On Wednesday, a German court made the historic decision to render a verdict against a former member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s secret police who has been implicated in crimes against humanity.
Eyad al-Gharib, 44, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison on Wednesday, the first verdict in the trial that began last year in conjunction with a more senior intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, 57. Raslan was alleged to have been in charge of investigations at a branch of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate and was Gharib’s former supervisor. He remains on trial. Both men had sought asylum in Germany.
The ruling was a historic event because it marks the first court case in the world over state-sponsored torture under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Associated Press reports that “German prosecutors invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes to bring the case that involved victims and defendants who were in Germany.”
Russia and China have reportedly used their vetoes to block attempts by the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The court in Koblenz, Germany, found Gharib “guilty of detaining at least 30 opposition activists after anti-government demonstrations began in 2011,” according to The Washington Post. The court also said that Gharib sent the protesters to an intelligence center where he was aware they would be tortured.
The trial began in April and included testimonies from witnesses and torture victims. Among the witnesses was a guard from the al-Khatib detention center known as Branch 251. The AP reports that “the court also considered photographs of thousands of alleged victims of torture by the Syrian government. The images were smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer, who goes by the alias of Caesar.”
Wassim Mukdad was detained in Syria in September 2011 and gave his testimony in court. He reportedly said it felt like the first time that he told his story where he felt like it could make a difference.
He was one of over a dozen Syrians to take the stand and retold how he was blindfolded, hit with a rifle, and loaded onto a bus to be taken to Branch 251. The Washington Post reports, “During a total of 16 days in detention, [Mukdad] lost more than 37 pounds. At one point he said he was packed into a cell a little over 230 square foot with 87 others. He described the experience as ‘hell.'”
The trial was set in motion in Germany after a random encounter in Berlin when Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer, recognized Raslan in his refugee center as the person who had arrested him in Damascus in 2006 before he spent five years in prison.
“It is right, it is fair,” Anwar al-Bunni said about the verdict. Bunni identified Syrian witnesses for the trial and was also a witness himself. He said Gharib told the court that he supports justice for the victims. “The evidence against him was just his testimony,” Bunni said.
Al-Gharib held the rank of sergeant major before he defected and left Syria in 2013 to go to Germany in 2018. His lawyer, Hannes Linke, plans to appeal the verdict and request that the top court review the lower tribunal’s decision to dismiss al-Gharib’s defense that he acted to prevent harm to himself.
On the final day of his trial last week, [the broadcaster] DW reported, Gharib wiped away tears as his attorney argued that he had to follow orders in Damascus, a defense strategy known as “necessity as defense.” The lawyers argued that Gharib and his family would have been killed if he disobeyed.
Human rights advocates disagree. “At some point, he did have a choice,” says rights lawyer Streiff. “He joined years ago. He had a choice then.”
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights is reportedly working to bring more cases against Syrian officials to trial in Germany, Austria, Sweden, and Norway.