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France launches landmark trial against Syria security officials in absentia over role in torture, war crimes

May 21, 2024 at 8:31 pm

General view of The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber prior to the case of Communaute genevoise d’action syndicale (CGAS) v. Switzerland, in Strasbourg, France on April 12, 2023 [Mustafa Yalçın/AA]

France has begun its first trial into officials from the Syrian regime over their suspected involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the latest such trial against Syrian war criminals in European courts in recent years.

Today, the Paris Criminal Court heard cases presented against three top Syrian security officers – Ali Mamlouk, the former head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Jamil Hassan, the former director of Air Force intelligence and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, the former head of investigations for that agency.

According to the cases against them, they played prominent roles in the deaths of two French-Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son, Patrick, following their arrests in the Syrian capital, Damascus, back in 2013.

Mazzen and Patrick Dabbagh – the former a senior education adviser at the French school in Damascus and the latter a 20-year-old arts and humanities student at the time of their arrests – were finally declared dead by Syrian authorities in 2018, with the son having died in January 2014 and his father having followed in November 2017.

Although the exact details and circumstances of their deaths were not properly revealed, it is likely that they died under torture conducted at the hands of Syrian authorities, as is notoriously the case within the regime’s vast prison network.

READ: France issues international arrest warrants for Syria President Assad, three others over 2013 chemical attacks

“Witness testimony confirms that Mazzen and Patrick were both taken to a detention centre at Mezzeh military airport, which is run by Syrian Air Force intelligence and notorious for the use of brutal torture”, according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which was instrumental in bringing forward the case.

“For the first time, French courts will address the crimes of the Syrian authorities and will try the most senior members of the authorities to ever be prosecuted since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011”, it added.

According to investigating judges, it has been “sufficiently established” that the two French-Syrian men “like thousands of detainees of the Air Force intelligence suffered torture of such intensity that they died”.

Aside from the Syrian security officials’ suspected complicity in the two men’s deaths, the prosecution is also targeting the forced eviction of Mazzen Dabbagh’s wife and daughter from their house in Damascus in 2016 following its requisition by Syrian authorities, which are “likely to constitute war crimes, extortion and concealment of extortion”.

The trial is the result of a seven-year investigation conducted by a French judicial war crimes unit, with the Dabbagh family’s and FIDH’s lawyer, Clemence Bectarte, calling it “the culmination of a long legal battle”.

Although the three Syrian security officers are being tried in absentia, France’s trial is seen as a significant step in the attempt to bring the numerous Syrian war criminals to justice, and are the latest legal proceedings against such figures within a Western or European nation’s legal system to date.

READ: Ex-Syria officer appears before Swedish court in war crimes trial