The Syrian Torture Trial in Koblenz
“Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world.” – Jean Améry
Guernica 37 was established in 2016 on the strength of Syrian work. It has remained since that time one of our core objectives – to ensure that all persons who have engaged in atrocities in Syria are held accountable before a court of law and that victims see justice. We remain committed to bringing justice to Syrians and we will continue to dedicate our work towards justice and accountability.
Guernica 37 is part of a wider accountability effort to use universal jurisdiction to fill the void left by a vacuum of international accountability. That is not the only route towards accountability, but it might be the only route right now. Other routes will follow.
The historic ruling in Koblenz has shown what can be done – it is the first concrete result, and it is an important step.
This is a moment to commend and applaud those that made the Koblenz trial possible. The German law enforcement and prosecutorial authorities, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), the Caesar Files Group (CFSG) and above all, the Syrian victims. We should also commend the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office who, unlike the Prosecutor General in Spain for instance, where Guernica37 filed a case on behalf of one of the Caesar files’ relatives that was dismissed, have shown bravery and commitment with the much-needed national prosecution of international crimes to end impunity.
On 13 January 2022, the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, found a former colonel in the Syrian Regime, Anwar Raslan, guilty of co-perpetration of crimes against humanity in the form of murder, torture, rape, sexual assault and battery. The German Court sentenced him to life imprisonment, which sends a powerful message to the Assad Regime that impunity for their crimes has come to an end. This can be traced back to last year, in February 2021, when the court sentenced a former Syrian security-service agent and Raslan’s associate at Branch 251 (al-Khatib branch), Eyad al-Gharib, to four years and six months in prison for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
This is the second judgment, but it is the most significant as it concerns a senior regime official and addresses state-sponsored torture in Syria committed as part of the widespread and systematic attack against the Syrian civilian population. The German prosecutors argued that Raslan, as Colonel in Branch 251, was not only responsible for torture during and after the interrogations, but also for maintaining the appalling prison conditions that amounted to torture. Senior Public Prosecutor Jasper Klinge, in his closing speech, quoted the Jewish Austrian poet Jean Améry, a Holocaust survivor: “whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world.”
This verdict is indeed momentous: it brings hope to the Syrian people, and it sends an overpowering message to Bashar al-Assad and those States that are seeking normalisation with a brutal dictator. To be clear, if those States standing side by side with the Assad Regime truly believe that accountability cannot be achieved, by virtue of the support of two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely Russia and China, who played their role by vetoing multiple UN resolutions during the Syrian conflict, they should re-evaluate this carefully. This is because the principle of universal jurisdiction is what renders justice achievable: with the necessary resources, it is possible to bring justice and accountability to those who committed the most abhorrent crimes under the Assad regime against its own citizens.
This landmark verdict is only the beginning of our indomitable pursuit for truth, justice and accountability. For this reason, we all must continue to strive to attain these by taking advantage of the most powerful tool, ergo universal jurisdiction, in order to effectively fight against impunity.
To those that contributed to this moment we at Guernica 37 applaud you and stand beside you.