Truth and Justice: An Important Day for all Syrians and for all Victims
In a country that is thousands of miles away from their war-torn homeland, the defendant and his victims came face to face, again. The first time was not in a Court of Law in Germany, but in a dungeon in one of Syria’s notorious intelligence branches. Back then, the victims of torture were the ones who were detained, and their torturer moved freely. This time, the roles have reversed, it is the guard who has become the prisoner. Whilst, this may sound like revenge, and one could be forgiven for thinking as such to look at the crimes alleged, but as Mazen Darwish, Advisory Council Member at Guernica 37 and Head of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom Expression, one of the principal NGOs behind the trial told Channel 4 “This is not revenge. This is justice”.
The 23 April 2020 is a day that many Syrian torture survivors will forever remember. The day the first trial for a senior officer within the brutal Mukhabarat, the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate, responsible for the death of at least fifty-eight individuals and the torture of another four thousand, finally began.
The lack of accountability for the crimes committed in Syria largely persists, particularly war crimes and crimes against humanity that were, and still are being committed by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies with breathtaking impunity and wholesale disregard for the sanctity of life. The Regime has presided over a brutal and coordinated attack of the civilian population more than half a million Syrians have been killed, more than a million injured, and over twelve million have been displaced, either internally, or externally in other countries. It is important to emphasise that more than half the pre-war population have either been killed, disappeared or have been forced to leave their homes. A significant proportion of those that were forced to flee, forced due to circumstances outside of their control due to the brutal conduct of the Syrian State Security Forces and have not been able to return for the very same reasons that forced them to leave. It is for this very reason why this trial is so important.
Syria’s refusal to ratify the Rome Statute, coupled with the Chinese and Russian veto hindered any attempt to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. While torture is so well documented in Syria, through the work of international organisations, UN institutions and Syrian NGOs, there is international jurisdiction either at the ICC or through an ad hoc judicial body. The only way forward is through Universal Jurisdiction, which is how Germany proceeded to charge the defendant in this case with the crimes he is alleged to have committed. Despite the lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis, German courts nevertheless proceeded.
Yesterday’s events are truly significant for several reasons. Some are outlined below.
Firstly, the case is significant when it comes to the evidence that will be produced. To begin with, this case will cement the evidence collected by the large number of actors over the years in a respected trial process. Additionally, given that this is the first time that a senior regime official stands trial, the evidence is expected to generate many other leads as to who are responsible for mass torture in Syria, which will very likely include the head of state and other senior officials. Such evidence will be useful to trigger and support future cases. The evidence will also be significant when it comes to preserving the truth in the face of current disinformation campaigns that Syria, Russia and its allies are leading to undermine the evidence collected against it.
Secondly, this case has policy implications. At a time where some states are attempting to normalise relations with the Syrian Regime, trying to paint events in Syria to merely be the result of conflict and not deliberate acts of persecution, this case sends a clear message that such normalisation will be strongly opposed. It also sends a message to allied states, that where there is a will, there is a way.
Thirdly, this case has sparked a healthy debate amongst many Syrians, given that both defendants defected from the regime in 2012. Sceptics will argue that these defendants are not the priority at the moment and that such a case will send a deterring message to those who plan to defect from the regime that they should not do so as they will face prosecution, and that the regime will be happily mocking those who left the ranks. On the other hand, proponents will argue that war crimes do not just disappear if you switch political sides, and that any good these people may have done will be considered during sentencing, it will not be a defence. Such a debate is in itself a key element of any transitional justice process. What is important here is that these two individuals who are alleged to have actively participated in brutal acts of torture, and subsequently fled Syria alongside the stream of legitimate refugees entering Europe, did not come forward, they did not offer assistance to the authorities and they did not atone for their acts. They were identified. Evidence was painstakingly assembled. Now they must face trial.
Lastly, this day in court was critical for many. For the victims who could see their oppressor behind a glass shield, it was a day that presented them with some form of justice that they thought would never come. For Syrian and international human rights NGOs, it was a day which proved wrong all their doubts that their hard work over the years might go to waste and provided them the uplift they needed to continue the fight. As for the perpetrators, the day was a reminder that no matter how much time passes, how immune you believe yourself to be, and how busy you think the world is combating a virus, justice will one day be served.
Those who have worked on this important and pivotal case deserve our applause and our congratulations for whatever the outcome might be, this day is so important in restoring our sense of justice.