A former Syrian intelligence official was sentenced on Wednesday to four and a half years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity in the first case of state-sponsored torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Eyad al-Gharib, 44, was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity while helping to arrest protesters and hand them over to a detention center in Damascus in the fall of 2011.
“The accused is sentenced to four years and six months for having contributed to a crime against humanity in the form of torture and deprivation of liberty,” said Judge Anne Kerber.
Gharib hid his face from the cameras with a folder when the verdict was read out, arms folded and wearing a medical mask.
Almost ten years since the Arab Spring reached Syria on March 15, 2011, the verdict is the first in the world related to the brutal repression of protesters by the regime in Damascus.
Gharib, a former low-ranking member of the intelligence service, is accused of helping to arrest at least 30 protesters and deliver them to the Al-Khatib detention center in Damascus following a demonstration in the Duma.
He is the first of two defendants facing trial since April 23, who was sentenced by the Koblenz court after a judge decided to split the proceedings in two.
The other defendant, Anwar Raslan, 58, is directly accused of crimes against humanity, including the surveillance of the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others.
Raslan’s trial is expected to last until at least the end of October.
The two men are being tested on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity, including war crimes and genocide, no matter where they were committed.
The gear in the machine
Other such cases have also emerged in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrians seeking refuge in Europe turn to the only legal remedies currently available to them due to paralysis in the international judiciary.
Prosecutors in Koblenz had sought five and a half years for Gharib, who dropped out in 2012 before finally fleeing Syria in February 2013.
After spending time in Turkey and then Greece, Gharib arrived in Germany on April 25, 2018.
He has never denied his past, and in fact it was his stories that were told to German authorities responsible for his asylum application that eventually led to his arrest in February 2019.
Prosecutors accused him of being a cog in the machine in a system where torture was carried out on an “almost industrial scale”.
During the trial, Gharib wrote a letter read out by his lawyers in which he expressed his grief for the victims.
And it was with tears streaming down his face that he listened to his lawyers demand his acquittal and argued that he and his family could have been killed if he had not carried out the regime’s order.
But Patrick Kroker, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, argued that Gharib could have been more prominent during the trial, rather than keeping quiet throughout the hearings.
People like him “can be very important in informing us about the (Syrian officials) we are really targeting, but that’s something he chose not to do,” Kroker said.
During the trial, more than a dozen Syrian men and women took the stand to testify about the horrific abuses they were subjected to in the Al-Khatib Detention Center, also known as “Branch 251”.
Some witnesses were heard anonymously, with faces hidden or wearing wigs for fear of reprisals against their relatives still in Syria.
The trial also marked the first time that images from the so-called Caesar files were presented in a court of law.
The 50,000 photos taken by the Syrian military police defector “Caesar” show the bodies of 6,786 Syrians who had been starved or tortured to death inside the Assad regime’s detention centers.
They were examined during the trial by forensic scientist Markus Rothschild, whose analysis constituted overwhelming material evidence.