Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 473, 19 January 2022

Germany: Trials and conviction of a Syrian military officer
Ashwin Immanuel Dhanabalan

In the news
On 13 January, a German court in Koblenz sentenced a former Syrian Colonel - Anwar Raslan, to life imprisonment for committing crimes against humanity in Syria in 2011-2012. 

On 14 January, the Delegation of the European Union to Syria released a statement on the verdict as a part of a broader approach. The statement considers the verdict as "...an important step towards the fight against impunity and to secure justice and accountability in Syria". The EU also reiterated its support to gather more evidence for future legal actions against the regime. Syrian opposition and rebels groups praised Germany's conviction of Raslan; they also called for justice against more senior targets. Syrian Front for Liberation's head party Mustafa Sejari said: "Justice begins by holding and pursuing Assad and his top henchmen, aides and supporters of his crimes."

Issues at large
First, Raslan's conviction. The ruling is considered a landmark judgment as the conviction is the world's first trial that prosecutes state-sponsored tortures in Syria under the Bashar al-Assad regime. Raslan was caught in Germany in 2019 as he sought asylum among other refugees fleeing from Syria. He was convicted for torturing at least 4,000 people in prison in Damascus. Raslan was also found guilty of 27 counts of murder, rape, and sexual assault. The case is a first of its kind as it implicates a high-ranking Syrian officer and targets a government still in power to be convicted for crimes against humanity. The Assad regime remains in control, preventing further actions against the leaders.

Second, looking beyond the ICC in Hague. Syria is not a signatory party to the International Criminal Court in Hague, which restricts its principles from being applied to the country. Even if the UN Security Council voted to refer the case to the ICC, Russia, and China, allies of the Assad regime would block the vote through a veto. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights hailed the German court's decision as this set an example of how national courts could play a crucial role in handling crimes outside the purview of their borders. The conviction also highlighted the limitations of international organizations and the restricted options left for victims to seek justice.

Third, Germany and the Universal Jurisdiction Principle. Germany has been playing an essential role in upholding the legal principle; some of the recent examples would include the following: cases of the Yazidis genocide in Iraq, the crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and now against the Assad regime.

In perspective
First, Raslan's case would serve as a judicial reference for more lawsuits against the Assad regime. Though this would not lead to the ICC questioning Assad or holding him accountable for the human rights violations, it will provide hope to the rebels, opposition groups, and individuals in Syria still suffering under the regime. Second, the Hague would continue with its role, but there would be a shift to national courts stepping up to play decisive roles for crimes against humanity. 

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