protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government on 15 March 2011. Fayyad reported that he took his camera and tried to document as much as possible, especially the demonstrations. He taught others to do the same. He filmed the police arresting people, shooting demonstrators, beating them with clubs, and teargassing crowds. He was sure that the Syrian government was targeting him for his work.

In his first arrest, Fayyad was abducted by the Air Force Intelligence Service. He saw small children and dead bodies in the detention center he was brought to. Before his second arrest, a friend warned him that he was in danger of arrest. Fayyad testified that he wanted to move to Dubai and take his footage with him, but he was arrested at the airport. He was first taken to the Information Department; after a few days he was transferred to al-Khatib branch 251.

Fayyad described a so-called welcome party, during which guards violently beat new detainees upon arrival. The filmmaker was forced to strip naked. For a few days, he was incarcerated in a mass cell that was so crowded, people tried to sleep while standing. Over and over, he told the court about terrible screams and his mortal fear, people he was not sure were dead or alive. Fayyad spent most of his detention in al-Khatib in a solitary cell. A judge showed a sketch of the prison, its interrogation rooms and cells, which the witness drew during previous police questioning in Germany.

The filmmaker was interrogated at least three times in al-Khatib. He was blindfolded, but could partially recognize his surroundings, including the man who interrogated him. Back in his mass cell, Fayyad had heard the name Anwar R for the first time from other prisoners. Later, he said that he recognized Anwar R as his interrogator from photos in the media, and during police questioning in Berlin.

In court, Fayyad said that the defendant looked a little different in those days, but he was 60 to 70 percent sure that this was the man who interrogated him. He stated that he would probably be able to recognize his interrogator by his voice. But Anwar R continued to remain silent – and he would stay silent, his lawyer hurried to emphasize.

For the first time, not only reports and stories about torture in Syria were presented at court – but someone who experienced and survived this torture himself spoke out – one of the 4000 people included in Anwar R’s indictment.

The witness described beatings with hard cables and clubs on his feet and back that made him bleed, how he was hung by his hands, and sexual violence. He testified to conditions in the cells: little and often moldy food, hardly any water, inhumane hygienic conditions and no medical care. He was scared to death and almost certain that he would not leave al-Khatib alive.

Fayyad continues to feel the effects of torture: his hands and legs are in constant pain and he suffers from sleep disorders, anxiety and depression. Even now, he is afraid that the Syrian government might threaten his family, especially because of his testimony in the trial. Until now, he said, he simply tried to forget and suppress what happened to him in prison.

The filmmaker’s account was difficult for journalists and other visitors in court to listen to. This made Feras Fayyad’s message for the accused all the more astonishing: he was prepared to forgive Anwar R if he admitted to and apologized for what happened in al-Khatib – arbitrary violence and torture. But Fayyad believes that this will never happen, especially because Anwar R has denied all allegations against him.

The hearing ended at noon on 4 June. That afternoon, the trial continued with Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni’s testimony.

Like the previous day of the al-Khatib trial, day 9 was quite short. Two witnesses were scheduled to testify about their questioning of defendant Anwar R during the Baden-Württemberg Criminal Police (LKA) state security department’s investigation of international crimes in Syria. An LKA chief detective and an interpreter had been summoned but the interpreter is currently abroad, and so was unable to appear in court.

The LKA chief detective who led the interrogation testified that he interviewed Anwar R as a witness in Stuttgart on 26 October 2017 in an investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Syria. The police officer recounted that another witness had named Anwar R as a potential witness. He recalled some of the witness interview from memory, and parts of the interrogation’s record were presented to him, section by section. The reading of this record brought some new details about Anwar R’s activities in Syria to light, overviewed the accused’s career and his position in the Syrian secret service, and provided information about his escape from Syria.

The chief detective reported that Anwar R described that he witnessed war crimes, for example dead bodies being brought to branch 251, among other things. Anwar R also told the LKA that up to 750 prisoners a day were taken to the al-Khatib branch.

When asked about how interrogations were conducted in Syria, Anwar R stated that some were “severe” because it was impossible to remain polite when interrogating so many people. This seemed cynical to some present in the courtroom, in light of the picture of the tortured, dead branch 251 prisoner shown in court the day before.

Since the LKA investigation back then focused on the activities of Syrian secret service branch 320 in Hama, Anwar R was not questioned in detail about branch 251. The LKA detective testified that after the interview, he forwarded the transcript to the German Federal Criminal Police (BKA). The BKA was to look into whether there was any suspicion that Anwar R might have committed a criminal offence.

After less than two hours, the only witness of the day was released without having been sworn in. The defense objected to the admission of the police officer’s statements, and will substantiate its objection in detail later in the trial.

Day 8 of the al-Khatib trial was rather short compared to previous days of the trial. The topic was Anwar R’s 2015 questioning when he filed charges because he was convinced that he was being followed by Syrian intelligence officials in Berlin (see trial monitoring day 6). Three witnesses were called: a chief inspector from the Berlin State Criminal Police (LKA) who led the interrogation, and a chief inspector and interpreter who attended it. The latter, however, was excused due to illness.

Before the hearing, Syrian activists from The Syria Campaign, Families for Freedom and Adopt a Revolution raised public attention in front of the court building. Holding a banner saying “Assad’s Syria = torture state #SyriaNotSafe!,” the group of ten reminded passersby by about the Syrian state’s human rights violations. At the same time, they drew attention to the “No deportations to Syria!” petition to Germany’s Regional Ministers of the Interior, asking to stop deportations to Syria because of the situation there. The activists also placed 40 framed photos on the steps in front of the court – portraits of people who have been tortured, murdered, disappeared or are still imprisoned in Syrian torture prisons under Bashar al-Assad’s government.

In court, the Berlin State Criminal Police officer testified first. He spoke in detail about Anwar R’s questioning on 27 February 2015, when the main defendant was firmly convinced that he had been recognized as a deserter by the Syrian secret service in Germany. He feared he would be kidnapped by the Syrian secret service and taken to Syria. According to the interrogation’s written record, on several occasions, Anwar R felt watched and persecuted by people of seemingly Syrian origin. For example, he reported an incident with a Syrian doctor where Anwar R felt threatened when a photo was taken for his patient file. This and other incidents made the accused feel so unsafe that he finally turned to the Berlin police (for details, see trial monitoring day 6).

Reading the record of the police interrogation did not bring any new details about the defendant’s activities in Syria to light. Remarkably, however: Anwar R himself stated his role as head of branch 251’s investigations department. From the LKA officer’s perspective, there was no reliable evidence of Anwar R’s alleged persecution. Upon the officer’s request, the assessment was shared by the German Federal Intelligence Service. The Public Prosecutor’s Office then closed the case.

The second witness, the chief inspector of the Berlin State Criminal Police, also attended Anwar R’s 2015 interrogation and confirmed it followed the appropriate procedure. She shared the first witness’s assessment that Anwar R seemed to really fear being attacked by the Syrian secret service, but she assessed the actual probability of this danger as being low.

Three witnesses were summoned on the seventh day of the al-Khatib trial. They all testified about defendant Eyad A’s interview at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in August 2018.  The central question was whether this interview is admissible in the current trial.

The BKA questioned Eyad A as a witness in structural investigations about Syria, not as a suspect in a criminal investigation. Accordingly, before his interview, he was informed of his rights as a witness, not a suspect. His defense counsel objected to the testimony’s admission during preliminary proceedings, and again at the beginning of the trial. Eyad A’s arrest warrant was even withdrawn during the preliminary proceedings. However, the Federal Court of Justice decided that part of the testimony was admissible, and Eyad A remanded in custody.

The first witness, a Federal Criminal Police officer, questioned Eyad A at the time. The officer reported that Eyad A was questioned as a witness in the context of the BKA’s structural investigations on Syria, based on a tip from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Was the BKA already aware of the special significance of intelligence service branch 251, and the accused’s role? The BKA officer testified that Eyad A was informed about his rights and obligations as a witness, including the right not to incriminate himself. The other witnesses called – the interpreter and the person recording his testimony – later confirmed this.

The BKA officer recalled Eyad A’s interview from memory, and then presented the accused’s entire recorded testimony, section by section – a long and painstaking process for all present. The extent of the Syrian secret service’s systematic brutality became frighteningly clear. For example, Eyad A told the BKA about prisoners’ screams that could even be heard in the prison cafeteria, and about the arbitrary shooting of peaceful demonstrators.

The Syrian people’s suffering was made clear when one of the so-called Caesar photos was shown at the trial for the first time: the body of a man killed by the Syrian secret service, emaciated and almost entirely naked. The Syrian secret services numbered the corpses to classify them – a card was placed in the killed man’s hands showing the number 251, the identification number of the al-Khatib prison. The picture dramatically illustrates the Syrian secret services’ violence and crimes. But it is just one of the many thousands of people who have lost their lives, been tortured and disappeared in Syrian secret service prisons like al-Khatib – and a reminder of the countless people who are still suffering there.

On the sixth day of the al-Khatib trial, the Koblenz court summoned two witnesses who testified on Anwar R’s February 2015 report to the Berlin police when he felt persecuted and threatened by the Syrian intelligence service.

The first witness, a police chief inspector, only somewhat remembered the situation five years ago. She said that compared to her daily work, this report was extraordinary. Anwar R turned up at the police station accompanied by a German mediator, because he spoke neither German nor English. They showed the policewoman documents that were also shown to everyone in the Koblenz courtroom. They were several pages long, in Anwar R’s handwriting in Arabic, with a German translation.

In 2015, Anwar R reported that he felt observed, persecuted and threatened. He feared that the Syrian intelligence service found him and planned to kidnap him. This is why he sought police protection. He signed the respective document not only with his name, but also – as ECCHR partner and joint plaintiff lawyer Sebastian Scharmer explicitly pointed out – his Syrian military rank: “Syrian citizen General Anwar R.” The policewoman filed the report and forwarded it to the regional criminal investigation department in Berlin so it could take a deeper look into the matter. She did not know what happened to the report after that.

The second witness was the woman who accompanied Anwar R to the police station that day as a mediator. However, as she made clear in the beginning of her testimony, she had hardly any recollection of that day. The political scientist and Islamic studies expert, a former German embassy employee in Damascus, met Anwar R after his arrival in Germany, and they had several long conversations to document and analyze the situation in Syria.

Anwar R was introduced to her as former high-ranking intelligence service general and part of the Syrian opposition. Was she suspicious of his role as an intelligence officer? Yes, but she hoped he could give her important insights into Syria. Of course, she was aware that someone working with Syrian intelligence would likely have some connection to human rights violations. She could only speculate about his motivation to leave Syria. In 2015, Anwar R called the witness several times and asked her for help, which is why she accompanied him to the police.

The judge, public prosecutor, and lawyers for the defense and joint plaintiffs questioned her as an expert witness. Her report blatantly contrasted many of Anwar R’s claims from the day before: she said it was common knowledge that the Syrian intelligence services committed human rights violations. During her time at the German embassy in Syria, she heard of documented torture cases in intelligence headquarters, including torture methods such as the so-called German chair, beatings on the feet, and beatings that killed people. She asserted that all of these methods had been used in Syria even before 2011.

Today was the day torture survivors and plaintiffs, human rights activists from Syria, Germany and France, as well as lawyers and journalists from around the world had been waiting for. The lawyers of the al-Khatib trial’s main defendant, Anwar R, announced that the former head of investigations at branch 251 of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s General Intelligence Directorate would give a statement to the court.

The first visitors began lining up in front of the court building at 6 am, but had to be patient until after 2 pm because the proceedings first dealt with the second defendant, Eyad A. Three witnesses, employees of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, were questioned in detail about Eyad A’s asylum procedure.

After the lunch break, it was finally time: Anwar R’s lawyer Michael Böcker began to read his client’s 45-page statement. For over two hours, he took turns with his colleague Yorck Fratzky. They described Anwar R’s career in detail, including his studies, training and various career steps in the General Intelligence Directorate. The word “torture” was not uttered for the first 50 minutes. For the Syrian torture survivors in the courtroom, this presentation was unbearable to listen to. Also many journalists and others present could only shake their heads.

In essence, Anwar R’s statement argued he had done nothing wrong: it was others who mistreated and tortured prisoners. He was not able to do anything about it. He even tried to help individual prisoners. Anwar R pled innocent on all charges – including survivors’ specific allegations of torture that the prosecutors had read aloud at the trial’s beginning. Anwar R went so far as denying that any instruments or methods of torture were used at branch 251. The many pieces of evidence collected by the German Federal Criminal Police, detailed in the lead investigator’s testimony on day two of the trial, suggest the opposite.

Anwar R tried to play down his role and deny all responsibility. He stated that Tawfik Younes, head of branch 251, pressured him on several occasions, and restricted his authority in the beginning of June 2011. From then on, Anwar R claimed that he only did office work, wrote reports and conducted a few general interrogations.

Then the statement turned to why, when and how Anwar R deserted, and finally left Syria in 2012. The main defendant presented himself as a long-time supporter of the Syrian opposition. Finally, the statement named a number of people who could testify to this.

The statement was read in its entirety for over an hour and a half. After that, the fifth day of the al-Khatib trial ended very quickly. Anwar R’s statement did not clarify any issues at stake. It gave detailed explanations, but ultimately, was merely a schematic and blanket rejection of all accusations. The statement also contradicts, in part grotesquely, what has been reported for decades about the Syrian intelligence services’ system of torture. In any case, it was a slap in the face to everyone who has fought for years, even decades, to criminally address torture and other human rights crimes in Syria’s prisons, such as branch 251.

On day four of the trial, no joint plaintiffs were present in room 128 of the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, but their lawyers, the defendants and their lawyers, interpreters, as well as about a dozen journalists and other interested parties, among them students and lawyers observing the trial. Three witnesses testified about Anwar R’s entry into Germany and the following asylum procedure – however, the court focused less on the witnesses, and more on the respective authorities’ documents.

The first witness, a Berlin-based employee of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge/BAMF) was questioned about Anwar R and his family’s 2015 asylum procedure. The witness talked so quickly the Syrian interpreters and lawyers taking notes could hardly keep up, and had to ask her to speak slower several times. Anwar R’s case met the asylum conditions, and because he had a visa in his passport allowing him to stay in Germany, BAMF did not hold hearings, and granted him asylum.

Finally, she detailed Anwar R’s path to asylum in Germany – with documents the judge showed the audience using an overhead projector. Starting with the asylum application, visas and various stamps in Anwar R’s passport – including one for entry at Berlin Tegel. The documents, which had apparently been copied many times, were often hardly legible for the visitors nor the judge. She and the senate tried to decipher the text on Anwar R’s visa.

The second witness, an officer at the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt), first described what she knew of Anwar R’s role in Syria’s exile opposition. She testified that as part of the opposition delegation, Anwar R participated in the Geneva II UN peace conference on Syria in January 2014. For her, this was fundamental proof of his role in the opposition at the time.

The witness was also questioned about the background of Anwar R’s entry into Germany. She stated that she only knew from filed documents that at the time, a Syrian opposition member spoke to the Foreign Office in Anwar R’s favor. The relevant documents were shown via overhead projector, for example Anwar R’s application to the Foreign Office with details of his profession: “colonel in state security administration.”

The senate and lawyers only had a few questions for each witnesses – the first part of the day ended after only an hour and a half, followed by a long lunch break.

In the afternoon, an Immigration Authority (Ausländerbehörde) employee testified. However, her hearing was concerned very briefly with what she came to say – she only gave a short statement on Anwar R’s May 2015 re-entry application from Turkey to Germany. At the time, Turkish authorities confiscated his Syrian passport on suspicion of forgery. However, this could not be definitely answered. The testimony focused on many documents establishing Anwar R’s identity, which her office collected. Again, the judge asked that many projected pages be read out loud. And again, the passport and entry visa were shown – this time even in a legible copy.

On day three of the trial, an expert ethnologist testified before the court. She previously wrote a report for the German Federal Public Prosecutor, analyzing the political situation in Syria in 2011 and President Bashar al-Assad government’s crackdown on the opposition and protest movement in 2011 and 2012.

The expert gave an overview of political developments in Syria, particularly since independence in 1946. She reported that as early as the 1970s, Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad restricted freedom of speech and cultivated a climate of fear, including by using torture time and again. After a short phase of political liberation and reform in 2000 (The Damascus Spring), Hafiz’ son and successor Bashar al-Assad continued the (brutal) oppression of political dissidents and the opposition.

In March 2011, protests against the government increased. The situation escalated when teenagers reportedly wrote the words “The people demand the regime’s end” on a wall. They were arrested, and returned from detention with signs of torture. This event horrified and angered the entire country, leading to widespread uprisings in March 2011 – and consequently, to the Syrian civil war.

The expert traced the course of the conflict in detail, and explained the role of the four intelligence services. She gave insights into detention facility conditions and torture methods, for example sexual violence. The torture techniques were often the same as were used against the opposition in the 1970s.

The ethnologist further testified about Syria’s demographics, in particular about religious majorities and minorities (Sunnis, Alawites and Christians), social power dynamics, the military’s role, as well as the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963 according to constitution and President Assad leads.

The senate, defense lawyers and joint plaintiffs’ lawyers questioned the ethnologist. The only joint plaintiff present on this day, Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, also took the floor. He asked in Arabic (via court interpreters who translate for the defendants) to what extent the Assad government called the opposition terrorists.

After the first trial worldwide on state torture in Syria started the day before, a German Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt or BKA) officer explained how investigations of defendants Anwar R and Eyad A were initiated and the previous steps taken.

The BKA officer, whom the court summoned as a witness, reported when and how German authorities heard about Anwar R and his alleged crimes, and how the investigative team and he personally checked and verified this information for the BKA. In addition to several technical details and explanations about how cooperation with investigative authorities in France, Sweden and Norway was carried out, the witness described specifics about the concrete alleged crimes.

People in the courtroom found his account of the different torture techniques particularly distressing. In his overview of witness testimonies, the officer detailed the especially brutal torture methods used in detention branch 251.

Public interest in the trial was unwavering – also today, most seats reserved for journalists were taken. The remaining seats were given to visitors, mainly Syrians.

We will all have to be patient for a long time. ECCHR believes the trial will stretch on for years. Lawyer Patrick Kroker who represents seven joint plaintiffs in the proceedings said that it was an important step for the trial to finally be opened, and meaningful that so many affected people, activists and lawyers from Syria could attend the trial’s first two days. Just the trial’s initiation gave many in and outside Syria hope that justice will be served to all victims of the Syrian government’s torture apparatus.


On 23 April 2020, the trial against Syrians Anwar R and Eyad A started at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany. Hours before the hearing began, those affected and activists from Syria, journalists from all over the world, as well as NGO representatives and other interested parties lined up in front of the court building – they all wanted to witness and document the long-expected opening of the first trial worldwide on state torture in Syria.

Fourteen international media representatives and 15 visitors were finally allowed to enter courtroom 128 – fewer people than usual, due to COVID-19 security measures. Plexiglas walls separated defendants, joint plaintiffs, lawyers and translators; the only way to effectively prevent possible infection. Before proceedings began, the presiding judge made sure that the defendants, their lawyers and translators could communicate flawlessly via intercom.

The defendants entering court – Anwar R undisguised, Eyad A with a hood pulled down over his eyes – was agonizing, not only for those affected sitting on benches for visitors: some of the joint plaintiffs and other torture survivors pointedly turned their backs on the two men. Others were waiting for this very moment and wanted to look the defendants in the eyes.

With the words “I charge,” Senior Public Prosecutor Jasper Klinge began reading the indictment. Anwar R is charged with complicity in 4000 cases of torture, 58 murders, and cases of rape and sexual assault. Klinge lists 24 cases of torture, Syrians’ fates are read out aloud 24 times: from their arrest to transport to the prison known as branch 251, where detainees suffered inhumane conditions and were subjected to brutal “interrogations” and torture, until their release. Anwar R, as stated in the indictment, must have known about the torture and at least tacitly accepted it.

The indictment also describes the political situation in Syria, the intelligence services’ role and makes clear: the case is about these two perpetrators. However, the court will also investigate the context in which the crimes were committed. The defendants were part of a system, after all. This trial will also be about the widespread and systematic torture of “inconvenient” citizens that Bashar al-Assad’s government has ordered for years.

Anwar R plans to give a written statement in the next few days; Eyad A remains silent.

“Today, I’ve seen a fair trial for the first time. We want the truth about Syria’s torture system to come to light,” said joint plaintiff Hussein Ghar after the trial’s opening. Wassim Mukdad, also a joint plaintiff, added, “This trial is not only important for me personally, but for everyone who is still detained in Syrian prisons, and for those who did not survive them. We want justice for all.”

The trial continues the following day.

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glossary

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.
Sexual violence is defined as a violent act of a sexual nature. It is the deliberate exertion of power over another person, not an act of lust. Sexual violence is often used as a tool to systematically humiliate individuals or groups.
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.

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