Torture survivors hope for justice as the first trial on Syrian state torture begins in Germany 


Syria’s survivors of torture will testify before a court on Thursday as part of the first criminal trial of alleged secret service officers, charged by German prosecutors for crimes against humanity. Those who have endured torture and detention in Assad’s underground jails say this is a landmark moment for justice and accountability in Syria. 


On 23 April the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, will begin the first trial worldwide on state torture in Syria. Anwar Raslan is accused of being complicit in the torture of at least 4,000 people at the detention centre of the General Intelligence Service’s Al-Khatib Branch in Damascus. Eyad al-Gharib is accused of aiding and abetting torture in at least 30 cases. 


The UNSC has failed to refer war crimes to the International Criminal Court, forcing some individuals to pursue cases in national courts using the concept of Universal Jurisdiction. However diplomatic immunity prevents survivors from bringing cases against Assad or any of the regime’s ministers through this route. 


The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) is assisting 16 Syrian torture survivors in the proceedings, some of whom are joint plaintiffs. Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary of the ECCHR said: 


“This trial is of considerable importance worldwide. The power relations currently at play in the UN Security Council prevent the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal from taking action. This means that for the time being, the only proceedings possible must be conducted on the principle of universal jurisdiction.


“The trial will provide an overall picture of the crimes committed by the Syrian Government. This knowledge can then be used by others and in other trials, whether on the regional or the international level. Further arrest warrants are needed, such as that issued by the Federal Court of Justice against Jamil Hassan, the former head of the air force intelligence service in Syria.”


Writer and journalist Dara Abdallah was detained in the Al-Khatib General Intelligence Branch in Damascus in 2012. He was made the “prison doctor” because of his degree in medicine and given minimal medical supplies to treat those who had suffered torture. 


“I saw rotting wounds in which the worms swam, feet in need of urgent amputation, septic shock from inflammation, bullets in thighs, rampant scabies, and dozens of other cases. I tried to heal every wound, sterilise it faithfully, and change the medical gloves after every four or five prisoners. I do not remember the exact number of prisoners I helped but the number was not less than 50,” he said. 


Anwar Al-Bunni is a Syrian human rights lawyer and the Director at the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research based in Berlin. He was detained by Anwar Raslan between 2006 and 2011. 


“Arbitrary detention is the most powerful weapon of the Syrian regime, which is used to silence detainees and threaten their families. The trials in Germany send a clear message to the criminals in Syria who continue to commit crimes with impunity. They also send a message of hope to the victims, survivors and their families — even if the process of accountability is slow, it will eventually take place,” he said. 


Riyad Avlar, a Turkish citizen who was detained for 21 years in Syria for an article he mailed to friends in Turkey, said: 

“I spent the first 15 years of my detention ‘disappeared’. None of my family and friends knew where I was. I have experienced all sorts of mistreatment and torture, including physical, sexual and mental torture. 


“I believe that the 1000-mile journey to justice starts with one step and this is our first step towards comfort for the mothers and the families who lost their loved ones under torture in detention centres. Syria won’t ever have peace and stability without holding those responsible to account.”


Asmaa Saad Aldin is a former detainee and member of Families for Freedom, a women-led movement campaigning for their loved ones in detention. She was arrested and held for 15 months for smuggling medicine into besieged Daraa in 2011. She now lives in the UK.


“The suffering of my body has ended but the pain in my soul will never end. It has left deep scars. The Germany trials have given me hope for the first time. I want justice for being taken away from my family and tortured for months. I want justice for my brother who was taken by the regime and justice for the uncertainty of knowing nothing about his fate. This is just the start and we won’t stop our work until we hold all of those responsible to account.”  


Guevara Namer, arrested twice for her work as a filmmaker and demonstrating against the regime, said: 

“The nightmares and the trauma are part of us now but these trials are restoring our hope in justice. When I was detained for the second time, the lawyer who saved me was later arbitrarily arrested and is still missing today. His name is Khalil Maatouk and these trials are for him too.”


Hamoudi Shoaib, a former detainee now based in Germany who was imprisoned and tortured three times, said: 

“They would bring all the young demonstrators and put us together in the same dormitory as criminals accused of rape and sexual harassment. I have experienced all sorts of torture physically and mentally. They hanged me from my arms from the ceiling. They kept me in a small cell with a dead detainee for 25 days. They would force other detainees to insult me and beat me up for my sexuality. I was sent to a dormitory where 54 people were staying in around 12 square meters.”


Ahmad Helmi, former detainee and Manager of Taafi, an initiative that supports detention survivors said: 

“The two on trial were directly involved in torturing a number of my friends and relatives. Today for the first time, we feel we are stronger than perpetrators under the umbrella of law. Justice is not something that we hear about in books and distant stories but it’s happening now and it’s starting in Germany.”