Germany prepares first trial over Syrian state-sponsored torture


Berlin (AFP)

Germany charged two alleged former Syrian secret service officers with participating in crimes against humanity, in what rights activists said Tuesday would be the first trial worldwide over state-sponsored torture in Syria.

Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib were arrested in February together with a third suspect in France in a coordinated operation by German and French police, the federal prosecutor's office in the German city of Karlsruhe said.

Raslan, who allegedly led an investigative unit with its own prison in the Damascus area targeting members of the Syrian opposition, is "suspected of complicity in crimes against humanity" in charges filed on October 22, the prosecutors said in a statement.

"In this context he is also accused of murder in 58 cases, rape and aggravated sexual assault" in the jail where more than 4,000 prisoners suffered "brutal and massive torture" from April 2011 to September 2012.

Gharib, a former officer who had manned checkpoints and hunted protesters, allegedly aided and abetted the abduction and torture of at least 30 people in the autumn of 2011.

In the town of Douma at the time, security authorities used force to break up an anti-government rally. Gharib is believed to have helped capture fleeing demonstrators and detain them in the prison headed by Raslan.

- 'Stopping the protest movement' -

The Syria conflict began in March 2011 with a series of mass protests demanding civil liberties, prompting a harsh crackdown by the regime which quickly began using "brutal force" against anti-government protesters, prosecutors said.

More than 360,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict with millions more displaced.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have died from torture or harsh conditions in regime custody since the conflict began.

"The Syrian secret services played a significant role in this, with the aim of stopping the protest movement as soon as possible and cowing the population," they said.

Raslan left Syria in late 2012 and arrived in Germany in July 2014, while Gharib left in February 2013 and entered the country in April 2018.

The same day that the two suspects were arrested in February, another Syrian was detained in the Paris region for "acts of torture, crimes against humanity and complicity in these crimes", the Paris prosecutor's office said at the time.

Several other legal cases are now pending against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Germany, which took in more than 1.2 million asylum seekers since 2015 including hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

Last year, German prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, a top Syrian official who headed the notorious airforce intelligence directorate and is accused of overseeing the torture and murder of hundreds of detainees.

Although the alleged abuses did not happen in Germany, the case has been filed under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows any country to pursue perpetrators regardless of where the crime was committed.

- 'Ready to testify' -

The Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has also joined with torture survivors to file criminal complaints against 10 high-ranking Syrian officials, accusing them of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Welcoming Tuesday's charges, the ECCHR said: "The first trial worldwide about state torture in Syria is expected to start in Germany in early 2020 –- an important step in the fight against impunity."

Prosecutors outlined a system of brutal interrogations of opposition members including a variety of torture methods including "blows with fists, truncheons, pipes, cables, whips and hoses as well as electric shocks".

Prisoners were also suspended from the ceiling by their wrists and beaten, sexually assaulted, deprived of sleep and threatened with harming their loved ones.

"The systematically brutal physical and psychological mistreatment served to force confessions and extract information about the opposition movement," prosecutors said.

The ECCHR, which supports Syrian torture survivors as co-plaintiffs in legal proceedings, said 14 witnesses had participated in the German investigation.

"This process in Germany gives hope, even if everything takes a long time and nothing happens tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow," it quoted an unnamed Syrian, who was tortured in the al-Khatib detention facility where the suspects worked, as saying.

"The fact that it continues at all gives us as survivors hope for justice. I am ready to testify."