"I had a mixture of feelings — anger, relief, and hope all at the same time — when I saw Anwar Raslan behind bars. I hope justice takes its course and punishes the man, and those like him who tortured me, and that he feels what those who were under his command due to his military rank, felt."
This is what Nouran Al-Ghamyan, who was previously detained in prisons run by the Syrian regime, told me over the phone, in response to the start of the trial of Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian intelligence officer.
On May 27, 2012, against the backdrop of the killing of 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, Al-Ghamiyan left a sit-in denouncing what protesters described as a "massacre" that had taken place in the Syrian city of Homs, during which she held a banner reading "The children of Houla are not terrorists." As she left, two security officers followed her and arrested her.
Nouran Al-Ghamyan told IranWire: "One of the officers put a weapon in my face and another slapped me, assuring me that if it was in his hands he would have slaughtered me — saying this as he swiped his finger across his neck."
Al-Ghumyan explained that her biggest shock during her detention came when she was being transferred by bus from one place to another. "I was in shock because I saw my mother as a detainee sitting on the same bus. I could not hold myself together. When I looked at her we both started crying."
Al-Ghumyan confirmed that during her three-month detention she was subjected to physical and psychological torture and harassment.
The First Trial to Hold Syrian Agents to Account
She and other witnesses are attending court sessions that began on Thursday, April 23 in Germany — the first trial in the world dealing with violations attributed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The two men on trial, former Syrian intelligence officers, will appear in a court in Koblenz.
The main suspect, 57-year old Anwar Raslan, is a former colonel of the Syrian State Security Service and is being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The German judiciary accuses him of responsibility for the deaths of 58 people and the torture of at least 4,000 others between April 2011 to September 2012 at the Al-Khatib security branch, which he ran in Damascus.
Wolfgang Kaleck, Secretary-General of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Germany, said: "The trial at Koblenz Court is surrounded by strict security and will not conclude until the middle of August at the earliest. It is an important step in beginning to look into [the Syrian regime’s] crimes before a German supreme court."
Kaleck is supporting 16 former victims, some of them civilians. Among the plaintiffs is Syrian lawyer and prominent human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni, who has been a resident in Germany as a refugee for five and a half years.
Al-Bunni told IranWire: "The legal basis for this prosecution is the universal jurisdiction in the European judiciary, as anyone is allowed to prosecute someone for crimes against humanity or war crimes who is present within European territory, even if the crime was not committed within it.”
The trial is taking place in Germany pursuant to the principle of "universal jurisdiction" that allows a country to prosecute for crimes against humanity, regardless of nationality or the location in which the crime was committed.
As Al-Bunni explained, there are four European countries that can prosecute such criminals, regardless of whether the crime was committed on its soil: Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Austria.
NGOs say this is the only way to prosecute officials, as filing any case with the International Criminal Court is impossible because Syrian allies Russia and China will use their veto power.
Anwar Al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, and his colleagues in Europe, have filed other cases against people accused of war crimes before German, Austrian, Swedish, and Norwegian courts, as well as in France, Switzerland, and Spain, where they have filed cases against Rifaat Al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, in connection to funds resulting from criminal activity.
Al-Bunni says the motive behind collecting evidence and prosecuting those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including Anwar Raslan, who was responsible for torturing Al-Bunni, is asserting the rights of thousands of Syrians who have been tortured.
Al-Bunni indicated that it was the German prosecutor who initiated the case following accusations made by asylum seekers who held Raslan responsible for their torture. Meanwhile, during his application for asylum, Raslan submitted a statement claiming he feared for his life due to death threats from the opposition because of his work for the Syrian regime.
What About the Trial of Iyad Al-Gharib?
Al-Bunni explained that Anwar Raslan's case is not the same as that of Iyad Al-Gharib, another former Syrian secret service agent, as Raslan gave orders and carried out torture himself, and there were witnesses to his actions.
As for Al-Gharib, no one has filed a case against him, and he has also previously admitted to his actions, which were committed over two months and were limited to taking part in patrols that arrested 30 peaceful demonstrators in the city of Douma outside of Damascus.
Al-Bunni expects that Al-Gharib's testimony will support the public prosecution and that he will be tried on a misdemeanor charge, adding that the "the court might consider him a witness and therefore he will not spend a long time in prison."
Al-Bunni believes that the court case will be the beginning of a wider trial on what he described as the "hellish security machine" in the Syrian regime's security departments and headquarters and its political, military, and security personnel.
"Nobody Is Above the Law"
Human Rights Watch has stated that the trial will be a "strong warning to those who are currently committing abuses in Syria," and that in this regard "no one is above the law." The organization said it sees itself as "a key player in fighting impunity for very serious human rights violations committed in Syria."
It is expected that, during the trial, a number of photographs will be presented from among thousands taken by a former Syrian military cameraman known by the pseudonym "Qaysar" who managed to escape from Syria in the summer of 2013, carrying with him 55,000 horrific pictures showing corpses bearing the signs of torture. Syrian witnesses and victims will also be give their testimonies.
Following the commencement of the first session, Amnesty International stated that the trial of the two former Syrian regime security apparatus officials represented "an important step toward achieving justice."
IranWire tried to contact other witnesses, but they refused to comment at the request of the court. IranWire also attempted to access the evidence against the accused the court will consider, acknowledging that access will be made publicly available upon being presented to the judiciary.
Two former detainees reported to IranWire details of the torture they experienced during their detention in Syrian prisons, expressing their relief that the the trial of Raslan and Al-Gharib were taking place. One of them said: "Raslan will be given a fair trial and a prison without torture, something which we did not get during Raslan and his peers' interrogation of us."