A German court on Thursday convicted a former Syrian secret police officer of crimes against humanity for overseeing the abuse of inmates at a prison near Damascus a decade ago.
The verdict in the landmark trial was eagerly awaited by Syrians who have been mistreated or lost loved ones in the country’s longstanding conflict by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The Koblenz State Court concluded that Anwar Raslan was the senior officer at a facility in the Syrian city of Douma known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, where suspected opposition figures were arrested.
The court sentenced him to life imprisonment. His lawyers urged judges last week to acquit their client, claiming he never personally tortured anyone and defected in late 2012.
German prosecutors claimed Raslan oversaw the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people.
A junior officer, Eyad al-Gharib, was convicted of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity last year and sentenced to 4½ years in prison by the Koblenz court.
Both men were arrested in Germany in 2019, years after they applied for asylum in the country.
Victims and human rights groups have expressed hope that the verdict will be a first step towards justice for countless people who have been unable to bring criminal charges against officials in Syria or at the International Criminal Court.
As Russia and China have blocked UN Security Council efforts to refer cases to the Hague-based tribunal, countries like Germany, which apply the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes, are increasingly becoming venues for such trials, experts say.
“We are beginning to see the fruits of the determined push by courageous survivors, activists and others to seek justice for the appalling atrocities taking place in Syria’s prison network,” said Balkees Jarrah, deputy director of international justice at Human Rights Watch.
“The verdict is a breakthrough for the Syrian victims and the German judiciary in breaching the wall of impunity,” she added. “Other countries should follow Germany’s example and actively support efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”
The trial is the first of its kind in the world and other courts could refer to the verdict and evidence heard in Koblenz, said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. The group represented several victims who, under German law, could participate in the proceedings as joint plaintiffs.
A key piece of evidence against Raslan was photos of alleged torture victims smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer who goes by the alias Caesar.
Conservative estimates put the number of people detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria at 149,000, more than 85 percent of them in the hands of the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Most disappeared or were arrested shortly after peaceful protests broke out in March 2011 against the al-Assad government, which responded with brutal crackdowns on the rallies.
The Syrian government has denied holding political prisoners and has labeled its opposition terrorists. Following battlefield victories, she has negotiated limited prisoner exchanges with various armed groups that families say offer partial solutions for a very small number of people.