German prosecutors have charged two members of Syria’s general intelligence service with crimes against humanity, alleging that one of the men was responsible for at least 58 murders and thousands of cases of torture during the country’s eight-year civil war.
The trial, expected to start next year at the higher regional court in the city of Koblenz, will be the first worldwide to examine allegations of state torture against senior Syrian officers.
It marks a breakthrough for long-running efforts by lawyers and activists around the world to prosecute senior officials from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It also highlights the push by countries such as Germany and Sweden to expand the reach of international criminal law.
The first accused, identified by prosecutors as Anwar R., was head of investigations in a general intelligence service prison in the Syrian capital Damascus. “Between April 2011 and early September 2012 more than 4,000 prisoners were made to suffer brutal and massive torture during their interrogations by employees of the accused. At least 58 died as a result of their mistreatment,” the German federal prosecution service said in a statement released on Tuesday.
Anwar R. had been charged with crimes against humanity, murder, rape and sexual assault, according to the statement. The second accused, identified as Eyad A., was charged with aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for his role in the crackdown of an opposition demonstration in the city of Douma. Both men eventually left Syria for Germany, where they were identified and arrested this year.
Germany has allowed cases to be brought against suspects under international criminal law provisions since 2002, meaning that suspects can be prosecuted even though both they and their victims are foreigners and the crime itself took place abroad. But it is only recently that federal prosecutors have started to apply the law in practice, said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.
“The International Criminal Court has been weakened in recent years, in part due to the lack of support from countries like the US and Russia. So national authorities have to step up — and that is what we see happening,” said Mr Kroker. While there had been isolated Syria-related prosecutions in Europe in recent years, they were mostly limited to non-state actors and minor figures in the state apparatus, he added.
The ECCHR, a Berlin-based organisation that helps torture victims and supports the work of prosecutors, hailed the news in a statement as “an important step in the fight against impunity”.
According to the German prosecutors, Anwar R. and Eyad A. formed part of a wider effort by the regime to suppress the Syrian opposition through “exhaustive, brutal violence”. Syrian intelligence played a “key role” in that effort, they added.
“Aside from beatings with fists, sticks, pipes, cables, whips and hoses, torture through electric shocks was a daily occurrence. Prisoners were also hung to the ceiling from their wrists in a way that their toes could only just reach the floor. They were beaten in that position. Other forms of torture were threats to abuse close relatives and violent sleep deprivation lasting several days,” the German statement said.
Anwar R. led and supervised these procedures as part of his role as head of investigations, it added. “He was aware of the fact that prisoners were dying as a result of the massive use of violence.”