Conflict Alerts # 78, 29 April 2020
In the news
On 22 April the trial of two Syrian officials began in the south-western German town of Koblenz. The officials, who defected from the Syrian regime in 2014, are charged with war crimes. Since the Syrian civil war started nine years ago, this is the first time that members close to the Bashar al-Assad regime are facing charges of crimes against humanity and are going to face trial in a foreign land.
The accused, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib had sought political asylum from Germany in 2019 with an aim to escape the civil war in Syria in totality. However, their asylum plea was rejected and will face the trial for being part of oppressive state machinery.
Issues at large
Both the defectors undergoing the current trial were members of the notorious intelligence service of Syria called the Branch 251. When the conflict started as members of the intelligence unit, they arrested, tortured, killed, and raped protesters and opposition figures before defecting to Germany. They have committed 58 murders at Branch 251 and oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 people as a commanding officer between 29 April 2011 and 7 September 2012. In the course of the application of asylum, the defectors did not exhibit remorse or tried to protect their past.
The prosecution of the Syrian defectors by the German prosecutors in a German court against the crimes that were committed in Syria is possible due to Germany's Code of Crimes Against International Law. The code came into force in June 2002 and incorporates the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows German courts to prosecute crimes against international law even if they were not committed in Germany and that neither the perpetrators nor the victims are of German origin.
With the current trial of the Syrian officials, Berlin has once again shown the efficiency of its war crime units and a powerful signal that human rights abusers cannot rest in comfort in another country after committing crimes that shook the consciousness of humanity.
First, the trial puts in perspective the nature of Assad’s regime and the culture of impunity, torture, and oppression in Syria. When the accused test guilty it will lay bare the workings of a violent system that suppressed and murdered thousands of civilians. This also throws light on the series of chemical attacks, assassinations that the regime has been charged off committing but until now no one with a direct connection to Assad has been indicted.
Second, the trial brings a poetic justice to the refugee crisis that started after the civil war in 2016. The overcrowded boats carrying Syrians refugees to the European shores continue even today. Greece has grappled with thousands of refugees in its camps and picked up the bodies of other thousands that wash up its shores.
Last, the Syrian diaspora in Berlin played an important role in registering their complaints on the crimes against humanity by the regime. The evidence against Raslan has come from the work of various Syrian exile groups in Europe that have collected 8,00,000 pieces of documentary evidence from the Syrian conflict.
Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at the National Insitute of Advanced Studies (NIAS).