ECCHR supports Syrian torture survivors in the al-Khatib trial at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany. Read on for regular updates on the proceedings.
مراقبة المحاكمة: المحاكمة الأولى في العالم حول التعذيب في سوريا يدعم المركز الأوروبي للحقوق الدستورية وحقوق الانسان ECCHR الناجين والناجيات السوريين من التعذيب في محاكمة الخطيب في المحكمة الإقليمية العليا في كوبلنتس- ألمانيا. ستجد أدناه تحديثات منتظمة حول الإجراءات.
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.
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:
Day 56 of the trial began with another reading of the Human Rights Watch report We’ve never seen such horror about detainees’ torture and abuse, targeted arrests and disappearances, as well as executions and mass graves.
Then the court heard testimony from a Federal Criminal Police Chief Detective. In the course of the Federal Criminal Police investigations, the witness looked at defendant Eyad A’s cellphone and corresponding memory card. On it were four photos, which the court examined: an excerpt from the family register and corresponding German translation, as well as the front and back of an identity card. The latter identified Eyad A as a General Intelligence Service employee in Branch 251.
Subsequently, the court read the translation of a letter from Eyad A. He wrote the letter by hand in reaction to the Caesar photos evidence. In it, he describes his emotional state during and after the day of the trial during which forensic pathologist Markus Rothschild testified on the Caesar photos and they were shown in the courtroom (see trial report day 41/42).
Eyad A wrote that he was pained and saddened for the victims and their relatives, and that he respected Rothschild’s important work. He did not understand how such acts could have occurred and affirmed that he had not known about the pictures. He is missing imprisoned and abducted family members himself. Full of fear, he searched for them in the pictures. He now condemns the regime. Eyad A also described how after the revolution began in spring 2011, he had been treated with suspicion within the intelligence service because of his Sunni background. Therefore, in order to protect his family and himself, he had had no other option but to obey orders and wait for a suitable opportunity to escape. The letter did not explain, however, why he joined the notorious Subdivision 40 or provide information about his high-ranking commanders, such as Anwar R.
After the letter was read, the defense explained its motion from the previous day to hear another expert witness. The Federal Public Prosecutor and lawyers for the joint plaintiffs objected.
The trial will continue on 27 January. From then on, it will be held in the Koblenz Higher Regional Courthouse’s completely remodeled Room 120.
Day 55 of the al-Khatib trial began with questioning a survivor who recounted his detention in various branches, including al-Khatib. This witness was allowed to testify anonymously because he feared for his relatives’ safety in Syria.
The witness was first arrested in 2011 in connection with a demonstration in Damascus. At the time, he was traveling with a group of activists who took part in peaceful protests against the Assad regime. Suddenly, shots were fired. People dressed as civilians dragged him and others into a minibus where they were kicked and beaten. The activists were blindfolded and their hands tied. They were taken to Subdivision 40, where they had to wait lined up against a wall. During their subsequent interrogation, the prison staff tortured them with electric shocks and other methods.
Later, the witness was taken to the al-Khatib Branch. When he was searched shortly after his arrival, the guards’ abused him so brutally that he lost consciousness. They then took him to a basement that smelled strongly of blood and alcohol to be interrogated. There the witness was repeatedly beaten, kicked and whipped with a cable.
One particularly horrible memory still torments the witness today, he said. A younger prisoner, about 15 years old, who sat with him in the minibus to Subdivision 40, was beaten on his back by the security forces with a stick spiked with nails. The witness saw the boy again in the al-Khatib interrogation basement, where he was also abused.
The witness spent the rest of his detention in a too small communal cell. People in obviously poor health were also detained there; one suffered from epilepsy. After about a week, the witness was transferred to another General Intelligence Service detention facility, where he was detained in a group cell for 21 days. He reported regular “visits” by the guards, during which they arbitrarily selected prisoners and brutally beat them – even very old people. Due to persistent screams from other cells, the witness was rarely able to sleep.
In April 2012, the witness was arrested again while working with other activists on a political project. When armed security forces stormed their office building, the activists tried to hide their work and threw their laptops and tablets out of the window, to no avail. He was taken to Subdivision 40 again, where he was interrogated twice and abused. Between interrogations, he was taken to a basement to be tortured.
The witness was then returned to al-Khatib, where he spent his first five days in a hallway and was treated “normally,” since no one knew why he had been captured. After that, he was taken to a cell with about 200 other inmates, which resembled a converted cafeteria. Following an initial interrogation, he was moved to a new cell with more than 60 people crammed into about 20 square meters. It was impossible to sit or lie down. The witness said that because of this, he “slept” standing up for three or four days. He recounted that under these conditions, people lost their minds or became sick. He had a very high fever for several days.
The witness’ account of a boy about 14 years old with whom he shared a cell was harrowing. The boy was detained when the authorities were looking for his brother. For two days, guards took the boy out of his cell every 30 minutes and beat him, mainly on the soles of his feet and legs.
The witness then located the sites of the various prisons on sketches, some of which he had drawn, and was dismissed.
The court continued reading Human Rights Watch’s report We’ve never seen such horror about the protests in Daraa and the security forces’ response, as well as the denial of medical assistance for the injured. At the end of the day, the defense initiated a discussion on convening another expert witness, but this was postponed until the following day.
On the first day of the trial after the holiday break, the presiding judge asked if Arabic-speaking journalists who need simultaneous interpretation were present. As in the weeks before, no one answered, so she said she would stop asking, since by now, everyone should know about this option. For the Arabic-speaking journalists in the gallery, the question was frustrating, as they would have liked to make use of the translation, but were denied it due to their lack of accreditation.
The witness called testified that he survived torture in the al-Khatib Branch. His descriptions were impressive and precise, and he clearly distinguished what he remembered exactly and when his memory was foggy.
The Syrian reported that when the intelligence service arrested him, he was accused of taking part in demonstrations against the Bashar al-Assad government – which was not yet true. After a stop at a location unknown to him, he was then taken to al-Khatib. Many others from his village were arrested and imprisoned on the same day. Like previous witnesses, he said that he was “greeted” in al-Khatib with beatings and locked in a small cell with many others. The conditions in detention were terrible. The food was just enough to keep prisoners from starving to death. The witness was beaten on his feet, legs and stomach. The injuries to his leg are still visible today.
The witness testified that he had heard other prisoners’ screams almost continuously. In particular, he remembered a man of about 70 years old who was tortured despite having high blood pressure. He also said he met a young boy in al-Khatib whom he had taken care of. The boy had been no older than 12 or 13 and had a gunshot wound to his leg. Despite asking for treatment several times and guards having seen his injury, the boy was denied medical care and even tortured.
After the witness was dismissed, the Office of the Federal Prosecutor requested that the trial against Eyad A be separated. The prosecutors said that they believe all necessary evidence against Eyad A will have been presented by the second half of February, and that a verdict could be reached on 24 or 25 February. The trial of the main defendant, Anwar R, would then continue.
After other statements by the prosecutors, the trial continued with the reading of the Human Rights Watch report We’ve never seen such horror. The report deals with the systematic killing and torture of civilians, especially during and after demonstrations in the city of Daraa in 2011.
The following day of the trial was significantly shorter. A chief detective was invited to report on Federal Criminal Police investigations into mass graves in Syria.
The Federal Criminal Police investigated after witness “Z 30/07/19,” who testified on day 30 and 31 of this trial (see previous trial reports), spoke about mass graves, including in al-Quteifah, during police questioning. Since this witness was able to describe the geographical location of the mass graves, the investigators were able to confirm their existence at the described location using Google Maps and Apple’s image service. On the satellite images, they could see pits about 100 meters long and an object that resembled an excavator. The police considered this confirmation that mass graves existed. With the help of additional satellite images from the German Aerospace Center, the police were also able to track changes in soil locations. The corresponding geocoordinates can still be entered on Apple, where today, one can see filled-in trenches surrounded by a wall. Multiple witnesses have also testified that there are other mass graves. Federal Criminal Police investigations into this matter are ongoing.
On day 52 of the Syria trial, a survivor testified about her time as a detainee in al-Khatib. Her lawyer requested that she be allowed to testify anonymously and partially covered by a cloth. Her testimony could endanger her family, who lives within the regime’s sphere of influence in Syria. The court granted the request and allowed her to omit information that could be used to identify her.
The witness testified that on 29 May 2012, she had merely met five friends to discuss politics and ideologies. Suddenly, a group of armed men stormed the office in Damascus where they were meeting and arrested the witness and her friends. The friends were blindfolded and she was ordered to look at the floor. They were first taken to Branch 40, where the others were tortured and beaten “in greeting.” One of her friends was tormented with electric shocks.
The next day, she was taken alone to al-Khatib (Branch 251), where she spent several weeks in a tiny cell with a pregnant prisoner. They had to sleep on lice-ridden blankets and hardly had any fresh air. They were only allowed to use the dirty toilets at certain times. On her way to the toilet, she could see other detainees’ bloody feet. She was only given food twice a day, and it was often moldy. She recounted how at night, she often heard the horrible screams of detainees who were being brutally tortured. She heard these screams all the time in Branch 251, she said.
Later, she was transferred to a communal cell with about two dozen women. The cell was stuffy, unhygienic and infested with cockroaches. The cockroaches were removed with chemicals, but the women almost suffocated from the poisonous gases.
The witness was not tortured herself, but many of her cellmates were brutally beaten. Her case was therefore special: she was aware that she had been treated less cruelly in al-Khatib than many others. She did not want to reveal why, as it would jeopardize her anonymity.
She was interrogated once while in al-Khatib, but refused to reveal any information, even when she was threatened with whippings. She testified that her interrogators were neither Anwar R nor Eyad A.
Following the witness’ testimony, the court read a statement by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office regarding a motion by Patrick Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer, ECCHR partner lawyers who represent joint plaintiffs. In the motion, they demand that sexual violence not be treated as individual cases, but as part of the crime against humanity with which the main defendant Anwar R is charged. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office did not challenge the motion and agreed that sexual violence has been, and continues to be, used systematically in Syria.
A survivor traveled all the way from Norway to testify about his torture in the al-Khatib Branch on day 51 of the trial. The witness told the court that he had severe injuries from another prison when he arrived at al-Khatib. Nevertheless, he reported that he was regularly beaten there, especially on his severely wounded back. He was continuously covered in so much blood that he began to stink, he said. In his cell, which he was forced to share with up to 400 people, he was put in the corner because his stench was so strong – and because it was so painful to be touched. He was mostly unclothed because his clothes were completely soaked in blood. The cell’s only ventilation was in the room with the toilet, so some of his fellow prisoners went to the toilet to get some air. At one point, the others knocked on the door and asked for help because he smelled so awful. Even during his interrogations, the guards could no longer stand his stench and threw him into the yard, where he was beaten and kicked by everyone who passed by. On that occasion, he had been able to observe how new prisoners were brought to al-Khatib and beaten.
During his interrogations, a higher-ranking officer complained that his office was being soiled with blood and asked the guards to continue “educating” the prisoner outside because he had not given the desired answers to the officer’s questions. This interrogator told him at some point after several interrogations that he would be transferred to a hospital.
After five or six days in the al-Khatib Branch, he was taken to a military hospital in the suburb of Harasta. The hospital did not offer respite, however; he was tortured even more severely. He was placed in a room with around 20 beds and about two prisoners chained to each bed. There he was beaten further, sometimes with a whip. At night, more guards arrived to continue the beatings. The witness said he was even tortured with a knife. More prisoners died every day. The witness was regularly unconscious. When people complained about pain in their hand, for example, it was simply chopped off.
The witness described this military “hospital” as a place where the intelligence services sent severely injured prisoners to let them die or torture them to death. Medical treatment was never provided. Finally, at some point, he was simply thrown out onto the street, where a cab driver miraculously found him alive but seriously injured and covered with flies, and returned him to his family.
His family took him to a doctor who told him there was nothing he could do for him and that he should leave the country as soon as possible. His family drove the witness to Jordan the next day, where he stayed in a special clinic for several months and underwent multiple surgeries. A picture of his back was then shown, which the Norwegian Criminal Police took when he was questioned in 2017. Six years after his torture and despite the operations, his back was covered with scars.
During his testimony, an increasingly horrified silence spread across the courtroom. By the end, even the presiding judge was at a loss for words. The hearing was interrupted for breaks several times. The prosecution, defense and joint plaintiff lawyers waived asking the witness additional questions in order not to burden him further.
Contrary to expectations, day 50 of the trial continued as planned with all judges present. The week before, one judge was suspected of having contracted COVID-19. This turned out not to be the case, so a survivor who was detained in the al-Khatib branch in 2011 was able to testify. The man worked as a doctor in Syria and was arrested under false pretenses in August 2011.
Once in al-Khatib, the witness was forced to undress. His feet were beaten with cables during several interrogations. For the first few days, he was detained in a single cell without windows. This had the “advantage” that he could lie down, but it felt like he was in a tomb. Later, he was placed in a communal cell. Like other former prisoners, he reported disastrous conditions. His cell was often so crowded, with up to 40 detainees, that there was no room to lie down. Many had to sleep sitting up. He described a special sleeping position the detainees had used to take up the least room possible.
He reported that most of the prisoners’ wounds were left untreated. Lice had spread everywhere. His feet were so swollen by the beatings that standing and walking was painful. He was threatened and told that he would not be able to have any more children. Other detainees’ loud screams could be heard throughout the prison. The witness also lost 10 to 12 kilograms during his imprisonment, as there was not enough food. His family never received an official confirmation of his detention. After al-Khatib, he was transferred to two other prisons before he was finally released.
After the witness testified, the defense filed a motion to submit evidence – a handwriting expert’s confirmation that the defendant Eyad A wrote a specific letter to his defense attorneys. In the letter, Eyad A gave his opinion on the Caesar photos introduced into the trial in November 2020. He described that the pictures of the dead had stunned him, and moved him to tears on the way back to his German prison. He thanked Caesar, who had become a hero by making the photos public. Eyad A wrote that in 2011, in light of the revolution and regime’s crimes, he was faced with the choice of directly refusing orders, which would have resulted in his certain death. He could have fled the country immediately, but would have had to leave his family behind. He wrote that to protect his family, he decided to wait until the opportunity arose to flee together in 2012. He asked the judges how much it mattered that he wanted to protect his family, not just in his case, but for all future soldiers in whose country a revolution breaks out and face the same decision. He thanked the judges, prosecutors, his defense lawyers, and especially the witnesses who testified about the Syrian state’s crimes of torture, as well as those who continue to persevere in Syria with the hope of democracy and peace, and continue to expose themselves to a regime that tortures people.
His letter did not mention his own role, however. According to the indictment, as a senior official of subdivision 40, he is charged with being responsible for arresting many people and deliberately taking them to a department in al-Khatib that tortured and murdered detainees.
His defense lawyers asserted that Eyad A wrote this letter without their assistance. However, when the presiding judge asked if the defendant could confirm that he wrote the letter, the defense counsel stated that Eyad A would continue to remain silent. The Federal Public Prosecutor replied that for a comparative graphological expert opinion, one would ultimately need comparative material, which is not available.
Days 48 and 49 of the Syria trial, the Koblenz Higher Regional Court heard testimony from a deserted secret service employee. At first, the witness seemed nervous and answered questions evasively. The longer the questioning lasted, however, the more relaxed he seemed.
It soon became clear that the witness had extensive knowledge about the Syrian General Intelligence Service. He reported that he had worked in various of its departments for 30 years. From 2011, when the protests against the Syrian regime began, until he deserted and fled to Germany, he worked in the secret service’s administration. Therefore, he is familiar with the al-Khatib torture prison. The judges asked him share his insider knowledge with the court.
The witness named the decision-makers who headed al-Khatib in 2011 and 2012: head of the branch Major General Taufiq Younis and head of its interrogation department Colonel Anwar R. Anwar R’s task was to gather information “in any way possible.” However, important decisions (such as those regarding mass arrests) were made by Colonel Hafiz Makhlouf, who the witness described as “Assad’s administrator,” and was the head of intelligence at the General Secret Service Damascus branch. Taleb Hassan from the Alawite minority assisted Anwar R in organizing and conducting interrogations. An important point for the witness was that, at least since the revolution broke out, the Assad government only trusted Alawites. A person’s religious affiliation was greatly important to the regime.
The witness then shared his deep insights into the General Intelligence Service’s administrative apparatus. Other secret service departments sent documents to the General Intelligence’s administration where they were digitalized and entered into databases. Many of the documents were about torture and deaths. The witness described a typical interrogation order. If superiors made “suggestions for extended information retrieval” in the order, it was an order to torture the detainee – all secret service employees knew that. Beginning in March 2011, the number of these orders increased. The witness said he repeatedly saw torture orders from Brach 251 signed by Anwar R. In addition, the secret service departments sent the administration “death registers,” which listed the deceased prisoners. They received lists with dozens of daily. As a rule, the cause of death was omitted.
The man convincingly described his own fear. Anwar R had questioned him after he refused to participate in suppressing demonstrations. Later, he was arrested on several occasions for brief periods and also tortured. During the revolutionary years, the witness said “everything inside us was broken.” To this day, he remains intensely fearful of the Syrian regime, even in Germany.
While testifying, the witness repeatedly warned that his appearance in court could have dire consequences for his family in Syria. His family had already been threatened by regime loyalists, and told to prevent him from testifying in Koblenz. Many of his friends have felt “the regime’s revenge.” The witness also expressed concern for his own safety. The presiding judge acknowledged the difficult situation, but saw no way around his obligation to testify. She repeatedly reminded him to give truthful and complete testimony.
On the morning of 3 December, day 50 of the trial, the COVID-19 pandemic caught up to the court. A joint plaintiff’s planned hearing could not take place because a judge had to go into quarantine.
On day 46 of the Syria trial at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, a witness testified who had been imprisoned twice in the al-Khatib Branch. At the beginning of his testimony, his lawyer petitioned for him to remain anonymous and testify with his face partially covered. She said the witness feared for his family who was still in Syria. The court granted the petition, as his testimony could potentially endanger his family.
The witness told the court he was first arrested in March 2011 near Damascus because he participated in a demonstration against the Assad government. Guards brutally hit him, then brought him to al-Khatib, where he was received with a notorious “welcome party” customary in Syrian intelligence prisons: he was repeatedly hit in the face with a wooden club. This caused him to go temporarily blind in one eye, loose several teeth, and break several ribs, which resulted in difficulty breathing.
Then the witness was taken to a crowded, stuffy community cell. A paramedic examined him later, after which he was taken to a hospital. The guards accompanying him loudly insulted him; other patients spit at him. A physician gave him a prescription, but one the guards tore it up on the way back to the prison.
The next day, he was blindfolded and taken to an interrogation – but through a gap in the blindfold, he could see his surroundings. The officer who interrogated him accused him of being part of a terrorist organization. When the witness answered sarcastically, the officer repeatedly hit him on the face and rammed his knee in the witness’ stomach. The presiding judge asked the witness if he could identify the man who treated him like that. The witness pointed at Anwar R on the defendants’ bench. The main defendant listened to the accusation stone-faced; whispers could be heard among the public.
The witness reported that he had been interrogated and tortured three times during his imprisonment – the third time, he admitted to having participated in the demonstration. He was forced to sign a document saying he would not participate in future protests. Around a week after his arrest, he was let go.
A year later, in April 2012, security forces arrested the witness and took him to al-Khatib a second time. He was again subjected to a “welcome party,” merciless interrogations and horrible hygienic conditions. The cell he stayed in day and night with around 350 other prisoners was filthy. The only supply of fresh air was through a gap under the door. His fellow prisoners’ wounds were infected almost immediately, some festered and others teemed with maggots. The witness clearly remembered an injured man who died in the cell after weeks of agony. The other detainees had repeatedly asked the guards to provide the man with medical care – in vain. Instead, they were forced to place the man next to the filthy toilet and let him die there.
The witness described how fellow detainees had lost their minds under these conditions: being forced to stand for days on end, injured, tortured, deprived of sleep. After several weeks, the witness was beaten again by intelligence staff, then locked in a dark room. A couple of days later, they interrogated him again in al-Khatib. He was then taken to other detention facilities.
It was especially distressing to those in the courtroom to hear the witness describe the acute throughts of suicide he developed during his imprisonment. He recounted that he has recovered physically, but still suffers from sleeping disorders and traumatic memories. It was important for the trial that he was able to identify Anwar R in a series of eight pictures shown to him during a previous interview by the German Federal Criminal Police.
The next day, the defense lawyers questioned the witness about his testimony in France. They said on one of several occasions, he was shown photos. Could he now clarify that he recognized Anwar R in one of those pictures? The witness was uncertain, but earlier, the public prosecutors stated that Anwar R’s photos were only given to the French police after they interviewed this witness.
The lawyers for the joint plaintiffs then asked several questions about the witness’ first detention in al-Khatib. He was asked to give details on his first interrogation there, in order to compare them with Anwar R’s testimony.
Day 45 of the al-Khatib trial focused on the testimony of a survivor and joint plaintiff. The woman worked as a math teacher in Syria, and was imprisoned by the regime five times starting in 2011. The court concentrated mainly on her first two detentions. Supported by her counsel, ECCHR partner lawyer Patrick Kroker, she testified thoroughly and calmly.
The witness was first arrested in Damascus in November 2011. She and other demonstrators saw an intelligence service officer beat a young adult, and wanted to help him. Officers took her to a police station, where she and the six other detainees were forced to lie on the ground and beaten. She was then transferred to a criminal security department, a judge released her three days later.
The second arrest took place in February 2012. The witness was in her apartment sorting medicines that were to be taken to Homs, when about 20 secret service agents broke into her home. The witness, her two sisters and brother were arrested and taken to the al-Khatib Branch where she was interrogated for three days. Two people questioned her about the medicines and her alleged membership in a political movement. On the third day, she was transferred to General Intelligence Service Branch 285 where she spent another 21 days.
The witness vividly detailed how she constantly heard young men’s screams and saw their emaciated bodies as they walked through the hallways in both prisons. In Branch 285, she also became an eyewitness to “welcome parties,” where prison guards would beat and kick new inmates, and knock their heads against the wall. She did not see any corpses in the cells or hallways. Once, she saw through her cell window how four employees carried away a dead body wrapped in a blanket – it bore obvious traces of torture and was emaciated. Another time, she saw armed prison workers gather. Later she learned that a large demonstration had taken place that day. She therefore assumed that these employees had snuffed out the demonstration.
The witness testified that she was not tortured, but that on the way to and from interrogations and toilet visits, guards repeatedly beat her with clubs and bare hands. Al-Khatib’s hygienic and sanitary conditions were poor. She was once given a sedative upon request, but was refused sanitary pads for menstruation.
Many prisoners told her about sexual violence in the prisons. Upon arrival in Branch 251, she was searched by a Red Crescent nurse. When she had undressed for the search, a prison employee tried to enter the room. The nurse pushed him back, saying that the witness “was on her period,” but he still saw her naked. One of the guards in Branch 251 who led her to interrogations harassed her and touched her breasts several times.
Insults, also with sexual connotations, were a daily occurrence. The witness noted that she was never addressed by name during her imprisonment, only by derogatory terms such as “prostitute.” She reported threats of rape, also to her sisters and brother. When asked by the presiding judge, the witness confirmed that she had taken these threats seriously and feared bad things would happen to her or her family members.
Following her testimony, ECCHR partner lawyers and joint plaintiff representatives Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer read a motion on behalf of eight joint plaintiffs demanding that sexual violence not be treated as individual cases under the German Criminal Code, as has been the case so far. Rather, sexual violence should be seen as one of the crimes against humanity Anwar R is accused of. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are part of the large-scale and systematic attack on the Syrian civilian population, used specifically to suppress it. The attorneys argued that this has been made evident in the trial, referring to past hearings, as well as in dozens of passages in the (non-public) trial case file. They supported their argument with international organization reports, and requested that these be read into evidence.
The joint plaintiff lawyers demanded that the indictment be updated, and Anwar R be tried for sexual violence, which they described as “one of the gravest and cruelest aspects of the regime’s crimes against humanity, which is deliberately designed to silence victims.” They concluded by saying that their clients are united by “the hope that the court will listen to those who take the difficult path of breaking their silence.” When the motion was heard, Anwar R buried his face in his hands several times. His defense lawyers and the other parties to the trial reserved the right to comment on the motion.
Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are becoming stricter in Koblenz, too. Visitors must now fill out a registration form and present it upon entering the building. This resulted in a long line in front of the courthouse when Christopher Engels, lead investigator of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, testified on days 43 and 44.
Everyone interested in addressing the crimes in Syria knows CIJA, a nonprofit organization that collects evidence to support criminal investigations. International criminal law experts have long discussed whether this evidence holds up in court. On day 43 of the trial, CIJA’s evidence was shared with the public in detail for the first time, one reason many eagerly awaited Engel’s testimony. According to CIJA, since 2012, it has obtained approximately 800,000 pages of original documents from the Syrian military and secret services, and smuggled them out of the country. As director of investigations, Engels is responsible for CIJA’s cooperation with national law enforcement agencies. He worked in this capacity with the German Federal Criminal Police in the al-Khatib trial.
Engels began by describing how his organization works, especially with regard to securing documents. He then spoke about his findings: the central structures and bodies responsible for cracking down on the demonstrations and riots in 2011 and 2012. He supported his testimony with documents CIJA collected from the Syrian secret services. For example, instructions distributed to the intelligence and police services on 5 August 2011. Among other things, they listed groups of people the security forces should target: those who financed or called for demonstrations, members of opposition groups, and even people who had contact abroad. The rhetoric in the documents from the highest level of government gradually became harsher. It became increasingly clear that the demonstrations should be dealt with by force. With internal reports from various Syrian institutions, the witness clearly showed how these instructions found their way from the highest levels of government to the executive branches. Transcripts of prisoner interrogations, for example, then moved up the reporting chain, leading to more people being added to the wanted list.
Additional evidence confirms the authenticity of CIJA’s documents. The organization conducted 16 interviews with witnesses also named in the documents. The documents furthermore describe the circumstances of the deaths of four people who have been identified in the Caesar photos.
While the other parties to the trial attentively followed the presentation, the two defendants were primarily interested in the original Arabic documents. Some of the documents Engels presented had already been made public in a US trial.
On another slide, Engels showed how prisoners were transported across the country – many were taken to Damascus from different regions of Syria; some were transferred to other cities several times. This mainly happened when the secret services thought a detainee was important or valuable in terms of gaining knowledge. Engels explained that the abuse and torture methods witnesses described to CIJA were similar throughout Syria, a sign of their systematic nature. He concluded: this fulfills the definition of crimes against humanity. The regime responded to the uprisings with systematic and widespread torture, abuse and imprisonment.
After the lunch break, Engels talked about General Secret Service Branches 251 and 285. Branch 285 is a central, technical division. Branch 251 (al-Khatib) is responsible for Damascus and the surrounding rural areas. The judges repeatedly asked the witness if he knew which branch was responsible for which prisoners. Engels responded that this remained unclear to him. He explained that Branch 251’s Subdivision 40 was particularly notorious and acted independently. It was headed by Hafez Makhlouf, relative of the Assad family. A guard in al-Khatib told the witness that multiple prisoners had died in the prison from torture and the conditions there.
CIJA also found evidence that after leaving Branch 251 in summer 2012, the main defendant Anwar R continued to head the investigative unit of the General Intelligence Agency’s Central Investigation Division (Branch 285) for several months. Engels substantiated this with documents that showed the receipt of prisoner interrogation transcripts, as well as information from and about prisoners. In addition, the nonprofit organization had three internal investigation reports that identified Anwar R as the head of the Central Investigation Committee. One report mentioned a witness who CIJA later interviewed. Content-wise, the report was identical to the witness’s description of the circumstances of detainees’ arrests, questioning and charges. But it was missing the torture and abuse the witness mentioned to CIJA. For those watching, this raised the question of why these crimes are not included in Anwar R’s indictment.
The next day, the senate and other parties to the trial questioned the witness. Their main focus was on CIJA’s development, working methods and funding. Engels explained what information the organization shared with the German federal prosecutor regarding the current proceedings. In addition, the defendants’ defense counsel wanted to know what CIJA knew about possible consequences for Syrian secret services employees if they refused to obey orders. Engels answered that in these cases, the regime sends very clear messages. Anyone who did not correctly carry out instructions to suppress the oppositional protests was to be reported by other colleagues. In this way, anyone who refused to obey orders may have become a target themselves.
After the witness was dismissed, the court made an important organizational announcement. The judges are planning to separate the trial against Eyad A on 17 February 2021, and to hear closing statements in his case. On 24 February, the judges want to announce the verdict. This is only a preliminary plan, because in such a major trial – especially in times of COVID – unexpected things could happen that affect the timeline. In addition, starting in January 2021, the trial will no longer be held in the Koblenz Regional Court’s large hearing room, but will be moved to a room in the Higher Regional Court nearby. The new courtroom is currently rebuilt in order to be able to maintain physical distancing rules. This also means that there will be fewer seats available for the public. For particularly important days, such as when the verdict is announced, the trial may return to the Regional Court room 128.
On day 41 of the al-Khatib trial, the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz dealt with the Caesar photos – as it did the previous week. Professor Markus Rothschild from Universität zu Köln was invited to testify about his forensic analysis. Beginning in 2017, the expert and his colleague examined each of the 26,938 photographs of people killed in Syrian prisons. They just completed this multi-year project a few weeks ago.
Rothschild came to court with a detailed presentation. He meticulously described the injuries he found the people in the Caesar photos had suffered, and the extent to which his findings confirmed previous witness testimonies. For each type of abuse and injury, the expert showed several pictures that demonstrated the cruelty of the crimes. Although he presented his findings soberly, the courtroom was tensely silent. The mood darkened with each photograph Rothschild showed. Toward the end, many watching the trial averted their eyes – the brutal images on the slides were too disturbing.
First, the expert concentrated on the visual analysis of the photos he conducted on behalf of the German Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office. Rothschild presented a clearly recognizable pattern of injuries. He and his colleague were often even convinced that they had already seen a picture, the resemblance was so striking.
The forensic scientist presented statistics from his findings. In 88.6 percent of the cases, he could state with certainty that the person photographed was dead. According to his assessment, the others were probably also dead, but did not show clear signs like postmortem rigidity, skin changes or decay, as they were partially clothed or heavily soiled. Many were injured before death: in most cases by blunt force. Numerous photos showed people so disfigured he had to investigate the respective injuries – even after more than 40 years’ experience in the field. He found that many bodies showed sharp force injuries, some had marks from strangulation, and about half were completely naked. According to the expert, it was possible that their underwear was pulled down especially for the photographs, but he had no explanation as to why this was done.
Second, Rothschild compared previous witness testimony with his forensic findings, particularly regarding the al-Khatib Branch. His conclusion: survivors’ descriptions were largely consistent with his forensic analysis. He testified that abuse in Syrian prisons would accordingly range from beatings to burns and pulling nails. Many victims had been forced to stand for a long time, which he could tell from swelling in their legs. In the end, he said that in many cases, he believed it was very likely the people in the photographs were executed or left to die – which also reflects survivors’ testimony.
Third, he explained the extent to which the Caesar photos allow conclusions to be drawn about hygiene and living conditions in Syrian prisons, especially al-Khatib. For example, many witnesses stated in a German Federal Criminal Police status report that cells were often completely overcrowded. Rothschild was able to confirm that statements about parasite infestations were true, indicating a lack of hygiene in the prisons. The photos do not show a consistent picture of the food and medical provisions in the prisons, but do corroborate the witness statements: evidently, some people received enough food and medical care, while others were malnourished with wounds only covered by dirty pieces of cloth.
In summary, the expert noted that the Caesar files suggested systematic abuse and neglect in Syrian prisons. This was a central theme in his findings. He also emphasized that the photos corroborated the overwhelming majority of the survivors’ statements.
On the following day of the trial, the translation of a resume was discussed. Subsequently, a German Federal Intelligence Service statement was read that dealt with the structure of the Syrian secret service.
Days 39 and 40 of the al-Khatib trial were also scheduled to deal with Caesar, the defected Syrian military police photographer, and his photographs that were smuggled abroad. On day 39, the court read a 2014 report by the London law firm Carter-Ruck that assesses the credibility of certain evidence of the torture and execution of people detained by the current Assad regime.
For its report on behalf of the Qatari government, the law firm assembled a team of international law experts with experience prosecuting war crimes. In order to evaluate Caesar’s credibility and photographs, they interviewed him several times in January 2014. He told them that he had worked as a photographer for the Syrian military police for 13 years. When the civil war began in 2011, his job changed from photographing crime scenes and accidents to photographing killed prisoners. Detainees’ corpses were taken to the Mezzeh and Tishreen Military Hospitals, among others. Caesar was sent there with a physician and a member of the judiciary to photograph the bodies. The murdered detainees were given a reference number for the body, and one that referred to the secret service department responsible for their detention and death. In the military hospital, they were given a third number to prove that the death had occurred at the hospital. Out of deep concern about what was happening, Caesar sent copies of the photos on a USB stick to his trusted contact “Sami.” Of the more than 50,000 photos showing more than 11,000 victims, a forensic team examined a total of 5500 images of an estimated 1300 corpses. According to computer specialists, none of the pictures had been digitally altered or manipulated. After questioning Caesar and examining the photos, the team of experts concluded that there is clear evidence that the Syrian government has systematically tortured and killed detainees.
On day 40 of the trial, a chief German Federal Criminal Police (BKA) commissioner was asked to testify about the Caesar photos and the BKA’s interview of Sami.
For his testimony, the chief police commissioner compiled all the information the BKA has gathered in its Caesar file in recent years. In addition to examining and sorting the images from Sami, this included forensic medical analysis by the Universität Köln, which will be introduced into the proceedings next week. It also included Sami’s November 2017 witness statement, as well as interviews with other witnesses who recognized people in the Caesar photos. Also included is a German Aerospace Center satellite image analysis of the Mezzeh Military Hospital where some bodies are said to have been stored out in the open, as well as the Carter-Ruck report, which was read in court the previous day. In addition, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability forwarded Syrian secret service internal documents concerning torture prison deaths to the BKA, as well as death certificates the Syrian government handed out to relatives of the deceased. According to the chief police commissioner, all of the evidence confirms the photos’ authenticity, painting a complete picture of the Caesar photos and the Syrian government’s actions. The commissioner said that at no time during his many years of involvement with the Caesar case did he have any indication that the pictures or any aspect of their origin were falsified. Sami’s witness statements at the time were precise, calm and very credible.
From the BKA’s November 2017 interview of Sami in Germany, the chief commissioner was able to testify that Caesar photographed between 10 to 20 corpses per day at the beginning of the revolution. Later, he photographed over 50 corpses a day, which looked like they had been tortured, bound and strangled. Many were starved to death. Almost all of the victims were men between 20 and 40 years old. Sami also confirmed Caesar’s statement about the Syrian military police’s meticulous process of documenting the dead. On the one hand, the photographs allowed death certificates to be issued without families seeing the corpses of those who had been tortured to death. On the other hand, the photos could have served as evidence within the regime that an execution order was carried out. Relatives were told that their loved ones died from cardiac arrest or respiratory problems.
Sami also confirmed that Caesar wanted to desert in May 2011 because of what he saw every day and that Sami had convinced him not to. Rather, Caesar was to collect evidence so that the murderers could be prosecuted. To this end, Sami and Caesar met almost daily at Sami’s apartment to save and organize the photos Caesar brought on Sami’s computer. Sami labeled the files with the branch number in which the deceased had been imprisoned, their prisoner number and date the photo was taken. Sami also assigned the photos to the different security service branches. He told the police that there were ultimately four different versions of the files. Of these, a group supporting Caesar uploaded one compressed file to Google Drive and sent it to Liechtenstein. The German Federal Prosecutor’s Office received an uncompressed Google Drive file in 2013. Sami saved a compressed file on a hard drive; another uncompressed version was saved on a hard drive in a secret location in Syria.
The chief police commissioner told the court that the BKA asked Liechtenstein for judicial assistance in November 2015. The Caesar files there were then handed over to the BKA and the Universität Köln’s forensic medicine department for technical protection and processing. The files from Liechtenstein comprised around 98,000 files, of which almost 55,000 had the same content. The court wanted to know the extent to which the compressed files from Liechtenstein differed from the uncompressed files that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office received. The witness explained that the uncompressed files had no real added value since each copying process, especially the uploading process, changes the files’ metadata.
After evaluating the Caesar photos, interviewing Sami and other witnesses, and reviewing additional documents that the BKA received from other informants and CIJA, the BKA was able to finally confirm that all of the photographs in the Caesar files were taken between May 2011 and August 2013 on behalf of the Syrian Military Police’s Office of the Prosecutor General.
At the end of the day, the court showed a selection of photos from the Caesar files. With these disturbing images in their heads, those watching the trial finally stepped outside into the rain.
After a two-week break, the trial continued on day 38 with testimony from the journalist Garance Le Caisne. Her book Codename Caesar was published in March 2016. In it, she tells the story of a former Syrian military photographer, referred to as Caesar, who smuggled more than 50,000 photographs of Assad regime torture victims out of the country.
Le Caisne was asked to testify about her contact with Caesar and his photos. In a clear, firm voice, she first spoke about her career as a freelance journalist and decades working in the Middle East. In 2011, she reported on the wave of protest there – the so-called Arab Spring – and traveled regularly to Tunisia, Libya and Syria. In spring 2014, she was commissioned by the French weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche to attend an international press conference in Qatar at which the Caesar files were presented to the public. She set out to find and interview Caesar. Many journalists wanted to meet him; none succeeded.
To attract Caesar’s attention and show him her work, she had three of her articles translated into Arabic. According to Le Caisne, one of her contacts was so moved by her articles that he put her in touch with Caesar’s close confidante, Sami. Le Caisne assured Sami that she did not want to write a book about Caesar, but about the atrocities committed in Syrian intelligence service prisons. After meeting with Sami many times, Le Caisne heard Caesar’s voice for the first time in March 2015 during a Skype call. A short time later, their first meeting took place. More followed.
The court wanted to know how Caesar took the photos, and about his role in taking them. As a military photographer, his main job was to photograph incidents, such as accidents, in which soldiers were involved. But after the civil war broke out in 2011, Caesar’s main task was to photograph dead insurgents in the Mezzeh Civil Hospital 601 and the Tishreen Military Hospital 607. Caesar told Le Caisne that at the beginning of the revolution, the corpses were named. Later, they were numbered: one for each prisoner, one for the corresponding department of the four intelligence services – for example 215, 248 and 227 – and one documenting the cause of death – cardiac arrest. However, the corpses – including children and the elderly – bore signs of severe violence and torture, which could hardly be described. She also received a photograph of a form from Caesar. The photographer had to fill out these forms and attach them to the photos of the dead. They assisted forensic examiners’ archival work. Le Caisne gave the photo of the form to the presiding judge. The form and its translation raised questions from the parties to the trial about its content, authenticity and blackened text.
Le Caisne was also asked how Caesar reacted to his job of photographing tortured civilians. The witness said that at first, he could not believe what he was seeing every day. Caesar ultimately wanted to desert the regime because of the drastically increasing numbers of the dead. A childhood friend whom he shared this wish with in spring 2011, however, urged him to continue working to gather evidence of the Assad government’s crimes.
Caesar therefore remained in his job for another year and a half. He copied 53,200 photographs, which he smuggled out of his office on a USB stick, hidden in his belt or the heel of a shoe, and then handed them over to his friend. The latter copied and backed up the files, which later found their way to the Public Prosecutors’ Offices in France, Germany and Lichtenstein, the FBI and others through a group of supporters. In summer 2013, Caesar went into hiding and left Syria with the help of opposition members. A third person smuggled an external hard drive with the photos out of Syria. In Turkey, Caesar’s friend then categorized and archived the photos with the support of a human rights organization. The friend told Le Caisne that he sent the files to the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office in the same way he received them. According to Le Caisne, the files were high resolution images.
After the lunch break, the court examined selected “Caesar photos.” Le Caisne confirmed that the photos shown resembled those she had seen. Asked about their authenticity, Le Caisne said that relatives of missing detainees identified about 700 of the bodies after many of the photos were published by the Turkish human rights organization. What did Caesar hope to achieve by publishing the photos? Le Caisne suspected that he hoped that it would put an end to the crimes; a hope that has not yet been fulfilled.
Journalist Christoph Reuter was called as a witness on day 37 of the al-Khatib trial. The Spiegel Middle East correspondent is also known for his books on life during the Iraq War and the Islamic State. Due to his extensive knowledge of Syria, the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz decided to call Reuter as an expert witness. His questioning focused on two main topics: the development of the situation in Syria in 2011 and 2012, and his meeting with the main defendant Anwar R.
The witness studied in Syria in the 1990s. After several shorter stays there, he went to Syria for the German news magazine Spiegel in 2011. Initially, his research mainly focused on understanding visions of the opposition and the emerging lines of conflict.
“When did the Syrian regime start to direct fire at civilians in response to demonstrations?” the court asked. The regime shot at demonstrators since February/March 2011, but denied this time and again. People were also arrested during demonstrations, said Reuter. They were beaten up in prison, but then “released” after a short time – with the exception of a situation in April or May 2011 in Homs, where about 200 people disappeared without a trace.
The witness described the demonstrations as “flashmobs.” People walked together onto the streets, held up signs, filmed this for a few minutes, and disappeared. In order to react to possible regime fire, demonstrators stood with the fastest runners in the middle of the street and older people on the edge. Reuter recognized patterns in the sequence of demonstrations: Fridays – demonstrations resulting in deaths and injuries; Saturdays – funeral processions and more attacks by the regime; Sundays to Thursdays – silence. When questioned by the defense counsel for the second defendant, Eyad A, the expert confirmed that it was the secret services that fired at demonstrators.
The secret services’ function changed in spring 2011, the witness explained. Before that, they competed internally. Thereafter, they increasingly worked together. Even though they had always collected more than just information – meaning they also intervened militarily – this was now in the foreground. The secret services captured and tortured considerably more people. Mass murders and sending corpses to military hospitals were also new. Reuter first heard about this in April 2012 with regard to the military hospital in Homs. Only once a man who was searching for his brother’s body told Reuter about the military hospitals in Tishreen and Harasta.
Reuter’s meeting with Anwar R took place in Jordan shortly after the defendant deserted in 2012. The reporter wanted to learn about the regime’s inner workings – mostly, he wanted to research the regime’s “staging of terror” to present itself as a “lesser evil” compared to IS and other groups. Ali Mamluk, head of the General Intelligence Directorate at the time, was a specialist in this.
Why does the witness think the accused deserted? Since 2011, “professional investigative work” was no longer possible, since torture was used even though people did not have information to share. The system’s “useless torture” had bothered the accused, said Reuter. What could Reuter say about al-Khatib? He did not talk about deceased detainees with Anwar R. Reuter knew, however, that people were afraid of being taken to the al-Khatib Branch. In general, the reporter assumed that the Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence Services treated detainees most brutally.
All in all, Reuter vividly described the situation in Syria in 2011 and 2012. Affected witnesses’ previous testimony was put in context again – this time, through a journalist’s eyes.
Day 35 and 36 of the Syria trial revolved around the fate of Malek (name changed) who might have died in the al-Khatib Branch. His brother was the witness summoned on day 35. What is certain is that Malek, a doctor, disappeared in al-Khatib and that his family to this day does not know what happened to him. The testimony on both days of the trial mainly concerned the search for Malek, or his body. Once again, it became clear: this trial and the Syrian state apparatus’ alleged crimes against humanity are about the fates of thousands of individuals and countless traumatized families.
The witness, also a joint plaintiff in the trial, gave a second-hand account of his brother’s disappearance. He himself had been imprisoned at the time and recounted what another brother told him. He suggested that this second brother should also be called as a witness.
On day 35, the witness first testified briefly on his own imprisonment in May 2012 with the Air Force Intelligence Service, and in July 2012 with the Military Intelligence Service. His second imprisonment coincided with Malek’s disappearance.
The witness presented evidence that supports that Malek did indeed die. Prison guards tried to give Malek’s personal belongings to the second brother, as well as a death certificate that said Malek died of kidney failure or a heart attack – although all Syrians know this cause of death is listed when someone dies from torture. The witness also reported that main defendant Anwar R had instructed the other brother not to ask any questions about Malek, and told him to go to the military hospital in Harasta to collect his corpse. In addition, a deserter smuggled out a list of names of deceased prisoners from Branch 251 and sent a photograph of it to the witness via WhatsApp. Malek’s name was number 71 on the list. A fellow inmate released from Branch 251 later told the witness in detail that Malek had been severely tortured, and had been transferred to a place where there were mass graves.
On day 36, a new witness was called to the bench. He gave a more concrete account of what had happened, as he had looked for Malek himself. He said that Malek was arrested because he treated injured opposition members. The witness had been looking for Malek together with the other brother. With the support of a family friend who was in the secret service and others connected to the regime, they succeeded in visiting Branch 251 and meeting Anwar R. For this, the witness paid about 400,000 Syrian lira (about 3,800 euros at the time.) He did not know how much the other brother paid beyond that.
The witness and the other brother visited the al-Khatib Branch twice. During their first visit at the end of July 2012, prison guards wanted to give them Malek’s personal belongings. However, the brother did not take them – he did not want to give up his search for Malek.
A few days later, the witness had gone to al-Khatib a second time and met with Anwar R personally. He had waited in front of Anwar R’s office on a wooden bench in a hallway that led to several rooms. Waiting had been psychological torture – “a warning,” the witness suspected. In the other rooms, he had seen prisoners kneeling, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. They had been wet, as if doused with water. He had heard loud screams and beatings.
He had been only in Anwar R’s office briefly. The latter wanted the witness to leave quickly, saying, “Take his body – or any corpse – and disappear!” Anwar R then posed conditions, such as a fourth brother having to return from Saudi Arabia. Thereafter, the witness and Malek’s other brother went to the Tishreen and Harasta military hospital mortuaries. There they saw countless naked corpses with numbers on their chests or foreheads. Some looked as if they had been dead for a long time, others for not very long. Some showed signs of torture, others had bullet wounds. The brother was supposed to “pick out” a corpse, but Malek was not there.
The witness also reported that sometime later, he was approached by a friend whose neighbor in Harasta had information about Malek. When they met, the neighbor showed “signs of torture and starvation.” He reported that Malek had been tortured so badly that he hallucinated. With this, the witness ended his testimony and was excused.
At the end of the day, the witness from day 35 took the stand again. On behalf of his mother and himself, he directly addressed the accused, asking what happened to his brother. A defense lawyer later read a statement from the defendant, which said that Anwar R had had no contact with Malek’s brother or the witness from day 36. They had not visited him; he did not know them.
The trial ended with the reading of extracts of a Human Rights Watch report.
Those involved in the al-Khatib trial have developed a kind of routine. Members of the public watching the trial greet each other warmly and discuss what happened in recent days of the trial in a mixture of German, English and Arabic.
On trial day 34, a witness has been summoned to the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz to speak as a survivor about her imprisonment in the al-Khatib Branch and her personal meetings with defendant Anwar R. Her testimony was striking. Beginning in 2011, the witness was imprisoned in al-Khatib twice - also while Anwar R headed its investigation department. Both times, she was arrested at a peaceful demonstration, and transported with other demonstrators for a few hours to Branch 40 - where they were brutally beaten and sometimes subjected to sexual violence - before being taken to al-Khatib later the same day.
After a physical examination in the al-Khatib Branch, she was taken to a mounfarideh – a cell about the size of the table she was testifying from and so high that she could just stand. “Like a grave,” the witness said. The cell had no daylight.
The screams of those being tortured in the al-Khatib Branch were terrible. You could hear them non-stop. In the morning, they were mixed with Fairuz's singing, one of the most famous Arab singers whose voice rang through the detention center. The witness was lucky – she was only rarely tortured. She described how the electric shocks she was subjected to felt: the device used was only about the size of a laser pointer, but when held against the neck, made the whole body twitch. In this state, she could no longer say how many individual shocks she had been given.
When the prosecutor asked about hygine in the prison, the witness laughed sarcastically. There was no hygiene, she said. There were insects everywhere. Walking to the toilet and back, which she was only allowed to do once a day, took about three minutes. The guards used the route “to put her muscles to the test,” and hit her bottom. When she asked for feminine hygiene products after getting her period, the guards made fun of her. She used her socks.
Later, the witness spoke in detail about the sexual violence in al-Khatib. Among other things, she described how she was examined naked, and how a fellow prisoner’s hijab was torn off. In addition, women were socially isolated after their imprisonment, especially if they had been raped. In this context, she also referred to the film Syrie - Le Cri Etouffé, which she recommended to the defense attorney, who asked for additional information for the first time in the trial.
Then the witness spoke of the main defendant, because she knew Anwar R personally. At the presiding judge’s request, she turned to Anwar R in the courtroom and reconfirmed this. The witness met him twice. The first time, she was taken to him in the al-Khatib Branch with her clothes torn by beatings. At his insistence, her blindfold was removed: she saw a picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on the wall. Anwar R questioned her about herself, her family, and the political events in Syria. He was friendly to her, offered her coffee and allowed her to smoke.
The next day, she was transferred to the secret service district of Kafr Sousa and then released. She suspected that this was probably due to UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s recent visit to Syria. As a newspaper article quoted later in the trial showed, he demanded political prisoners be released, among other things.
The witness met Anwar R a second time with a friend at a café in Jordan. It was a strange situation to drink coffee with someone who had allowed prisoners to be tortured. It was even stranger that he asked her how he and his family could travel safely from Damascus to Ghouta – he was the one who had worked for the security service. The meeting was friendly. As a side note, he explicitly mentioned that he had turned away from the regime. However, he did not show remorse or apologize to her.
The public prosecutor dug deeper into these personal meetings with Anwar R since the witness’ testimony deviated substantially from the defendant’s statement. Is it correct, as Anwar R stated, that the witness had been taken to his office an hour after she was arrested? No, the witness said. Did she work for the BBC? No, she repeated. Is she from Maaraba? No. Is she Christian? No. Anwar R quietly shook his head. The prosecutor did not ask further questions, nor did the defense.
At the end of the day, the witness was dismissed. Her remarks were so concise that the parties to the trial had no further questions, and the court canceled the next day of the hearing, which was scheduled for further questioning.
Finally, the presiding judge read out the court’s rejection of an earlier request by the defense to repeat trial days one to 23, due to accredited journalists’ lack of access to an Arabic language translation. The court justified its decision, saying that this was not a violation of the principle of transparency. Instead, the German Federal Constitutional Court’s decision was based on freedom of the press and the press’ right to equal treatment, not on the criminal proceedings per se.
Those interested in Syria, and especially the crimes of Bashar al-Assad’s government, know the witness who was at the center of the al-Khatib trial on day 32 and 33. Mazen Darwish is a journalist and Syrian human rights lawyer, and founded the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) in 2004. He has been an important Syrian partner for ECCHR since 2016.
Darwish was imprisoned several times in Syria and was severely tortured. At the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, however, it was less about his personal experience than his comprehensive expertise on structures and developments in Syria – also before the peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad in 2011. Based on his own experience and the work of his organization, Darwish outlined political and social events beginning in 1958 that led to the dictatorial governments of Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad.
According to Darwish, the Assads’ goal is to completely control Syrian society. Children and students are indoctrinated through youth organizations and curricula. Trade unions and professional associations were broken up, sometimes bloodily, and freedom of the press suppressed. Active civil society was persecuted. There was also no “real” parliament in Syria. These are totalitarian regimes’ usual methods, the witness concluded. Power was “inherited” in Syria, which is why the country is more a “family business” than a state. An important instrument of repression was the security apparatus, which had a completely free hand and did not have to fear prosecution.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the military, police and secret services have relied on unchecked violence and arbitrariness. Darwish testified that right at the beginning of the protests, on 15 March 2011, many peaceful demonstrators were arrested in Damascus, as well as the next day when people demonstrated for the release of those arrested. At the end of March 2011, President Assad publically and unequivocally threatened the peaceful demonstrators, saying, “If you want an open war, then so be it.” Torture has always existed in Syria, the human rights lawyer testified, but since 2011 the number of “disappeared,” imprisoned and tortured people has increased enormously. Moreover, from then on, the Assad government used torture not mainly to force confessions, but for retaliation and deterrence.
Asked by the court, the witness also reported on Branch 251: al-Khatib. To support his testimony, Darwish submitted numerous documents to the court, including a list of the names and ranks of 93 employees of Branch 251, the testimony of a witness from Harasta military hospital about corpses from al-Khatib, a list of deaths from Branch 251 with the numbers of refrigerated trucks and bodies, and 103 photographs of dead detainees from that branch.
The documents were compiled and translated by Darwish’s organization SCM. Darwish collected some of the documents himself, which is evident from his signature. After some discussion between the parties, the court admitted the documents, which will be provided to the parties to the trial in the coming weeks and then introduced to the trial – because the documents could be of great importance to the proceedings.
Darwish testified that he never met the main defendant Anwar R. He had heard, however, that Anwar R had been the head of the al-Khatib interrogation department. Like other witnesses, Darwish emphasized that it is impossible that in his position, Anwar R did not know about the torture. Anyone who volunteers to work for one of the Syrian secret services declares at the outset that they are prepared to carry out all tasks in the system. Only those who were one hundred percent loyal to the regime would be accepted.
When asked by ECCHR partner lawyer and counsel for the joint plaintiffs Sebastian Scharmer whether the secret services used sexual and gender-based violence, the witness stated that there had been repeated sexual assaults against men and women. He had experienced this himself. When he and his wife, a long-time human rights activist, were imprisoned, a secret service agent had asked him if she were raped, would he have the right to divorce her without having to repay her dowry. As a lawyer, he should know. It was clear to him that the secret service officer was not interested in the answer, but was sending him an unmistakable signal.
On day 33, another witness was heard following Darwish’s testimony. The man appeared wearing a face mask out of fear for his brother in Syria, he said. But the court insisted that the witness take off the mask.
The witness stated that he was friends with the brother of Anwar R’s wife. He had met the main defendant at a funeral service in 2005. Later he visited him in his office in Damascus and had coffee with him. The witness said he knew Anwar R was an intelligence officer. That is why he approached him in 2012 when the military intelligence service imprisoned his cousin. Anwar R had told him his cousin’s situation was precarious. He also told him about a severely abused person. “With something like this, the heart bleeds,” Anwar R had said. The witness admitted, however, that he did not have the impression that the secret service work incriminated Anwar R in principle. A few years later, in Germany, the witness said he had spoken with the accused on the phone several times. They did not talk about their respective attitudes toward the Syrian government. He learned that Anwar R had turned his back on the regime on television in late 2012. Overall, this testimony neither exonerated the defendant nor added much information to the trial.
On day 30 and 31 of the al-Khatib trial, as on day 22 and 23 (see trial reports), the Koblenz Higher Regional Court summoned a witness whose identity was to remain secret. The witness therefore kept his face covered throughout his testimony. The defense objected, which the presiding judge overruled: the potential danger to the witness’ relatives in Syria justified him not revealing his identity.
Also, for the first time, an accredited Syrian journalist who attended the trial was granted access to the Arabic interpretation. In so doing, the court complied with an 18 August preliminary injunction by the German Constitutional Court (see trial report day 24).
The witness, referred to as “Z 30/07/19,” reported in detail about his work in cemeteries in the province of Damascus. He testified that at the end of 2011, two intelligence officers showed up and ordered him and several of his colleagues to help them transport and bury corpses. The officers provided the witness with a van – without license plates but with pictures of President Bashar al-Assad. Several times a week for several years, he drove his colleagues from the Tishreen, Mezzeh and Harasta military hospitals to al-Quteifa and Najha cemeteries, usually accompanied by intelligence officers and large refrigerated trucks. The trucks carried several hundred corpses per week.
At the cemeteries, the trucks stopped next to deeply dug trenches. The witness’ colleagues unloaded the corpses with their bare hands, often without protective equipment; some fell gravely ill. As soon as a section of the trench was full of bodies, an excavator covered it with dirt. The witness described how corpses kept being brought to the cemeteries, and how new trenches were constantly being dug.
The witness’ task was to drive the others, and to list information provided by the officers about the number and origin of the corpses. “The corpses came from many different detention centers of various secret services, including the General Intelligence Service’s al-Khatib prison and the Saydnaya military prison,” the witness told the court.
It became clear to everyone in the courtroom how the sight and smell of the corpses haunts the witnesses to this day. He testified that once he could not eat for days. At some point, he and his colleagues felt that they could not wash off the corpses’ smell, even by showering.
The witness reported important details. At Saydnaya prison, he saw corpses up close. He speculated that they had been executed. The bodies had not yet decomposed, and he saw signs of strangulation. The witness’ statements correspond, for example, with Amnesty International’s report “Human slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya prison, Syria.”
The men he drove and the excavator drivers told the witness about corpses they saw in the hospitals. They spoke of corpses marked with numbers and symbols on their foreheads or chests. Some of the bodies’ hands were still tied behind their backs with handcuffs or zip ties. Others were bloody, and had bruises and removed toe and fingernails. Some of the corpses’ faces were unrecognizable from acid burns. Some experiences particularly affected the witness. Once a man who had supposedly been executed was still breathing – until an officer ordered an excavator driver to run over him. Another time, he discovered a woman holding her child in her arms among the corpses. He almost broke down when he saw this.
The thought and memory of the corpses is still extremely distressing to the witness. This was visible during his testimony. The trial took several recesses upon his request. On the afternoon of day 30 of the trial, he finally asked to be excused for the day.
The next day, the witness continued his testimony. Documents were projected on the wall, including sketches he made during police questioning of the lists he filled out with the names of detention centers the corpses came from, including al-Khatib. The presiding judge asked the witness to locate the hospitals and burial sites on satellite images. This was difficult for him because the maps mostly depicted desert and used Latin letters that he could not read.
Finally, the day ended with a discussion between the judge, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, and counsel for the joint plaintiffs and defense about the witness and his identity.
What will undoubtedly remain from these two days are the gruesome details about countless corpses. They reveal the extent of the crimes committed in Syrian torture prisons such as al-Khatib.
Two witnesses testified on day 29 of the trial: Federal Criminal Police (BKA) senior and chief commissioners spoke about their two arrests of the accused Eyad A.
The senior police commissioner testified first, recalling BKA’s arrest on 12 February 2019. Eyad A was arrested based on a warrant issued by the German Federal Court of Justice. The witness first explained why the arrest did not take place in Eyad A’s apartment. The BKA knew that the man had young children whom he lived with. Therefore, after receiving the arrest warrant, the BKA contacted the responsible immigration office to avoid his children witnessing their father’s arrest.
When the officers informed him about the arrest warrant, Eyad A was very surprised, according to the senior police commissioner. He could still remember the stunned expression on Eyad A’s face. On the trip to the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, the defendant was informed about his rights. The commissioner testified that Eyad A repeatedly asserted that this all must be a big misunderstanding, and that he had been friendly, polite and cooperative.
The BKA officer had to pause briefly to find the right words: when Eyad A was transferred from the Federal Court of Justice to the Saarbrücken Penitentiary (JVA), he was visibly distraught. He constantly repeated that there must have been a misunderstanding and would soon return home to his family.
After a complaint was filed with the investigating judge at the Federal Supreme Court, the arrest warrant was revoked shortly therafter, and Eyad A was released from custody. This was because the defendant incriminated himself during questioning, and was only later informed about his rights as an accused. This was a procedural error, but should not have led to his arrest warrant being revoked. Therefore, Eyad A was taken back into custody a few weeks after his release.
The second witness reported on Eyad A’s second arrest, which took place on 24 June 2019. The chief commissioner said that the defendant had complained of health problems, putting into question whether he could be taken to the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe that day. Therefore, he was first taken to a nearby hospital and seen by an emergency room physician. Since the arrest warrant was still valid, however, he was driven to the Federal Court of Justice after a brief stay in the hospital, and then taken back to the Saarbrücken prison.
The third item on day’s agenda, as on the previous day, was reading reports into evidence, such as the German translation of the UN report of the 31st Special Session, which documents the systematic violence in Syrian prisons.
The judges took turns reading detailed descriptions of how prisoners were arbitrarily arrested and sometimes tortured to death in government prisons. One survivor reported that another man had his eyes burned with a cigarette butt and his body pierced with a hot metal rod. The guards then let him die an agonizing death. In many cases, the corpses were destroyed. It became very quiet in the courtroom when the presiding judge read a prisoner’s description of the death of a fellow prisoner, saying, “He died, we closed his eyes, wrapped a military blanket around his body and read the Koran in our hearts.”
Lastly, a Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) report from 16 January 2012 was read into the record. It mainly dealt with the unrest in Syria and the reactions of Syria’s and international governments. The BAMF reported how protests spread during the Arab Spring, and the military was ordered to shoot peaceful demonstrators. Due to time constraints, the report was not read in its entirety. Those watching the trial were left with disturbing images of violence in Syria.
On day 28, bright sun greeted those involved in the Koblenz trial – a stark contrast to the dark stories they heard in court. In the morning, two Federal Criminal Police (BKA) officers from Meckenheim were questioned, one of whom the investigator in the al-Khatib trial. The presiding judge first asked the witnesses to explain the origin of the documents and information, some of which they had personally verified for the BKA and which were used as evidence to indict Anwar R and Eyad A. For that, those visiting the court needed background information: within the framework of structural investigations into Syria, the BKA has been collecting evidence since 2011 that can be used in court proceedings, such as the al-Khatib trial.
The first witness gave a calm and detailed account of how he obtained reports from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and what he did based on the information in the reports. He described arbitrary detentions by the Syrian secret services and the inhumane conditions in Assad government prisons. Since the judges wanted to compare information, especially on conditions in detention, the witness detailed his findings on torture methods and prisoners’ causes of death, such as the “flying carpet,” electric shocks and pulling fingernails. In some cases, the judges projected brutal images from the UN report on the wall.
Then the witness discussed the important work of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. The nonprofit organization researches and documents human rights violations, which it shares with the international criminal justice system. CIJA also provided the BKA with information on Anwar R and Branch 251.
Questioning the second witness went much faster. After only half an hour, the BKA official was dismissed. The judges asked him the same questions as the first witness, whose answers he confirmed.
Finally, the judges came to the last item on the day’s agenda: reading two documents on human rights violations in Syria in 2011 and 2012 by the UN and the UN General Assembly. This was necessary because everything that can be used as evidence must be formally and publically introduced in court, including UN reports. Reading the lengthy documents aloud took several hours. They were also simultaneously translated into Arabic so that the defendants could understand every word.
The UN, which is otherwise rather reserved and diplomatic, used surprisingly clear language in the reports, which honors its many interviews with survivors of persecution by the regime, as well as defectors. The reports outlines Syria’s modern history as well as the development – or more precisely, deterioration – of the human rights situation during the decades-long Hafiz and later Bashar al-Assad government rule. The texts speaks of people’s sheer fear of torture, abuse and murder. Among other things, it describes that soldiers were forced to shoot civilians, pregnant women did not dare enter hospitals, and parents were told to forget their “disappeared” children because they had no chance of seeing them again.
Shortly before the reports were read in full, a deafening alarm went off in the courthouse. A bomb threat and ensuing emergency evacuation abruptly ended the day.
On days 26 and 27 of the al-Khatib trial, the judges, prosecutors, lawyers and public in the gallery found themselves in a completely new situation: Riad Seif, the only witness summoned for these two days of the trial, testified via video. Seif – a prominent and longtime Syrian opposition leader – is ill, which is why the Koblenz court made it possible for him to testify via video from the Berlin Regional Court.
Seif began his testimony with a detailed report about his personal background, professional career as a textile manufacturer, and finally his life as an opposition politician. The 73-year-old meticulously contextualized the political and economic developments in Syria since the begin of the Assad family’s rise to power. In this context, the witness emphasized several times, “Everything that we have experienced in Syria since 1963 follows orders from the top. Nobody does anything unless Assad orders it. Whatever happens is under Assad’s command.”
In 1994, Seif was elected to the Syrian parliament, and became prominent for his critiques of the government’s economic and financial policies. This ultimately made him an enemy of the Assad regime. The consequences, Seif told the court, were not only attacks on and persecution of him and his company, but also the “disappearance” of his son in 1996. Seif was reelected to parliament in 1998.
When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized power after his father Hafiz al-Assad’s death, Seif hoped for political and economic reforms. As one of the initiators of the 2001 “Damascus Spring” he organized meetings, lectures and rallies with hundreds of participants. These led to his first arrest in September 2001 and a five-year conviction for “attacks on state authority.” At that time, the conditions of his detention were far less harsh than what he experienced during later imprisonments and interrogations in 2006, 2008 to 2010 and 2011.
Seif knows the al-Khatib prison well – he testified that he was detained and interrogated there several times. In February 2006, he was once forced to wait for his interrogation for several hours outside in the piercing cold. He saw instruments of torture – batons, iron bars and whips – but was not tortured himself. Seif emphasized that the conditions in the Adra prison from January 2008 to July 2010 were even worse. He was put in a cell with convicted criminals, the conditions and interrogation methods were inhumane.
Nevertheless, he did not hesitate to participate in the peaceful protests against Assad from March 2011 onwards. At that time, Seif testified that the security forces, in particular the secret services, acted with increasing brutality. In October 2011, he experienced this first hand when a group of secret service agents ruthlessly beat him up. In June 2012, he decided to leave Syria. He now lives in Berlin.
It was in Germany that he first heard about the main defendant, Anwar R. Seif explained that this contact was initiated in August 2013. At the request of an old friend, Seif’s son-in-law asked him to support a Syrian secret service officer who had defected. Anwar R comes from Hula, which is largely inhabited by Sunnis. After family members were killed in a massacre in May 2012, he renounced the Assad government, fled to Jordan and feared for his life.
Seif explained that he advocated on behalf of Anwar R at the German Foreign Office to support a defector from Assad’s system of repression. He also hoped to obtain some information about the fate of detained regime critics, since Anwar R was a high-ranking officer in the General Intelligence Service. “But nothing came from Anwar R,” Seif testified. “Not a word.” Seif told the court he did not know if Anwar R had contact with the Syrian opposition while he was the head of the investigation unit in al-Khatib.
In response to questions from the judge and Anwar R’s defense attorneys, Seif repeated, “I do not know the man personally. I cannot say that he was close to the opposition in Syria and also cannot confirm that he helped prisoners.” Although there are Syrians who supported the defendant and publicly posted positive comments about him on social media, this is outweighed by the various individuals who spoke up and reported torture in al-Khatib. Their statements incriminate the main defendant. Seif’s witness testimony did not exonerate Anwar R in any way.
Hussein Ghrer, one of the joint plaintiffs and torture survivors ECCHR supports, was focused and determined when he arrived at court. On day 25 of the al-Khatib trial, he was the only witness to be heard. On his way to court, he was accompanied by ECCHR partner lawyers Patrick Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer, as well as a German TV team. Ghrer’s two sisters and brother-in-law travelled from the Netherlands to attend the hearing, and joined the crowded public gallery.
Ghrer, a software engineer, began by testifying about his career and political activism in Syria. While studying in Damascus, he founded an anonymous blog critical of the Assad government. In 2010, he began working as a trainer for BBC Media Action, a media development organization. When the peaceful protests against the Assad government started in 2011, Ghrer joined several demonstrations. There, he saw the police and army shoot crowds with live ammunition – and saw people dying. He photographed and filmed these violent crackdowns on the peaceful demonstrators.
On 24 October 2011, Ghrer was sitting in a restaurant with a young Syrian journalist when he was arrested. He was first taken to Branch 40, and transfered to Branch 251 of the General Intelligence Directorate a few hours later. At this point, the judge asked how he could be certain of this. He replied that he was not blindfolded during the short drive to Branch 40, and during his transfer to Branch 251, he could follow the roads taken despite being blindfolded. His fellow prisoners also confirmed that he was in Branch 251.
Ghrer was detained in the al-Khatib Branch for 10 to 15 days. He could not say for sure, since his cell was in the basement without daylight. His description of the cell, however, were all the more precise: two by three meters, a small barred window, a metal door with a ventilation slit and a flap for serving food. At times, up to 25 detainees were imprisoned here, forced to drink from a hose in the cell’s toilet and take shifts to sleep. The judges compared his descriptions with sketches Ghrer drew during his interview with the German Federal Criminal Police, which were projected onto a large screen in the courtroom.
The interrogations – and torture that was simultaneously inflicted upon him – usually took place in the hallway, Ghrer testified. Through the door flap, he was able to see how other prisoners were mistreated. He also saw one woman, and heard other women’s voices. Ghrer was almost always tortured during his five interrogations. “I was blindfolded and had to lie on my stomach with my feet facing up. The interrogator sat opposite me; behind me stood a guard. If the interrogator did not like my answers, the guard would strike at his order. Sometimes with a military belt, sometimes a thick wire. My feet were red, blue and so swollen that the walk back into the cell was another torture,” explained Ghrer. Giving those detailed descriptions was visibly hard for him, so the presiding judge interrupted the questioning.
After a short break, Ghrer continued his testimony unperturbed. Once he had been brought into a room full of torture instruments. “I was not blindfolded, so I could see an apparatus for electric shocks, dozens of cables, belts and batons. This was obviously meant to intimidate me. The same goes for the guard who was playing with pliers in front of me, with which they were known to pull prisoners’ fingernails.”
Another time, he was taken to the office of an apparently high-ranking official. His other interrogator addressed the man with as “sir.” The senior official threatened his subordinate: “Either you get the names out of him or you’ll end up like him.”
Whether that high-ranking official was Anwar R, the main defendant in the al-Khatib trial, could not be clarified today. However, Ghrer emphasized that he would be able to accurately recall the sound of the official’s voice. Anwar R’s defence lawyer quickly clarified that Anwar R will not provide any samples of his voice now or in the future.
At the end of the day, ECCHR’s partner lawyers, who represent Ghrer as well as joint plaintiff Wassim Mukdad, made a statement regarding the previous day’s hearing: Anwar R declared in his 18 March 2020 statement that he personally interrogated Mukdad. Mukdad, in turn, testified in court that his interrogation was always conducted by one man – the man that always gave orders to torture him. Therefore, the person responsible for Mukdad’s torture can only be Anwar R.
Day 24 of the al-Khatib trial started in an unexpected way: before the hearing began, the presiding judge informed those present of a preliminary injunction by the German Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court decided on 18 August, only a few hours before today’s hearing, that from now on all accredited journalists must have the chance to follow the trial in Arabic.
The Koblenz court directly implemented this decision: it allowed accredited journalists to listen to the simultaneous Arabic interpretation that was already being provides to parties to the trial. Two Syrians directly tried to make use of this, one of whom had submitted the request to the Constitutional Court. The problem was that both Syrians, although they have attended every single day of the trial, are not accredited journalists. There were even enough headsets available, but nevertheless the judge refused them access due to their lack of accreditation. Most of those present did not understand this decision, including German journalists.
Then the judge finally opened the hearing. She first read the Constitutional Court’s decision aloud in full, and called the only witness of the day: torture survivor, witness and joint plaintiff Wassim Mukdad. Mukdad is supported by ECCHR and represented in court by ECCHR partner lawyers Patrick Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer.
The Syrian witness made clear from the beginning that it was important for him to testify in German – a first in the trial. Mukdad reported how he and two friends had been walking through Duma, a city near Damascus, in September 2011, looking for a demonstration that they wanted to join. He said that he regularly attended protests although they had become increasingly dangerous. The police often violently clashed with demonstrators, even shooting with live ammunition. He had never seen a protest without police interference. Mukdad testified that on that day, many military and security personnel were in the streets. In the end, they took him and his friends into custody. They were then insulted, kicked and beaten. A policeman or soldier broke one of his rips. Others set the detainees’ hair on fire. Finally, busses carried them to prison: the al-Khatib Branch.
Wassim Mukdad was held there for five days. He shared his small cell (approximately six square meters) with up to nine other detainees. He was interrogated three times. Always by the same interrogator and following the same routine: prison guards took him out of his cell, blindfolded him and brought him to the interrogation room. There he was forced to lie down on his stomach, legs bent with his feet facing up. If the interrogator disliked Mukdad's answers, he ordered his torture. “It was always the same procedure: I said something, was hit, and so on,” Mukdad explained calmly. They specifically aimed to hit the soles of his feet, but also his heels and legs. “They knew exactly how to inflict maximum pain.” Mukdad disclosed his own personal triumph over the situation: “I lay down on my hands. I’m a musician and I was afraid they were going to hurt my hands. This was my way of putting up resistance.”
He was interrogated by one man. Mukdad was sure he would recognize that man's voice, it was so imprinted in his memory. But as before, the main defendant Anwar R refused to speak, so it could not be verified that he had been Mukdad’s interrogator. During his interrogation, Mukdad mainly gaves names of people he knew were “burned” – names that the state already knew. He and his friends had prepared for such a situation. And anyway, the interrogations were not about gaining information. The Syrian state wanted to systematically terrorize the population so that no one would dare oppose it.
After five days in Branch 251, Mukdad was brought to Kafr Sousa, the General Intelligence Directorates’ administrative center. There he was not tortured. But conditions in the mass cells were horrendous: no splace to sleep, terrible hygienic conditions, poor and not enough food, and diseases that spread among the detainees. “Now, in times of the coronavirus, detention there would be a death sentence,” Mukdad said.
Finishing his testimony, Mukdad addressed the court to pointedly stress that he is glad that Anwar R and Eyad A are facing trial in Germany – in fair proceedings that follow the rule of law. This is not currently possible in Syria.
The court took two days for this special witness. Neither the judges nor the parties to the trial knew his name. Disguised with a wig and fake beard, he did not enter the courtroom via the witness waiting room as usual. Instead, he was led through the door normally only used by the accused. The witness’ whereabouts during breaks was kept secret. In response to questions that might have revealed his identity, his lawyer answered, “We will not disclose that information.” All this was necessary because, according to his lawyer, disclosing the witness’ identity would severely endanger his family.
The witness worked for the Syrian secret service for over 20 years. On day 22 and 23 of the trial, he shared impressively detailed knowledge of the internal procedures and responsibilities of various intelligence departments. He explained how chains of command functioned, employees’ roles in the intelligence service, and the leeway they did – or did not – have in fulfilling their role.
During his testimony, organizational charts drawn by the witness were projected onto a big screen behind the judges. The first two hours of his testimony were technical, but then he began to speak about what was behind the charts. All Syrian prisons were very crowded. The secret services tortured prisoners with various brutal methods. People were killed. Branch 251 had a particularly bad reputation.
The witness also made clear how the system worked. Prisoners were blackmailed into spying on fellow prisoners. There were no “correct” answers in interrogations, as they were more about exacting revenge than gathering information. The accusations prisoners were supposed to “confess” had already been established anyway.
The testimony was given confidently, with a powerful voice. It was so detailed that day 22 of the trial lasted well into the afternoon. After the presiding judge dismissed the witness, there was still the issue of potential witnesses that Anwar R mentioned in his statement. The representative of the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office systematically argued why the court did not need to and should not hear any of these witnesses. This position was filed and will be sent to the parties soon.
On day 23 of the trial, the disguised witness again entered the courtroom through the door otherwise reserved for the accused. Before parties to the trial could question him, the witness took the floor. He wanted to correct his previous statement from yesterday. He said he had not accurately reflected the size of a secret service department. After he did so, the parties to the trial asked for further details. When exactly was the state of emergency declared in Syria? How did prisoners arrive in prison?
Again and again, the defense asked the witness how he knew this information. Like the day before, he gave calm and detailed answers. When the defense tried to find out more about where the witness’s knowledge came from, his lawyer replied he would not answer. The defense objected to the witness’ refusal to answer twice, and demand that the court rule of the scope of the witness’ protection. Both times the judges ruled that answering the questions could allow conclusions to be drawn about the witness’ identity, and therefore they did not need to be answered.
The witness was only shaken once. A joint plaintiff lawyer asked if there had been sexual violence in Syrian detention centers. The witness took a deep breath before telling several brutal cases.
At noon, the witness left the courtroom, accompanied by the Federal Criminal Police, in disguise without having let any hints about his identity slip. This was a clear sign of the seriousness of the crimes being tried in Koblenz, and the risks some of those involved are taking to address them.
Day 21 of the al-Khatib trial in Koblenz began routinely. The only witness for the day, a Syrian man, spoke of his detention. He calmly and soberly reported how he was arrested in the streets, brought to the al-Khatib branch, questioned and quickly released. He did not relate any details of his time in prison. When the presiding judge enquired directly about abuse, the witness took a deep breath – but stayed vague. The judge had to pose very specific questions to hear details about prison cell size, food, and other aspects of his detention. The witness’ report only became more detailed when she asked about his interrogation.
The picture this witness painted completely contradicted previous witness testimony. He said people were very friendly and polite to him at al-Khatib. This might have been the case because he worked in Syrian government administration. In any case, he testified that he was not mistreated and after his interrogation, he was promised he would soon be set free. He and the other inmates did hear others being tortured, however.
The witness’ testimony was suddenly interrupted when one of the judges asked the witness if he knew the defendants. The witness said he was not sure, he would like to ask Anwar R some questions to make sure they had not met.
Nobody had been expecting this extraordinary request. Before Anwar R was asked to answer the witness’ questions, those involved in the trial were given some time to adjust to this new situation. During the short break, the defense lawyers gathered, some joint plaintiff lawyers spoke amongst themselves, and the judges withdrew to their chambers. The tension was palpable. Everybody waited to see if Anwar R would agree to answer the witness’ questions. Ten minutes later, after the presiding judge restarted the trial, a defense lawyer made clear that Anwar R would remain silent. The witness’ questions were not admitted.
Despite this unspectacular resolution, the trail did not return to its calm course. Short arguments broke out in court. Several warnings were issued that further questioning of the witness should not assume that he had identified Anwar R. The lawyers discussed whether certain questions were allowed in this context. Again, the judges withdrew to chambers, this time to formally discuss a question’s admissibility – a first in this trial.
After this, questioning ensued about certain aspects of the witness’ previous testimony to the police and German migration office. Some details he did not remember at all, others he remembered differently. Public prosecutors and lawyers for the defense and joint plaintiffs tried to find out where the differences between today’s and previous testimonies lay.
The many questions on specific details increasingly confused the witness. He became vague and asked for a lawyer. The judges called another recess. After five minutes, they stated that the witness would not need legal counsel. The presiding judge assured the man that the questioning was almost over. She was right, the witness was soon dismissed. And thus, this rather turbulent day at court ended abruptly.
The trial will be continued on 12 August 2020.
It was an unsettling day in court. The day began with a short wait, as one of the defendants was late. Those present in the courtroom used the time to chat or simply enjoyed the sun shining through the secured windows. As soon as all parties arrived, the presiding judge called the only witness of the day. Much of this witness’ testimony was similar to yesterday’s witness testimony: today's witness was also arrested because his identity card showed a suspicious city as his place of origin. He was also thrown into an overcrowded cell in the al-Khatib detention center. He recounted how the prisoners assigned each other small areas of the cell; how some had no place to sit and were forced to stand until a space was free. Those who stood up immediately lost their seat. When prisoners had to leave the cell, they had to step on fellow prisoners – there was no free floor space. The witness did not see daylight nor feel fresh air until he was taken to be interrogated.
When he recounted this, the otherwise very concentrated and objective witness laughed. Since he could never sleep in the cell, but had some light and fresh air when he was brought to be interrogated, he simply fell asleep. But the absurdity of the moment could not hide the seriousness of the situation. The witness was quick to point out that he had been severely mistreated. So many things happened during his imprisonment – too little and bad food, serious abuse, threats – that he could not recount everything. Once, the torture was so severe that he even tore his restraints. At that time, he wished he would die.
After a short lunch break, the testimony continued. The witness talked about the time after his imprisonment. He seemed more and more uneasy and began to shiver while talking about the consequences of his time in detention, such as anxiety and insomnia. Visibly moved, he explained that what he had seen and experienced was something he would and could never forget. He never imagined that such brutality was possible. Even for the audience who could only see the witness’ back, it was obvious how deeply these memories hurt. When he began to cry, the presiding judge interrupted the hearing. The judges exited the courtroom and the witness withdrew into a separate room for witnesses. The majority of those attending the hearing remained seated in silence.
When the proceedings continued ten minutes later, the presiding judge briefly assured herself that the witness was well. After a brief “all is well,” he was questioned by all the parties to the trial and patiently answered. During his testimony, he used a laser to point to aerial photographs that were projected onto a large screen behind the judge’s bench. After more than four hours, the judge finally dismissed the witness by thanking him, as she had done the day before. Over these four hours, none of those present could have failed to notice what the torture in the al-Khatib branch meant for those detained there. Eight years passed between these events and the witness’ testimony today. Some memories had faded, but others were as vivid as ever.
The atmosphere was relaxed when those involved in the al-Khatib trial slowly gathered in room 128 of the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz. After a three-week break, they greeted each other amicably, some stood together to exchange a few words. After the five judges entered the courtroom, the presiding judge casually noted the attendance of the parties to the trial.
The mood quickly changed when the witness invited to testify entered the room. Through a side door, a tall man stepped in hesitantly. After he gave the presiding judge his personal details, he began to speak.
In 2012, at the age of 22, he was arrested while on his way to work by a pro-government militia in Damascus. The problem was that his passport showed Aleppo as his place of origin – an administrative error, since he had been living and working in Damascus for a long time. The militia took him and several others into custody. When they pushed him into a cell, he did not fall to the ground as expected; the cell was already so crowded that he fell on other prisoners. Militia members sprayed him and his fellow prisoners with gasoline, and he heard them discuss if someone should light a cigarette and throw it into the cell. At that moment, the witness thought for the first time that he would die.
Rather than being lit on fire, they were beaten and taken to the al-Khatib branch. There, he and his fellow prisoners were again dragged into a crowded cell. When the presiding judge asked for details about the situation in the cell, the witness stood up and, in front of the judge’s bench, showed how the several hundred prisoners in that cell could only sit with drawn-up knees. Some sat in other prisoners’ laps. As soon as someone stood up, they could not sit down again, as someone else immediately occupied their spot. It almost became cheerful in the courtroom when the witness recounted how the prisoners almost cried when a particularly large man was once brought into the cell – it was already crowded enough in there. But that moment only lasted a few seconds. The stories about skin diseases, the stench, the constant mistreatment, humiliation, and the insufficient and bad food were too serious. The witness did not know for how long he was imprisoned like that, as there was no daylight in the cell; he could only estimate two to three weeks. On several occasions, he was taken to an interrogation room where he was abused and forced to answer questions.
After his account, all parties to the trial questioned the witness, for example about details of his abuse and the content of the interrogations. When the presiding judge expressed her gratitude towards the witness, the courtroom’s initially relaxed atmosphere had disappeared for good. The arbitrary nature of Syria’s torture system was convincingly demonstrated to everyone in the courtroom. The witness was severely maltreated for several weeks just because of an administrative error on his identity card. He emphasized this arbitrariness again and again. What torments him the most to this day is the “why.” Why did he and his fellow prisoners have to experience all this? The witness was only on his way to work. Another prisoner sold vegetables in the wrong place.
His time in the al-Khatib branch affected him greatly. After the witness was released from detention and in terrible condition, the first thing he said to his family was “May God do everything in his power to ensure I no longer stay in this country.” He left Syria in 2013.
On day 18 of the al-Khatib trial, noticeably fewer people attended the trial compared to its beginning. Still about ten people – Syrian and German activists, journalists and others – watched the trial. This has been the case on most days since the trial started on 23 April. The gallery was never empty, people have come daily to document and report on the trial. Today, the two accused and their lawyers changed seats after the defense lawyers requested a seat from where they can better see witnesses. The courtroom is still full of Plexiglas walls between seats due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Before witness questioning could begin, the presiding judge warned a journalist in the audience after he took photographs in the courtroom without permission. The presiding judge stressed – again – that image and sound recordings are prohibited in German court proceedings. In the future, she may fine anyone who disrespects this.
On day 18, the only witness summoned to court was Mr A, a cousin of the accused Eyad A, who also lives in Germany. The witness reported that he was always interested in politics. When the uprising started in Syria in March 2011, he went to demonstrations and even tried to organize public gatherings himself.
After a failed demonstration in April 2011, the witness said he was arrested at an internet café while writing about the meeting online. Security forces had apparently followed him there. Mr A testified that he then brought to the Palestine department. He said the intelligence agencies were known as “butcher shops made to slaughter people.” In this context, it seemed all the more surprising that his interrogator emphasized that he just wanted to talk to him, as the witness recounted. Mr A said he was insulted but never beaten – unlike other detainees he saw in the department’s hallways who sat on the floor facing the wall, hands clasped behind their heads, who were beaten and humiliated whenever department staff passed them. Mr A stated that he was released from the department after 10 hours – with the absurd advice that he could always contact the department if he needed help, or even share information with department staff. When questioned by the court, the witness said that he never responded to this offer, which seemed to be an attempt to recruit him. He said that he could not explain why he was treated so exceptionally. Despite the mild outcome of his arrest, he told the court that he did not leave the house for weeks out of fear.
Mr A said that he did not find it problematic that his cousin was a member of the security forces, even though he was imprisoned and witnessed the services’ brutal behavior during demonstrations. The witness stated that Eyad A had repeatedly spoken out in support of the uprisings, passed on information when he found out that acquaintances were at risk of being arrested, and made disparaging remarks about some brutal colleagues. This statement seemed to surprise and bewilder the audience, as well as the associate judge, who repeatedly asked the witness whether if he had not found it difficult, as someone critical of the Syrian government, to be in close touch with his cousin who worked for the government. Did he not wonder how Eyad A’s words, that he supported the uprisings, could fit with his work in the security forces? Had the witness, as supporter of the opposition, never been worried about his cousin’s activities? Mr A always replied no.
According to Mr A, he did not know what exactly his cousin’s tasks were in the security forces. He said he did know that his cousin volunteered for the job, and previously worked as a physical education teacher, and then in Syria’s Ministry for Religious Affairs. However, the cousins never discussed Eyad A’s activities. Nor was the witness able to say whether Eyad A had ever worked at Branch 40. Mr A only mentioned that the accused often spoke about Hafiz Makhlouf’s brutal behavior, also towards his employees. At the time, Makhlouf was the head of Branch 40.
The judges reminded the witness that he was obliged to tell the truth, and repeatedly referred to his fall 2019 statement to the police, in which he was able to elaborate much more on his cousin’s activities, as well as Eyad A’s involvement in Branch 40. Although sections of the police statement were read out to him, the witness stuck to his testimony that Eyad A never told him about his exact tasks at work. Mr A was therefore unable to comment on the German federal prosecutor’s accusation that Eyad A helped bring people to Branch 251.
On 2 July, steps away from where visitors, administrators and journalists queued to enter the court for day 15 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 was organized by Families for Freedom, a women-led movement of Syrian families 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 the al-Khatib trial’s defendants are charged with.
The testimony of one major witness, Mr I, was featured on the 16th and 17th day of court. 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 the witness left 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 the al-Khatib branch. Mr I described how, even from his post outside the buildings of the branch, he observed the mistreatment and subsequent detention of hundreds of people arriving at Branch 251 as they were ushered into investigation rooms or into detention. He also described hearing them calling out in pain from the branch’s basement while they were being beaten, sobbing that they “had done nothing.”
The witness’ sketch demonstrated the proximity of Anwar R’s office to the torture sites. Anwar R had insisted in his recorded statement that he had no knowledge of it. In the view of many spectators, the witness’ testimony further eroded the credibility of Anwar R’s statements before the court (see court report day 5).
Testimony from the police and migration officers who conducted Mr I’s initial interviews was given on 3 July, day 16 of the trial. Their testimony was in keeping with Mr I’s, and lent support to the impression that Mr I’s recollections and reflections in court were consistent with his earlier testimony.
Near the end of the session, the counsel for a civil plaintiff 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, 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, Anwar 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 of and authority for the detention, treatment and torture of those who languished and suffered in Branch 251.
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 was detained himself in Branch 251, and personally knows the main defendant Anwar R from another branch. 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.
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.”