Judgment expected in Koblenz: State torture in Syria?

Status: 01/13/2022 6:31 a.m.

The international interest in this case was enormous. Today the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz ruled against the main defendant on allegations of torture on behalf of the Syrian government.

By Frank Bräutigam, ARD legal editor

The courtroom in Koblenz is a special place for Wassim Mukdad. Not because it is so idyllically located – the building is only a few steps away from the banks of the Rhine – but because the world’s first trial of possible systematic state torture of the Syrian Assad regime is taking place here. The international interest in the process is enormous.

Mukdad was in the al-Khatib prison of the Syrian secret service in Damascus. Like many other victims, he appeared as a witness and co-plaintiff at the trial. And testified that he was tortured there.

At the end of September 2011 during the “Arab Spring” he was arrested in Damascus when he was looking for a demonstration. He was kicked and his rib was broken, and his hair was set on fire on the bus to the prison. During several interrogations in the secret service prison, he was severely beaten while lying on his stomach, blindfolded. As a musician, he was particularly afraid that his hands could be damaged.

Victims meet alleged tormentors

A few years later Mukdad came to Germany as a refugee. A coincidence was responsible for the investigation in the specific case. In an initial reception center for refugees, another victim from the Damascus prison recognized the man who is now sitting in the dock in Koblenz: Anwar R.

R. had deserted and also came to Germany as a refugee. Previously, he is said to have headed the so-called investigative unit in a department of the Syrian secret service, to which the al-Khatib prison was attached. He is said to have had authority over the interrogators there and was the superior of the prison staff.

Accusation: torture and murder

The federal prosecutor’s office accuses him of being jointly responsible for the deaths of 30 people and the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners in 2011 and 2012. The crimes against humanity and murder are legal. Originally even 58 murders were charged.

“This process gives us back our dignity,” said Mukdad on the first day of the trial in April 2020, and he is also important for the people who are still in prisons. It’s not about revenge. The accused should have a fair trial.

Indictment a document of horror

The indictment, which the Chief Public Prosecutor Jasper Klinge read from the Federal Prosecutor’s Office at the start of the trial, is a single document of horror. “Welcome parties” on arrival in the courtyard with massive blows. Electric shocks, hanging from the ceiling with your wrists, sleep deprivation, overcrowded cells and much more.

The aim of the brutal mistreatment was to force confessions and to obtain information about the opposition movement. Sometimes they ended fatally. The victims were opponents of the government in the “Arab Spring”, which also led to strong protests in Syria. Such crimes abroad are often difficult to solve.

The so-called Caesar files were therefore important evidence: around 26,000 photos documenting 6,000 deaths as a result of torture. A military photographer smuggled them out of Syria. They were carefully examined in the process.

Second defendant already convicted

There is already a kind of blueprint for part of the judgment against Anwar R. Because originally there was a second man in the dock: Eyad A.

The court is convinced that in autumn 2011 he and his colleagues arrested at least 30 demonstrators as a member of a kind of “rapid reaction force in the field” after a demonstration against Assad and escorted them to the prison by bus – knowing what to expect there. In February 2021, the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz sentenced him to four and a half years in prison for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. This judgment is not yet final.

Court: Assad regime systematically tortured

It is important to note that in order to convict Eyad A. for aiding and abetting, the court first had to determine that the Assad torture regime was legally a “systematic attack on the civilian population”. So a crime against humanity according to the International Criminal Code. This is exactly what the Koblenz court did, for the first time in the world. There is much to suggest that the court will maintain these fundamental statements in the judgment against Anwar R.

The instruction had come from high above to use force and weapons against demonstrators. The secret service and its prisons played a central role. For Anwar R.’s specific guilty verdict, it must now be clarified what role he played in this system of state torture from the point of view of the court. R. denied the torture allegations in a written statement during the proceedings and emphasized that he had turned away from the Assad regime and deserted.

Germany not a “safe haven”

But why can crimes from Syria with Syrian defendants and victims even be tried in a German court? It currently appears that the Syrian courts will not punish the offenses themselves. A trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague is not possible because Syria has not acceded to the court.

The UN Security Council could order the court to investigate in Syria anyway. But that is blocked by Russia, for example. What remains is the so-called world law principle that many countries implement – including Germany.

Certain crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes can then also be prosecuted in Germany if the act was committed abroad and neither the perpetrator nor the victim are Germans. The idea behind it: possible perpetrators of the most serious crimes should not find a “safe haven” in Germany.

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