Middle East

Ex-Detainees of Syria's Torture Prisons React to Anwar Raslan Sentencing

January 19, 2022
Dana Saqbani
5 min read
Ex-Detainees of Syria's Torture Prisons React to Anwar Raslan Sentencing

“Anwar Raslan is not wronged. He was tried for the crimes he committed. The verdict was just and I feel satisfied.”

So says Ruwaida Kanaan, a former detainee at a notorious Damascus detention center known as Branch 251 in Damascus, after ex-Syrian regime intelligence official Anwar Raslan was jailed for life by a German court last week.

On Thursday, January 13, the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz convicted the former colonel of crimes against humanity in what was hailed by the UN as a “landmark leap forward” for international justice. The 58-year-old Raslan was found to have overseen the “systematic and brutal torture” of 4,000 people detained by the Assad regime, including rape and sexual assault, at Branch 251: nicknamed “Hell on Earth” by those that survived.

Ruwaida is one of them. Speaking to IranWire's Arabic team, she said that during her time in prison, she had been near-overwhelmed by horrible feelings and wished the worst of fates to all those who were torturing her. But after her release, she said, she realized that bringing the perpetrators justice in court was the answer.

“The trial is an important, positive step,” she said, “but a lot of work awaits Syrians in the coming days. It’s a huge responsibility on us as individuals, as human rights activists and international organizations, to see justice served in all of Syria.”

Ruwaida added that the surge of global interest in Raslan’s trial makes her nervous: his case is just one of hundreds she believes must be heard in connection with crimes committed in Assad’s sprawling prison system.

Nouran al-Ghamyan, a former detainee in the Syrian regime’s interrogation centers, told IranWire: “I had mixed feelings of sadness, anger, relief and hope when I saw Anwar Raslan put behind bars. I hope justice will be served, and that those who tortured me and other detainees will also be punished.”

Al-Ghamyan was arrested for taking part in a sit-in to denounce the 2012 Houla massacre, in which 49 children and 34 women were killed by Syrian government forces. “One of the soldiers pointed a weapon at my face,” she said, “and another slapped me, assuring me that if it were up to him, he would slaughter me. He said that while sliding his finger across his throat.”

The worst part of her arrest, she said, was while she was being transported by bus to the detention center. “I saw my mother detained on the same bus. We looked at each other and started crying hysterically.” During her three months in detention, she said, she was subjected to physical and psychological torture as well as sexual harassment.

Another survivor of Branch 251, Fatima, had no hope of filing a lawsuit against Raslan or any other perpetrator because she is still based in Idlib. She told IranWire that contrary to what others said, she does not yet feel that justice has been served.

Farima met Anwar Raslan in person for a few minutes on her transferral across from Branch 40. Like others, she told IranWire that lacks confidence in the international community’s ability to hold all the perpetrators accountable for the crimes they committed.

The Trial of Anwar Raslan

Anwar Raslan was accused of personally committing 58 crimes and found guilty on 27 counts of murder, rape and sexual assault between 2011 and 2012, the first year after pro-democracy uprisings in the country. He had left the Syrian regime’s employ as early as 2012 and claimed asylum in Germany with his family in 2014, settling in the capital, Berlin.

It was only by chance that the Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni recognized him in the street. He was arrested in 2019 together with a junior officer, Eyad al-Gharib, who was convicted last year of accessory to crimes against humanity and sentenced to four years in prison.

Raslan’s trial began on April 23, 2020. Some 80 witnesses testified for the prosecution, including 12 dissidents who quit the Syrian regime, and torture victims who had mostly since settled in European countries. Raslan denied the charges, and claimed he was acting on orders from more senior officers. Crowds gathered outside the courthouse to hear the verdict last week after more than 100 hearings.

Anwar al-Bunni was arrested by Raslan outside his home in Damascus in 2006, after which he spent five years in prison. Now a founding member of the Syrian Human Rights Association and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, he gave evidence in the case, and said of the verdict: “He [Raslan] was convicted as part of this machine, part of this killer machine that arrested Syrians, killed them, tortured them. It’s a conviction for the whole regime.” 

The court’s decision, al-Bunni said, would form the basis for upcoming criminal cases and increased political pressure on the Assad regime. Justice had been served thanks to the courage of torture survivors, he said, and the relatives of those who lost their lives.

A Launchpad for International Justice

Tariq Hokan, director of the legal office of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, told IranWire that this ruling established a “new narrative” regarding the violations taking place in Syria. It proved, he said, that the crimes in Syria were “committed in accordance with a general policy adopted by the regime in a systematic manner.”

But the center’s president, Mazen Darwish, added that in his view, trials carried out in individual European countries were still no substitute for seeing the entire regime held to account in the International Criminal Court. The reason this has not yet happened, he said, is a long-standing veto by Russia.

The road to justice, Darwish told IranWire, would be a long one. But the material collated from Raslan’s trial – evidence bundles, testimonies and expert reports, including the list of crimes committed at Branch 251 that he himself presented to the court – could also be deployed in other criminal trials against ex-regime members in future. He was happy, he said, that some victims and their families had lived to see this day, but also sad that it had not taken place in Damascus.

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