Live Updates: Former Syrian Colonel Guilty in War Crimes Trial in Germany

A court convicted Anwar Raslan of overseeing torture at a detention center nearly a decade ago. He was sentenced to life in prison, in one of the world’s first criminal trials on atrocities in Syria’s decade-long civil war.,

ImageA Syrian campaigner holding pictures of civil war victims outside the courthouse where Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian officer, was on trial on Thursday in Koblenz, Germany.
A Syrian campaigner holding pictures of civil war victims outside the courthouse where Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian officer, was on trial on Thursday in Koblenz, Germany.Credit…Bernd Lauter/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A court in Germany found a former Syrian security officer guilty on Thursday of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison. He is the highest-ranking Syrian official to be held accountable for abuses committed by the government during a decade of civil war.

The former officer, Anwar Raslan, was accused of overseeing a detention center where prosecutors said at least 4,000 people were tortured and nearly 60 were killed.

The verdict marks a watershed moment for an international network of lawyers, human rights activists and Syrian war survivors who have struggled for years to bring officials who sanctioned or participated in the violence to justice.

Through nearly 11 years of civil war, the Syrian government bombed residential neighborhoods, used poison gas and tortured countless detainees in state lockups, but until now, no high-level officials had been held accountable for these acts, which human rights lawyers describe as war crimes.

Mr. Raslan’s guilty verdict, they say, bolsters the ability of European courts to pursue similar cases while sending a message to war criminals around the world that they could one day face consequences.

“This is the first time that members of the Assad regime have had to stand trial before an ordinary criminal court,” said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany. “This sends a clear message to the world that certain crimes will not go unpunished.”

But while Mr. Raslan, a former colonel, held a high rank in a Syrian intelligence service, he was more of a cog than a pillar in the government of President Bashar al-Assad and its vast apparatus of repression.

After more than a decade of war, Mr. al-Assad remains in power, and there appears little chance that he or his senior advisers or military commanders will stand trial soon. They rarely travel abroad, and go only to countries they can count on not to arrest them, like Russia, a staunch supporter of Mr. al-Assad.

Other potential avenues for justice have also been blocked. Syria is not party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and Russia and China have used their vetoes on the United Nations Security Council to prevent Syria from being referred to the court.

Germany is among a few European countries that have sought to try former Syrian officials for war crimes based on universal jurisdiction, the principle of international law that says that some crimes are so grave that they can be prosecuted anywhere.

That is how Mr. Raslan ended up on trial in the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, a small city in western Germany.

Mr. Raslan, 58, oversaw a security office and detention center in Damascus, the Syrian capital, during the early days of the war.

German prosecutors argued that his position gave him oversight of torture that included beating, kicking, electric shocks and sexual assault. Witnesses in the trial said they were fed inedible food, denied medical care and kept in overcrowded cells.

At least 58 people died because of abuse under Mr. Raslan’s authority, prosecutors said. In a statement to the court, Mr. Raslan denied that he had been involved in torture.

He entered Germany on a visa in 2014 and lived there legally until the German authorities arrested him in 2019.

Anwar Raslan, second from right, at a court hearing in Koblenz, Germany, in 2020. German courts do not allow the news media to show the faces of defendants.Credit…Thomas Lohnes

For years, Anwar Raslan thought he had left the brutal civil war in Syria behind and found a new life in Europe.

But his past caught up with him in Germany, where he was tried for crimes against humanity.

Mr. Raslan, 58, had served in one of Syria’s security services, reaching the rank of colonel.

When the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011 with protests seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Raslan was the head of interrogation at a security office in the capital, Damascus.

Witnesses who testified against him in Germany described the place as rife with abuse: Beatings were common, the food was inedible, the cells were so crowded that some prisoners had to stand so others could lie down. German prosecutors said at least 4,000 people were tortured and nearly 60 killed under his authority there.

In a statement to the court this month, Mr. Raslan denied the charges and said he had used what he described as his limited authority in the security office to help detainees.

“I never had anything to do with torture,” he said.

Much of the case against Mr. Raslan rests on his role in helping to run that lockup.

But his later actions suggested he was not a complete Assad loyalist.

He fled Syria in 2012 after the government committed a massacre in his hometown, killing more than 100 people. He joined Syria’s exiled opposition and traveled with them to peace talks in Geneva in 2014.

That same year, he moved with most of his family to Germany, where he was so confident that the authorities would ensure his safety that when he told the police that he worried that agents of Mr. al-Assad were following him, he signed the report “colonel.”

The German police began investigating his background and established his role in the interrogation center in Damascus years before.

He was arrested in 2019, and his trial began the next year. On Thursday, Mr. Raslan was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life in prison.

Eyad al-Gharib, a former Syrian secret police officer, was convicted last February in Koblenz, Germany, of abetting crimes against humanity.Credit…Thomas Lohnes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The conviction of Anwar Raslan, a former security officer who was sentenced on Thursday to life in prison for overseeing torture at a Syrian detention center, is the most significant verdict yet for those seeking justice for crimes against humanity committed by Syrian officials.

But several other cases have already been tried or are pending.

When Mr. Raslan was arrested in 2019 in Germany, a low-ranking employee of the center he oversaw was arrested with him. Last February, a court found that employee, Eyad al-Gharib, guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity for his role in transporting protesters to Mr. Raslan’s center, which was known for torture. Mr. al-Gharib was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

A Syrian doctor accused of torturing a detainee in a secret military prison will soon go on trial in Germany on charges of crimes against humanity and causing grievous bodily harm. The doctor, Alaa Mousa, was living in Germany as a refugee when he was arrested in 2020.

Human rights lawyers concede that so far, the trials have targeted low- and middle-ranking Syrian officials or soldiers. The most prominent suspects are still in Damascus, where President Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

But the lower-level prosecutions still serve an important purpose for potential future cases, said Wolfgang Kaleck, a founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which represented victims in Mr. Raslan’s trial.

“If you don’t start now, then in 10 years, you cannot get Assad or his chief of intelligence because you have no evidence,” Mr. Kaleck said. “These cases are a way of building a stock of documents, witness statements, of understanding interconnections and gathering knowledge on which you can build future cases.”

Germany and other European countries have also prosecuted for war crimes former members of the Islamic State and other militant organizations that operated in Syria and Iraq.

Since the Syrian uprising in 2011, Syrian victims, human rights activists and others have filed more than 20 legal complaints against Syrian regime officials for war crimes and other violations of international law, according to Mr. Kaleck’s center.

Most cases are being investigated in Germany and other European countries, including Sweden and France. Germany has also been collecting evidence for a so-called structural investigation into war crimes committed by the Syrian state. This body of evidence, which has been growing for over a decade, could be used in different cases.

“More has to come, that is clear,” Mr. Kaleck said. “But this is an important step.”

The courtroom in Koblenz, Germany, in 2020.Credit…Pool photo by Thomas Lohnes

It is no coincidence that the trial of Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian security officer convicted on Thursday of state-sponsored torture, took place in Germany.

Owing partly to its own history in World War II, Germany has become something of a go-to venue for prosecuting crimes against humanity, even if committed outside its own borders. It is also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, putting it at the center of efforts to hold the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria accountable for war crimes.

Most of the Syrian refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016 fled the Assad regime, but some, like Mr. Raslan, had served in the president’s military and security services.

German prosecutors built their case with the help of hundreds of Syrian witnesses in Germany and beyond. They indicted Mr. Raslan using “universal jurisdiction,” a legal principle stipulating that in the case of crimes against humanity and genocide, normal territorial restraints on prosecutions do not apply.

The principle is not new. Israel used it during the 1960s trial of the former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, as did Spain in 1998 when demanding that Britain arrest Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. Previous universal jurisdiction cases in Germany have dealt with crimes committed in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and, more recently, with the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq by former members of the Islamic State.

Mr. Raslan’s case was the first involving state-sponsored torture in Syria — and the first to bring charges of crimes against humanity against officials from a government that remains in power.

“It’s a historic case,” said Anna Oehmichen, a German lawyer who cooperates with the Open Society Justice Initiative and represents co-plaintiffs against Mr. Raslan. “Germany is one of the pioneering states in prosecuting international crimes.”

Germany has the legal basis to prosecute such crimes under the German Code of Crimes Against International Law, which came into effect in 2002, and it has been using it.

The idea underpinning universal jurisdiction goes back to the Nuremberg trials, organized by the Allies after World War II to prosecute surviving members of the Nazi regime.

“For Germany, it’s also historically the continuation of what we learned from the Nazi period and what we learned about the importance of the Nuremberg trials and the Auschwitz trials for the way we dealt with our past and ultimately for who we are today,” said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany.

The Nuremberg trials went after the leading members of the Nazi regime, but also a range of individuals who played a role in Nazi repression, including doctors, business leaders, bureaucrats and propagandists, said Wolfgang Kaleck, a founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which is representing victims in Mr. Raslan’s trial.

“That’s what made it possible to get a picture of the whole apparatus that led to the Holocaust,” Mr. Kaleck said.

Mr. Raslan’s trial, he added, “is a first step in trying to get a picture of the crimes committed by Assad’s regime.”

New York Times photographers have covered Syria’s civil war and the humanitarian crisis it has unleashed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began nearly 11 years ago. Here is a selection of images from the conflict.

Much of Idlib Province in northwestern Syria is controlled by the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Idlib is one of the areas that remain outside government control. Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

In Syria, some 2,500 miles from the war crimes trial in Germany, the war at the center of the case has ground to a tense standoff, largely fading from public view.

But the decade-long conflict has left the country shattered, killing hundreds of thousands of people, forcing half of the population from their homes and reducing major cities to rubble. Most of those who remain have been left to live in poverty.

The rebellion that began in 2011 as an uprising against Syria’s autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad, escalated into a civil war, but the splinted rebel movement failed to topple the government. With military help from Russia and Iran, government forces beat back the rebels and the war settled into a stalemate, with Mr. al-Assad firmly in place but swaths of the country outside his control.

But the war was gruesome. The government employed poison gas, barrel bombs and suffocating sieges on rebellious communities, and waged a ruthless assault on civilian opponents, throwing hundreds of thousands into filthy prisons where many were tortured and killed.

International efforts to hold Mr. al-Assad and his inner circle accountable for these atrocities have failed.

Some Arab countries have begun restoring ties with the government in an effort to move past the war, although strict sanctions by the United States and other Western countries have blocked most investment.

The United States initially provided covert military support to the rebels, but as the war splintered into multiple overlapping conflicts, America shifted its focus to fight the jihadists of the Islamic State, who at their peak controlled nearly a third of eastern Syria. Small contingents of American forces remain in that region.

For Syrian civilians, there is less daily violence now than during the war’s earlier years, but the economy has been destroyed. The currency has lost much of its value. Most people spend their days struggling to get basics like bread and cooking gas.

More than half of Syria’s prewar population fled their homes during the fighting, and most have not returned, including the 5.6 million refugees who largely live in destitution in neighboring Arab countries.

Wednesday’s verdict in the German city of Koblenz won’t change any of that.

Even Syrians who consider such trials important say they fall far short of matching the magnitude of the crimes committed in Syria.

For Syrians to achieve justice, courts must prosecute “the people responsible for the most serious crimes, the policy designers, not just the implementers,” said Mohammed Al Abdallah, the director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, which monitored the trial.

“Justice has not been fully accomplished,” he said. “This is a small slice of what we are talking about.”

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