Lawyers representing Syrian refugees in Jordan have made a request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor to open an investigation into the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, after submitting evidence of government forces carrying out crimes against humanity.
A group of lawyers, led by Rodney Dixon QC of Temple Garden Chambers in London, today said that the evidence indicts several senior figures in the Assad government, including the president himself as well as his brother Maher Al-Assad.
"Today's action is indeed a long awaited breakthrough for the countless victims of the most brutal crimes we've seen in the ongoing Syrian conflict," Dixon said at a press conference earlier today.
Given the nature of these widespread crimes … we say the investigation must extend right to the top, to the commander in chief, President Assad and those underneath him who are in charge of the army, the intelligences forces and the police forces who have been involved in these actions.
Although Syria is not a signatory to The Hague-based court, lawyers in London are relying on a precedent set by the ICC in extending jurisdiction to the crime of forcible population transfers, as seen recently in a petition made by Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
Jordan is an ICC state allowing refugees who have crossed the border to make an appeal, particularly those who have been forcibly deported.
The case is being brought on behalf of 28 Syrians currently in refugee camps in Jordan; they testify to being shot at, detained, tortured and exiled, as well as having witnessed massacres committed by Syrian troops.
"We are asserting that based on the evidence of our clients and others, there is now a very clear jurisdictional gateway for the prosecutor to investigate this case and prosecute those who are most responsible," Dixon told reporters.
London-based solicitors Stoke White, who is aiding the refugees in the filing, said the 28 Syrians submitting the case today were only a small sample of the 1,183 others they are representing, whose statements will in time also be gathered to bring their experiences to light.
"I am grateful to those people for coming forward and giving us the opportunity to serve them, hopefully in seeking that justice. I am grateful for their bravery to make these applications on the behalf of hundreds and thousands of people," Stoke White partner Hakan Camuz said.
Recorded testimonies from the refugees were also heard in London earlier today, all of whom had chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from government intelligence forces against family members still in Syria.
"I saw a lot of people being shot at by the regime forces, people were being randomly shot including my 18-year-old nephew. Two other family members of mine were kidnapped and we never heard from them again," one woman, now in Zaatari refugee camp, narrated. "When I was living in Homs I was volunteering by providing medication and treatment to injured people. I attended to a lot of women who had been raped and abused by the regime forces. My volunteer work made me a target for the regime."
As the Syrian conflict approaches its ninth anniversary, violence in the country has eased, with President Al-Assad seemingly emerging as the victor. But today, the lawyers stressed that their primary concern was achieving justice for the victims irrespective of a political settlement.
"There cannot be a deal in which some immunity is given, some amnesty is forged, because they have fundamental violations that they want addressed. They have to be investigated. Ultimately, there can be no long term solution or peace without victims, in their hundreds of thousands, seeing justice done," Dixon told MEMO.
The legal team also condemned that no such action had been taken until now, largely due to Damascus-allies Russia and China vetoing a UN Security Council resolution to refer the Syrian conflict to the court.
However there have been a number of attempts made by national government to hold Syrian officials to account; last month, police detained two Syrians in Germany and one in France on charges of torturing anti-government activists early in the country's uprising, the first arrest of regime officials in Europe.
Last May, Syrian torture survivors also filed a criminal complaint in Austria against 24 senior officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, for being involved in their detention and abuse. However today's submission marks the first time an investigation under international jurisdiction has been sought.
The war in Syria has killed more than 600,000 people since 2011, the vast majority by regime-allied forces. More than half of the country's 21 million population has been displaced, and the Assad government, led by the Muslim Alawite minority, has faced accusations of repopulation along sectarian lines. Some 14,000 Syrians are still being held in regime prisons, whilst the fates of a further 82,000 remain unknown.