It was the torture and death of this 13-year-old boy, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, in 2011, which sparked many of the protests in Syria [[File:Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb.]]

A GERMAN court yesterday sentenced a former Syrian colonel to life in prison for committing crimes against humanity at a jail near Damascus a decade ago.

Anwar Raslan, a former intelligence officer in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s security services, was convicted of murder, rape, and crimes against humanity in what has been hailed as a landmark trial by the state court in Koblenz.

Raslan served under al-Assad as mass anti-government protests against his rule were violently crushed in 2011. He worked for 18 years in the Syrian secret services, where he rose through the ranks to become head of the domestic intelligence ‘investigation’ service, according to a German investigator who testified at the opening of the trial.

Took refuge in Germany

He sought refuge in Germany in 2014, after defecting from his post and deserting Syria in 2012, and was arrested in 2019. Raslan was charged with 58 murders as well as rape and sexual assault, and the torture of at least 4,000 people held in Syria’s notorious Al-Khatib prison between 2011 and 2012.

“The prisoner was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, torture, aggravated deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault,” the court in Koblenz said in a press release.

It was the world’s first criminal case brought over state-led torture in Syria, and 58-year-old Raglan is the highest-ranking former government official to be tried for atrocities committed there.

The trial was significant for many reasons. It was unprecedented in taking on Syria’s state-led torture and was motivated by the arrival in Germany of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who had fled their own country.

Universal jurisdiction

Almost 800,000 Syrians now live in Germany, and many of them brought with them terrible stories of what happened to those who dared to oppose the Assad regime. German human rights lawyers took up their cause, using the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring the case to court. This allows serious crimes committed in one country to be tried elsewhere.

It is now hoped other countries will follow Germany’s lead. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called it a “long-awaited beacon of hope that justice can and will in the end prevail”.

“Germany’s trial against Anwar Raslan is a message to the Syrian authorities that no one is beyond the reach of justice,” Balkees Jarrah, HRW’s associate international justice director, said in a statement. “Other countries should follow Germany’s lead, and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria,” he added.

This statement was echoed by Eric Witte of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which supported the case, who said ”The trial demonstrates that accountability for the Assad regime’s heinous atrocities is possible – that the evidence is overwhelming and will be accepted by courts of law – if national prosecutors and judges choose to act”. He added:

As much as we welcome the outcome of this trial, we must not forget that the cruelty of the crimes proved in court continues to this day in Syria.

Eric Witte, Open Society Justice Initiative

Prosecutors were able to try Raslan under Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws, which allow courts to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world. Next week, a second trial of a Syrian doctor suspected of crimes against humanity, including torturing prisoners at a military hospital in the city of Homs in 2011-2012, will open in Frankfurt. The doctor is also accused of murdering a prisoner using a lethal injection.

Previously, survivors of torture and other attacks have had very few options in their efforts to seek justice as, at the UN Security Council, Russia and China have vetoed attempts by Western powers to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This ruling hopefully serves as a reminder of what is still happening to Syrians today, and also as a warning to other leaders who commit crimes against humanity.

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