A German court on Thursday convicted a former Syrian secret police officer of crimes against humanity for overseeing the abuse of detainees at a jail near Damascus a decade ago.
The verdict in the landmark trial has been keenly anticipated by Syrians who suffered abuse or lost relatives at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the country’s long-running conflict.
The Koblenz state court concluded that Anwar Raslan was the senior officer in charge of a facility in the Syrian city of Douma known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, where suspected opposition protesters were detained.
The court sentenced him to life in prison. His lawyers asked judges last week to acquit their client, claiming that he never personally tortured anybody and that he defected in late 2012.
German prosecutors alleged that Raslan supervised the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people.
A junior officer, Eyad al-Gharib, was convicted last year of accessory to crimes against humanity and sentenced by the Koblenz court to 4½ years in prison.
Both men were arrested in Germany in 2019, years after seeking asylum in the country.
Victims and human rights groups have said they hope the verdict will be a first step toward justice for countless people who have been unable to file criminal complaints against officials in Syria or before the International Criminal Court.
Since Russia and China have blocked efforts for the U.N. Security Council to refer cases to The Hague-based tribunal, countries such as Germany that apply the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes will increasingly become the venue for such trials, experts say.
“We are starting to see the fruits of a determined push by courageous survivors, activists and others to achieve justice for horrific atrocities in Syria’s network of prisons,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
“The verdict is a breakthrough for Syrian victims and the German justice system in cracking the wall of impunity,” she added. “Other countries should follow Germany’s lead and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”
The trial is the first of its kind worldwide and other courts may cite the verdict and evidence heard in Koblenz, said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. The group represented several victims who under German law were able to take part in the proceedings as co-plaintiffs.
A key part of the evidence against Raslan were the photographs of alleged torture victims smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer, who goes by the alias of Caesar.
Conservative estimates put the number of those detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria at 149,000, more than 85 percent of them at the hands of the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Most disappeared or were detained soon after peaceful protests erupted in March 2011 against al-Assad’s government, which responded to the rallies with a brutal crackdown.
The Syrian government denies it is holding any political prisoners, labeling its opposition terrorists. After battlefield wins, it has negotiated limited prisoner exchanges with various armed groups, which families say offer partial solutions for a very small number of people.