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German court issues guilty verdict in first Syria torture trial

The verdict gives hope to the 800,000 Syrians in Germany who say they were tortured in government facilities.

KOBLENZ, Germany — A German court sentenced a former member of President Bashar al-Assad's security services to four and a half years in prison on Wednesday for facilitating the torture of civilians, the first such verdict for crimes against humanity in the 10-year-old Syrian civil war.

The higher regional court in the western city of Koblenz said Eyad A. had arrested at least 30 anti-government protesters at the start of the conflict in 2011 and sent them to an intelligence facility where he knew detainees were tortured.

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The verdict gives hope to the 800,000 Syrians in Germany who say they were tortured in government facilities after attempts to establish an international tribunal for Syria failed.

"This is an important step forward in the process of securing accountability for the Syrian government's systematic use of torture against civilians," said Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Foundation's Justice Initiative, which is representing Syrian plaintiffs.

Image: A Syrian Kurdish boy sits on a destroyed tank in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab
A Syrian Kurdish boy sits on a destroyed tank in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, in 2015.Yasin Akgul / AFP via Getty Images file

The Assad government denies it tortures prisoners.

Eyad A.'s lawyers had asked for an acquittal, saying he had carried out the arrests in and around Damascus under duress by his superiors. He had asked the court to consider him a witness in broader legal efforts against the Syrian government.

The same court will continue hearings in the case of a second suspect identified as Anwar R., a former intelligence officer charged with 58 murders in a Damascus prison where prosecutors say at least 4,000 opposition activists were tortured in 2011 and 2012.

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said the unprecedented verdict would speed up efforts to bring charges against former members of the Syrian government suspected of war crimes who have fled to Europe.

"History has been made," said al-Bunni. "The first verdict against a member of the Syrian regime's torture and murder machine is a verdict against the whole regime, not just against one individual. It gives hope that justice is possible."