Today, the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, for the first time convicted a senior Assad government official for crimes against humanity in Syria. Anwar R, former head of the Investigation Department of the detention facility of Branch 251 of the Syrian General Intelligence Service, was convicted to a life sentence as he was found guilty of being the co-perpetrator of torture, 27 murders and cases of sexual violence and other crimes in the so-called al-Khatib Branch. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), together with three partner lawyers, supported 14 joint plaintiffs and other Syrians affected.
Ruham Hawash, Syrian survivor of the al-Khatib Branch and joint plaintiff in the case against Anwar R, says: “This day, this verdict is important for all Syrians who have suffered and are still suffering from the Assad regime’s crimes. It shows us: justice should and must not remain a dream for us. This verdict is only a beginning and we have a long way to go – but for us affected people, this trial and today’s ruling are a first step towards freedom, dignity and justice.”
“For the first time, a higher-ranking member of the Syrian regime has been convicted of crimes against humanity – also thanks to the tireless work of many activists and NGOs,” states Patrick Kroker, joint plaintiff representative and ECCHR’s partner lawyer. “The verdict today is only a first step in addressing the crimes in Syria – but this first step is often the most difficult. The goal remains to bring senior Assad associates, such as former Air Force Intelligence chief Jamil Hassan, to justice for their crimes.” In 2017, ECCHR had filed criminal charges against Hassan, and in June 2018, the German judiciary had issued an international arrest warrant for him.
The trial against Anwar R had begun on 23 April 2020, and was conducted in Germany under the so-called principle of universal jurisdiction. It allows the most serious crimes to be dealt with by courts in third countries. R’s associate Eyad A was already sentenced by the Koblenz court in February 2021 to four years and six months in prison for aiding and abetting 30 cases of crimes against humanity. Through this, the court for the first time confirmed that the crimes in Syria amount to crimes against humanity.
“Despite all the shortcomings of international criminal justice, Anwar R’s conviction shows what the principle of universal jurisdiction can achieve – and that such trials are in fact feasible in Germany and Europe,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR General Secretary. “Universal jurisidiction is often the last hope for victims of the most serious crimes. In any case, today’s judgment creates a solid basis for other European prosecutors to pursue further proceedings. Dealing with crimes in Syria in third countries is not ideal – but possible, and a duty towards those affected.”
An important sign for many victims is Anwar R’s conviction also for sexual violence as a crime against humanity. ECCHR has contributed significantly to this, as ECCHR partner lawyers René Bahns, Sebastian Scharmer and Patrick Kroker had successfully petitioned the court to charge sexual violence not as individual cases, but as a systematic crime against the Syrian civilian population.
On the other hand, enforced disappearances – one of the most emblematic crimes against Syrian civilians – were not convicted. “Tens of thousands continue to disappear in Syria – witnesses in the trial also repeatedly told of how they themselves, family members or acquaintances had been disappeared. In future proceedings, enforced disappearances must be prosecuted as separate crime to finally bring justice to those disappeared and their families,” explains Joumana Seif, Syrian human rights defender and research fellow at ECCHR.
ECCHR has been working since 2012 to address the serious crimes committed in Syria. Together with around 100 torture survivors, Syrian and European partner organizations, ECCHR has filed a number of criminal complaints in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway against high-ranking members of the Syrian security apparatus. The criminal complaints in Germany significantly contributed to the trial against Anwar R and Eyad A in Koblenz.