Syrians Anwar Raslan and Eyad Al-Gharib are not very nice men, apparently, and we are about to find out, in horrifying detail, exactly why. Every torturer who has ever carried out his nauseating job on behalf of tyrannical regimes around the world should be focusing on the historic trial in Germany where these two officials in the regime of Bashar Al-Assad are on trial charged with numerous counts of torture.
Human rights lawyers are hoping that today's court hearing will set a precedent for future cases which should make every Syrian intelligence officer who has ever worked in the notorious Branch 251 in Damascus think twice before doing Assad's dirty work ever again. The torture, abuse and murder of men, women and children has been widespread throughout Assad's time as President of Syria, and all done in his name. However, those seeking payback will no doubt take comfort from the fact that the trial in the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz is the first step on a long and painful journey for those seeking justice. Other cases may follow.
The notorious Branch 251 is where Syrian men and women were raped on an industrial scale. I first heard about it when I embarked on the Conscience Convoy from Turkey to highlight the plight of 7,000 women still trapped inside Assad's prisons, with neither charge nor trial. One of the victims stepped forward bravely and spoke to me frankly about what was done to her inside the General Intelligence Directorate's Al-Khatib Branch in Damascus.
Anwar Raslan is the former head of investigations at Al-Khatib. He is accused of being complicit in the torture of at least 4,000 people, 58 murders and countless sexual assaults committed before he defected and fled in 2012. His co-defendant, Eyad Al-Gharib, was a lower-ranking official in the same unit and is accused of complicity in 30 cases of torture.
Both were arrested after seeking asylum. Thanks to the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which holds that national courts can prosecute people accused of crimes against international law, regardless of where the crime was committed, they are now about to stand trial.
If they were hoping for a respite due to Covid-19, they were disappointed; while most criminal cases in Germany are on hold amid the pandemic, their trial will go ahead as scheduled. This was never going to be a normal procedure, not only because of the nature of the charges, but also because everyone involved will be abiding by the safe distancing measures introduced because of the pandemic.
Patrick Kroker is a human rights lawyer with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and represents a group of witnesses and joint plaintiffs from Syria. "I think it's going to be a very novel situation for everybody," he told journalists, "and the court has decided that this is one of the urgent cases that needs to go ahead, despite the fact that most other cases have been stopped at this time."
According to Wolfgang Kaleck, the General Secretary of ECCHR, this trial is only a first step. He said that information gleaned through the investigation could very well be used in other prosecutions in Germany and other European countries "at a later stage, at international tribunals or regional or local tribunals in Syria or in the region." Other European countries have already launched similar investigations.
The net is beginning to close around those who have carried out horrific atrocities in the name of the Syrian regime. Germany also has the Syrian President's close friend and confidant Jamil Hassan in its sights. He served as head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service until July 2019. The ECCHR filed a criminal complaint against Hassan in July 2017 and the following year Germany's Federal Court of Justice issued an international arrest warrant for him.
As a close friend of Assad, Hassan is a big fish. He is accused of running a prison where arbitrary detention, torture, persecution, sexual violence and humiliation were commonplace. Now that his gruesome past is catching up with him, like many others connected to the Assad regime he's very careful about where he travels these days.
Last year, his evil deeds came back to haunt him when a routine trip for hospital treatment in Beirut served as a reminder that his movements are being watched closely. The German authorities asked their Lebanese counterparts to extradite him, so he knows that the world has suddenly become a much smaller place for men like him.
Indeed, the Germans are not alone in pursuing Hassan. Prosecutors in France would also like to question him in connection with the disappearance of the brother and uncle of two Franco-Syrian nationals. Both men were arrested in 2013 and taken to the prison controlled by the wanted man. Five years later, the French authorities issued an arrest warrant for him in connection with the case.
Syrian activists, international rights groups and national prosecutors are collaborating across Europe with various authorities which have war crimes units. However, the days of tyrants and their thugs being able to act with impunity will only come to an end if the UN holds fast and ensures that no peace deal with Syria can ever be brokered with Assad as part of the solution.
Kroker says that his biggest worry is that global leaders keen to restore relations with the Syrian government in the future may try to block future trials: "I am concerned that countries will normalise their relations with Syria; that reconstruction and political normalisation will take precedence; and that justice will be sacrificed."
That remains to be seen but not even the coronavirus pandemic can stop the trial in Germany today, Thursday, when a spotlight will be shone onto some of the darkest corners of the regime's already very dark secrets. If this is going to be the closest that his victims come to seeing Bashar Al-Assad himself in the dock — and it might — then they must have their day in court, no matter what it costs to bring his henchmen to justice.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.