Germany prepares for trial of two Syrian defectors over war crimes


The trial of two former Syrian security officials arrested after defecting and seeking asylum in Germany is set to begin on Thursday in Germany’s Higher Regional Court in Koblenz.

Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharibwere, members of the notoriously vicious intelligence service, the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate’s Al-Khatib Branch in Damascus, also known as Branch 251 which arrested, tortured and killed protesters and opposition figures.

Raslan, 57, is charged with crimes against humanity, rape, aggravated sexual assault and 58 murders at Branch 251, an intelligence unit with its own prison in Damascus, where he allegedly oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 people as a commanding officer between April 29, 2011 and September 07, 2012.

Eyad al-Gharib, 42, a more lowly official allegedly tasked with rounding up protesters, is accused of assistance to torture and murder in 30 counts.

Both men sought asylum in Germany in 2014 and lived openly under their own names among Syrian refugees. In February 2019, they were arrested by German police.

This is the first legal proceeding over state-sponsored torture in Syria, and it comes as Germany is cautiously lifting a lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

Six Syrians who were tortured at Branch 251 have been given the right to appear at the court as co-plaintiffs, though travel restrictions introduced since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe mean only three are expected to be present when the trial begins.

The Koblenz trial taking place because in 2002 Germany enacted the legal principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, allowing the prosecution of serious crimes in its courts even if they happened elsewhere.

A special war crimes unit at Germany’s federal criminal police was set up in 2003, initially investigating suspected genocides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Yugoslav wars.

As thousands of Syrian refugees applied for asylum in Germany between 2015 and 2017, the unit received more than 2,800 tip offs about crimes allegedly committed under the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In the case of Raslan and Gharib, the initial tip offs came at least partially from the men themselves. It appears that, when interviewed by German officials, they made little attempt to hide their part in the violent suppression of political dissent.

Raslan is understood to have deserted from the regime in 2012, after forces loyal to Assad carried out a massacre in his home town. He sought asylum in Germany in 2014.

Living at a refugee shelter in Marienfelde, Berlin, Raslan did not change his name, and he was eventually recognised by other Syrians, including opposition supporters and a prominent human rights lawyer.

Raslan, who was probably already on the radar of the German war crimes investigators when he sought official protection, was arrested in February 2019.

Gharib too gave German investigators more information than they had expected. When interviewed for his asylum application in Germany in the summer of 2018, he freely said that in Damascus he had helped round up protesters and people taking pictures of the protests on their phones, who were transported to Branch 251.

He claimed to have deserted in January 2012 because he had been asked to kill civilians, and because three of his colleagues had died in skirmishes near Damascus.

Whether Raslan and Gharib will plead guilty or not guilty is unclear. The pair are being represented by separate defence lawyers, who have both declined to comment on their strategy.

In the courtroom, the two Syrians’ role in the regime’s torture apparatus will be weighed against their decisions to defect. If it comes to sentencing, “the court will also have to take into account what these men did after taking part in human rights abuses”, said Patrick Kroker, a Berlin-based criminal lawyer working with some of the co-plaintiffs in the case.

The hope among the Syrian diaspora is that the trial, which could last two to three years, will not just test the guilt of two individuals but also lay bare the workings of a violent system that suppressed and murdered thousands of civilians. (Source: The Guardian)