A German court on Thursday sentenced a former Syrian colonel to life in prison for crimes against humanity in a landmark for the first world trial of state-sponsored torture in Syria.
Anwar Raslan, 58, was found guilty of supervising the killings of 27 people at the Al-Khatib Detention Center in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251”, in 2011 and 2012.
He sought refuge in Germany after deserting the Syrian regime in 2012.
Prosecutors had accused him of supervising the killings of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others in the detention center, but not all deaths could be proven.
The defendant, wearing a green winter jacket and listening to the verdict in headphones, remained emotionless when his verdict was read out in court.
More than 80 witnesses, including 12 deserters from the regime and many Syrian men and women now living across Europe, lined up to testify during the trial, and a dozen also took part in the verdict.
The chairman said they deserved “full respect”.
Syrian activists gathered outside the court on Thursday with banners and posters with slogans such as “where are they?” refers to their relatives who have disappeared in Syrian detention centers.
Raslan was brought to justice in April 2020 along with another lower-ranking defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, who was accused of helping to arrest protesters and deliver them to the detention center.
Gharib was sentenced last year to four and a half years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity, in the first worldwide sentence for torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The court in the West German city of Koblenz noted at the time a “widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population” since the Syrian civil war began with a brutal crackdown on protests in March 2011.
The case against the two men was brought with the help of the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which means that crimes can be prosecuted even if they have been committed in another country.
Other such cases have also emerged in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrians seeking protection in Europe turn to the only legal means at their disposal at present.
In another prominent case in Germany, the trial of a former Syrian doctor accused of crimes against humanity will begin next week.
The chief prosecutor of the Raslan trial, who has noted Germany’s historical responsibility to convict such crimes, quoted a Holocaust survivor in his closing remarks.
Raslan worked for 18 years in the Syrian intelligence service, where he rose through the ranks to become head of the domestic intelligence “investigation”, according to a German investigator who testified at the beginning of the trial.
Prosecutors say he monitored rape and sexual assault, “electric shocks”, beatings with “fists, cords and whips” and “lack of sleep” in prison.
Whipping, electric shock
Witnesses reported whipping, electric shocks, cigarette burns and blows to the abdomen. Some say they were hung by the wrists, with only the tips of their feet still touching the ground.
A man testified about mass graves that he was responsible for cataloging.
Some witnesses have hidden their faces or appeared in disguise, fearing the consequences for their surviving relatives in Syria, while other victims have been too scared to appear at all.
“I hope we could give a voice to those who are deprived of it,” in Syria, Wassim Mukdad, a former prisoner who testified at the trial, told AFP ahead of the verdict.
“I want justice done,” he said.
Pictures of dead Syrians smuggled out of the country by “Caesar”, a defector who worked as a photographer for the Syrian military police, have also been used as evidence in the trial.
Raslan remained silent throughout the trial but said in a statement through his lawyers that he “had neither beaten nor tortured” prisoners and “had never acted inhumanely”.
They said he “did not and would not tolerate” the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and felt “remorse and compassion” for all the victims.
Raslan has never tried to hide his past and told the police about his time in Syria in February 2015 when he sought police protection in Berlin.
According to the British monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have been killed under torture or as a result of the horrific conditions in the Assad detention center.
– This trial is very important for Syrians because it investigates very serious crimes that continue to be committed today, says the Syrian lawyer Joumana Seif.