Former Syrian Colonel Guilty in War Crimes Trial in Germany
In a landmark case, a court convicted Anwar Raslan of overseeing torture at a detention center nearly a decade ago and sentenced him to life in prison. It was one of the world’s first criminal trials on atrocities in Syria’s decade-long civil war.
A Syrian campaigner holding pictures of civil war victims outside the courthouse where Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian officer, was on trial on Thursday in Koblenz, Germany.Credit…Bernd Lauter/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The detainees arriving at the security office in Syria were “welcomed” with an hour of whipping or beating, they told a German court.
They were held in packed, sweltering cells and fed potatoes that tasted like diesel. They drank from the toilet. One recalled passing dead bodies in a hallway. A woman said she received electric shocks on her hands, legs and chest during interrogation.
On Thursday, the former intelligence official in charge of that office was convicted by a German court of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. The court found that the former officer, Anwar Raslan, 58, oversaw the torture of prisoners at the notorious Al Khatib unit in Damascus and the killing of at least 27 people there, in addition to the sexual abuse and rape of detainees.
Legal advocates and Syrian survivors hailed the verdict as a landmark in the international quest to hold accountable those who committed war crimes during nearly 11 years of war in Syria. The trial in Koblenz, Germany, was the first of a ranking Syrian official and, international experts said, the first to target a government that is still in power.
“This was a very important verdict,” said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany. “The signal is: There is no safe haven for war criminals. It’s a clear sign that the world will not stand by and do nothing.”
But the conviction also highlighted the stark limitations of international efforts to bring perpetrators of war crimes in countries like Syria to justice.
Mr. Raslan, who served as a colonel in a Syrian intelligence service, was ultimately a mere cog in the extensive machinery of repression in Syria.
He left Syria in 2012, in the war’s second year, and joined the political opposition. The war continued to rage for nearly another decade, with Syrian forces using poison gas, imposing starvation sieges on rebellious communities and reducing residential neighborhoods to rubble through extensive bombing campaigns.
Both the rebels who tried and ultimately failed to oust Syria’s autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad, and jihadists from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State who took advantage of the conflict’s chaos also committed war crimes.
But only a handful of perpetrators have been prosecuted.
One reason, experts say, is that unlike leading Nazis after World War II or officials from the former Yugoslavia who were convicted of war crimes, the Syrian government, whose military and security services are responsible for the bulk of the violence, remains in power, preventing the apprehension of its leaders, officers and allies.
Mr. al-Assad and his senior advisers and military commanders rarely travel abroad. When they do, they only go to countries they can count on not to arrest them, like Russia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government.
Other potential avenues for justice have also been blocked. Syria is not party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and Russia and China have used their vetoes on the United Nations Security Council to prevent Syria from being referred to the court.
Germany is among a few European countries that have sought to try former Syrian officials for war crimes based on universal jurisdiction, the principle of international law that says that some crimes are so grave that they can be prosecuted anywhere.
Mr. Raslan entered Germany on a visa in 2014, and was arrested there in 2019.
For years, Anwar Raslan thought he had left the brutal civil war in Syria behind and found a new life in Europe.
But his past caught up with him in Germany, where he was tried for crimes against humanity.
Mr. Raslan, 58, had served in one of Syria’s security services, reaching the rank of colonel.
When the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011 with protests seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Raslan was the head of interrogation at a security office in the capital, Damascus.
Witnesses who testified against him in Germany described the place as rife with abuse: Beatings were common, the food was inedible, the cells were so crowded that some prisoners had to stand so others could lie down. German prosecutors said at least 4,000 people were tortured and nearly 60 killed under his authority there.
In a statement to the court this month, Mr. Raslan denied the charges and said he had used what he described as his limited authority in the security office to help detainees.
“I never had anything to do with torture,” he said.
Much of the case against Mr. Raslan rests on his role in helping to run that lockup.
But his later actions suggested he was not a complete Assad loyalist.
He fled Syria in 2012 after the government committed a massacre in his hometown, killing more than 100 people. He joined Syria’s exiled opposition and traveled with them to peace talks in Geneva in 2014.
That same year, he moved with most of his family to Germany, where he was so confident that the authorities would ensure his safety that when he told the police that he worried that agents of Mr. al-Assad were following him, he signed the report “colonel.”
The German police began investigating his background and established his role in the interrogation center in Damascus years before.
He was arrested in 2019, and his trial began the next year. On Thursday, Mr. Raslan was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life in prison.
When Mahran Aoiun heard that a former Syrian intelligence officer had been sentenced on Thursday to life in prison for overseeing torture at a detention center, it brought back the joy he felt years ago when he was released from a brutal Syrian jail.
“This guy who once considered himself the tyrant, the powerful head of the station, I see him standing in court, weak and humiliated,” Mr. Aoiun said by phone from Paris, where he is living as a refugee. “And the people he tortured are stronger.”
The verdict handed down by a court in Koblenz, Germany, against the former officer, Ansar Raslan, stirred complicated feelings among Syrians who were abused in Syrian prisons — some at the hands of Mr. Raslan himself.
Many rejoiced at knowing that a man who had overseen interrogations at a security office in Damascus was in the dock himself. Others hoped that Mr. Raslan’s conviction would draw attention to the many more crimes committed during the Syrian war that have not been prosecuted, and to the officials who committed them who are still free.
“I can say that I’m satisfied,” said Rowaida Kanaan, who was detained at Raslan’s center in the early years of the war, and who testified against him in Germany. “But has justice been accomplished? No, as long as we still have prisoners in detention.”
To build their case, German prosecutors interviewed scores of Syrians who had gone to Germany or elsewhere in Europe as refugees, and many of them made the trek to Koblenz to testify about their experiences.
Some of them returned to the courthouse on Thursday to be present as the trial came to a close.
Wassim Mukdad, a musician, was jailed four times in the early days of the uprising and said he was interrogated by Mr. Raslan himself. Mr. Mukdad hoped the case would scare officers who might commit torture in the future.
“Those who are torturing prisoners will think twice after the trial,” he said. “This is an achievement.”
Lawyers and rights activists involved in the case acknowledge that one conviction is tiny in the scope of a war that has displaced half of Syria’s population and left hundreds of thousands dead.
But they say the case, and what it revealed about the inner workings of the Syrian government, could facilitate similar prosecutions in the future.
“It is the beginning of a path,” Mr. Mukdad said. “It will be a long one toward justice.”
New York Times photographers have covered Syria’s civil war and the humanitarian crisis it has unleashed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began nearly 11 years ago. Here is a selection of images from the conflict.
It is no coincidence that the trial of Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian security officer convicted on Thursday of state-sponsored torture, took place in Germany.
Owing partly to its own history in World War II, Germany has become something of a go-to venue for prosecuting crimes against humanity, even if committed outside its own borders. It is also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, putting it at the center of efforts to hold the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria accountable for war crimes.
Most of the Syrian refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016 fled the Assad regime, but some, like Mr. Raslan, had served in the president’s military and security services.
German prosecutors built their case with the help of hundreds of Syrian witnesses in Germany and beyond. They indicted Mr. Raslan using “universal jurisdiction,” a legal principle stipulating that in the case of crimes against humanity and genocide, normal territorial restraints on prosecutions do not apply.
The principle is not new. Israel used it during the 1960s trial of the former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, as did Spain in 1998 when demanding that Britain arrest Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. Previous universal jurisdiction cases in Germany have dealt with crimes committed in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and, more recently, with the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq by former members of the Islamic State.
Mr. Raslan’s case was the first involving state-sponsored torture in Syria — and the first to bring charges of crimes against humanity against officials from a government that remains in power.
“It’s a historic case,” said Anna Oehmichen, a German lawyer who cooperates with the Open Society Justice Initiative and represents co-plaintiffs against Mr. Raslan. “Germany is one of the pioneering states in prosecuting international crimes.”
Germany has the legal basis to prosecute such crimes under the German Code of Crimes Against International Law, which came into effect in 2002, and it has been using it.
The idea underpinning universal jurisdiction goes back to the Nuremberg trials, organized by the Allies after World War II to prosecute surviving members of the Nazi regime.
“For Germany, it’s also historically the continuation of what we learned from the Nazi period and what we learned about the importance of the Nuremberg trials and the Auschwitz trials for the way we dealt with our past and ultimately for who we are today,” said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany.
The Nuremberg trials went after the leading members of the Nazi regime, but also a range of individuals who played a role in Nazi repression, including doctors, business leaders, bureaucrats and propagandists, said Wolfgang Kaleck, a founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which is representing victims in Mr. Raslan’s trial.
“That’s what made it possible to get a picture of the whole apparatus that led to the Holocaust,” Mr. Kaleck said.
Mr. Raslan’s trial, he added, “is a first step in trying to get a picture of the crimes committed by Assad’s regime.”
The conviction of Anwar Raslan, a former security officer who was sentenced on Thursday to life in prison for overseeing torture at a Syrian detention center, is the most significant verdict yet for those seeking justice for crimes against humanity committed by Syrian officials.
But several other cases have already been tried or are pending.
When Mr. Raslan was arrested in 2019 in Germany, a low-ranking employee of the center he oversaw was arrested with him. Last February, a court found that employee, Eyad al-Gharib, guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity for his role in transporting protesters to Mr. Raslan’s center, which was known for torture. Mr. al-Gharib was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
A Syrian doctor accused of torturing a detainee in a secret military prison will soon go on trial in Germany on charges of crimes against humanity and causing grievous bodily harm. The doctor, Alaa Mousa, was living in Germany as a refugee when he was arrested in 2020.
Human rights lawyers concede that so far, the trials have targeted low- and middle-ranking Syrian officials or soldiers. The most prominent suspects are still in Damascus, where President Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
But the lower-level prosecutions still serve an important purpose for potential future cases, said Wolfgang Kaleck, a founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which represented victims in Mr. Raslan’s trial.
“If you don’t start now, then in 10 years, you cannot get Assad or his chief of intelligence because you have no evidence,” Mr. Kaleck said. “These cases are a way of building a stock of documents, witness statements, of understanding interconnections and gathering knowledge on which you can build future cases.”
Since the Syrian uprising in 2011, Syrian victims, human rights activists and others have filed more than 20 legal complaints against Syrian regime officials for war crimes and other violations of international law, according to Mr. Kaleck’s center.
Most cases are being investigated in Germany and other European countries, including Sweden and France. Germany has also been collecting evidence for a so-called structural investigation into war crimes committed by the Syrian state. This body of evidence, which has been growing for over a decade, could be used in different cases.
“More has to come, that is clear,” Mr. Kaleck said. “But this is an important step.”
In Syria, some 2,500 miles from the war crimes trial in Germany, the war at the center of the case has ground to a tense standoff, largely fading from public view.
But the decade-long conflict has left the country shattered, killing hundreds of thousands of people, forcing half of the population from their homes and reducing major cities to rubble. Most of those who remain have been left to live in poverty.
The rebellion that began in 2011 as an uprising against Syria’s autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad, escalated into a civil war, but the splinted rebel movement failed to topple the government. With military help from Russia and Iran, government forces beat back the rebels and the war settled into a stalemate, with Mr. al-Assad firmly in place but swaths of the country outside his control.
But the war was gruesome. The government employed poison gas, barrel bombs and suffocating sieges on rebellious communities, and waged a ruthless assault on civilian opponents, throwing hundreds of thousands into filthy prisons where many were tortured and killed.
International efforts to hold Mr. al-Assad and his inner circle accountable for these atrocities have failed.
Some Arab countries have begun restoring ties with the government in an effort to move past the war, although strict sanctions by the United States and other Western countries have blocked most investment.
The United States initially provided covert military support to the rebels, but as the war splintered into multiple overlapping conflicts, America shifted its focus to fight the jihadists of the Islamic State, who at their peak controlled nearly a third of eastern Syria. Small contingents of American forces remain in that region.
For Syrian civilians, there is less daily violence now than during the war’s earlier years, but the economy has been destroyed. The currency has lost much of its value. Most people spend their days struggling to get basics like bread and cooking gas.
More than half of Syria’s prewar population fled their homes during the fighting, and most have not returned, including the 5.6 million refugees who largely live in destitution in neighboring Arab countries.
Wednesday’s verdict in the German city of Koblenz won’t change any of that.
Even Syrians who consider such trials important say they fall far short of matching the magnitude of the crimes committed in Syria.
For Syrians to achieve justice, courts must prosecute “the people responsible for the most serious crimes, the policy designers, not just the implementers,” said Mohammed Al Abdallah, the director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, which monitored the trial.
“Justice has not been fully accomplished,” he said. “This is a small slice of what we are talking about.”