Koblenz, Germany – The final day of the world’s first criminal trial focusing on Syria’s war crimes began well before dawn. Around 3 a.m., a small crowd began to gather at the gates of the courthouse in the southwestern German city of Koblenz, eager to secure their seats inside.
It was still dark outside when Merlina Herbach and Hassan Kansour arrived at 4:30am (03:30GMT).
“For the past two years, we have participated in trials every time,” explains Herbach. The two are trial observers at the Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability. “We don’t want to miss a seat.”
In 2019, German federal prosecutors charged former Syrian Colonel Anwar Raslan with complicity in crimes against humanity. To do this, they use a principle called universal jurisdiction, which allows countries such as Germany to prosecute wherever war crimes occur.
Before he defected in 2012 and sought asylum in Germany, Raslan was in charge of the Damascus offices of Division 251, Syria’s notoriously brutal secret service. As a result, prosecutors say he was complicit in torture, murder and sexual assault.
He is the highest-ranking official to be tried for atrocities committed in Syria.
Raslan’s trial, which began in April 2020, ended this Thursday — 21 months, 108 hearings and more than 80 witnesses.
As the sun began to rise, about 50 people, many of them Syrian, lined up to enter the courtroom. Women from Syria Movement, an advocacy group, held up photos of loved ones still missing from their homes and held a small sit-in in the cold. About a dozen camera crews filmed the queue and protesters.
“I was a little apprehensive when I first arrived,” muses one sit-in member. “What if something disappointing happens? How does that feel for all of us inside and outside Syria?”
The courtroom was packed when the court opened at 10.30am (9.30GMT). Due to the pandemic, all 36 seats in the gallery, separated by clear plastic screens, were filled with members of the public and journalists. About a dozen Syrian co-plaintiffs and their lawyers were also present.
The leader of the five-judge panel hearing the case, Justice Anne Kerber, immediately announced that Rathlan would be sentenced to life in prison. The judge then spent six hours explaining the rationale behind the sentencing, with two translators repeating everything in Arabic.
Kerber said Raslan was “a careerist in a totalitarian regime.” “But he’s not just a cog in the regime apparatus.”
Kerber told the court he knew what was going on in that prison and he accepted.
As a result, the judge of the high district court found the Syrian man to be an accomplice of the Syrian government in the murder of 27 people and the torture of more than 4,000 people, as well as various sexual and physical violence and unlawful detention. .
However, they did not find him guilty “in exceptional circumstances”, meaning there was no chance of parole.
“These crimes took place a long time ago and he has not committed any crimes since then,” Justice Kerber explained. “He did help some people [get out of the prison] And be kind to some others. “
The atmosphere in the courtroom after the sentencing was one of relief, not joy.
“I’ve been working on this for two years, and I’m just relieved,” said Joumana Seif, a researcher at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, which supports several torture survivors in the case. “Especially when I see the survivors being content. It’s a legal recognition of their pain and suffering.”
“This is the first step, and we can build on that in the future,” said Musallam al-Quwatli, a survivor with psychological problems after being tortured in Division 251 in 2011.
At a brief outdoor news conference after the court case, lawyers assisting survivors also expressed satisfaction, while stressing the need for more such cases. As expected, Raslan’s lawyers immediately appealed.
“I think it’s fair. It restores my faith in justice,” said Rowaida Kanaan, a five-time prisoner in Syria and a co-plaintiff in the case.
Kanan said she would like to see some reactions from Raslan herself. Throughout the trial, the slender, bald, and mustachioed former commander was ruthless most of the time, huddled in his khaki jacket, taking notes for himself, even closing his eyes occasionally . He hardly looked around.
“When the judge told him he was responsible for 27 murders, there was nothing. There was no response,” recalls Kanan. “It’s almost like he’s still in the same place, back at branch 251, writing notes.”