Sixteen Syrian men and women have filed a criminal complaint in Austria against 24 senior officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, for their involvement in their detention and torture.
The survivors, who include an Austrian citizen and two minors, were all held between February 2011 and July 2017 in 13 detention centres across Damascus, Daraa, Hama and Aleppo.
The allegations include torture as a crime against humanity and as a war crime committed by military intelligence, air force intelligence and general intelligence agencies.
The claimants were aided in the procedures by Syrian lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni of the Syrian Centre for Legal Research and Studies, Mazen Darwish of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, as well as the Centre for the Enforcement of Human Rights International (CEHRI) in Vienna and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin.
“Our demands are pretty clear: Austria has an obligation under the Rome Statute [of the International Criminal Court], to initiate an investigation into these crimes and put the structures and resources in place in order to do so,” Alexandra Lily Kather, an ECCHR lawyer who worked on the complaint, told MEMO.
ECCHR has been collecting evidence of torture by the Syrian government since 2012 and last year filed four complaints in Germany against the regime. Eventually, the organisation hopes international arrest warrants will be issued for those accused, although Kather notes that this is improbable at the moment as Austria does not have any ongoing structural investigations into the matter.
The complaint describes dozens of forms of torture, including psychological abuse, sleep deprivation, being hung from the wrists and beaten, sexual abuse, having finger nails and facial hair forcibly removed, as well as being burned by cigarettes and electric shocks.
“There has definitely been a constant psychological torture, because the witnesses describe that they have been hearing the screaming of others who have been tortured constantly since they left,” she said.
“It’s absolutely horrendous because there was no distinction being made between the treatment of adults and of children. There were two minors who were around 16 and 17 at the time who were both heavily tortured. And one of them was a girl.”
One of the claimants was Ahmad Khalil, who was arrested by Syrian military intelligence after participating in peaceful protests against the Assad regime and was held in Damascus for three months. After being released, he identified more than 50 corpses in the “Caesar” photographs, a collection of more than 55,000 images of men, women and children killed by the Syrian government.
“As a survivor and a witness I see it as my duty to contribute to hold those who are responsible for the system of torture in Syria accountable.”
Kather hopes that the complaint will encourage mutual legal systems in the EU to cooperate, particularly with Germany who has been collecting evidence and witness testimonies on torture in Syria for the past seven years.
“For us it’s not just filing a complaint in Austria, for us it’s about the European responsibility of each member state and for their judicial authorities to become active and work with each other.”
However the organisations behind the complaint maintain a survivor-led approach and hope the search for justice will help the Syrian witnesses attain closure.
“It’s a form of reparation that a state institution listens to them again after they lived for such a long time in a state that has been so oppressive,” Kather concluded.
The Assad government has continued to torture Syrian activists since the revolution began; at least 211 people were tortured to death by the regime in 2017 alone, prompting calls for a full UN-led investigation from human rights groups.