Syria/Dabbagh case : First trial in France of the crimes of the Syrian authorities

Press release
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Riccardo Milani / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP

The trial of three high-ranking Syrian officials, Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes will take place from May 21 to 24 before the Paris Criminal Court. Since they are not present, the three defendants will be tried in absentia for the torture, enforced disappearance and murder constituting crimes against humanity, as well as for the confiscation of the property, qualified as war crimes, of Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh, French-Syrian nationals arrested and then detained at Mezzeh airport in Damascus in November 2013, by Syrian Air Force intelligence agents.

Paris, 2 May, 2024. A historic trial will open on May 21 before the Paris Criminal Court. For the first time, French courts will address the crimes of the Syrian authorities, and will try the most senior members of the authorities to ever be prosecuted since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, which resulted in a brutal crackdown orchestrated by Bashar el Assad’s government. In October 2016, Obeida Dabbagh, brother and uncle of the victims, along with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and La ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH), had filed a lawsuit in France, with the active support of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), following the disappearance of Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh.

"This trial will mark the achievement of a long struggle before French courts to ensure that those responsible for the enforced disappearance of my brother and nephew are punished. Our family was deliberately kept in ignorance of the fate that befell them for so many years, so this is also a trial to establish the truth", declares Obeida Dabbagh, brother and uncle of the disappeared.

After seven years of investigation carried out by the war crimes unit of the Paris Judicial Court, Ali Mamlouk, close advisor to Bashar al-Assad and former head of the National Security Bureau, Jamil Hassan, former director of the Syrian Air Force intelligence service, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations for the said service at the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus, were indicted before the Paris Criminal Court in March 2023. In the absence of the defendants on French soil, the trial will be held under the legal rules of trial by default (in absentia).

The investigating judges’ decision to characterize the crimes committed against Mazzen and Patrick Dabbagh as crimes against humanity is essential, as it implies demonstrating that the acts committed against them were part of a generalized policy implemented by the Syrian State at the highest level to repress the entire Syrian population” explains Clémence Bectarte, lawyer for FIDH, SCM and the Dabbagh family "Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have disappeared and died, often in atrocious circumstances, at the hands of Bashar el Assad’s regime since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Their families are still awaiting justice.

Mazzen and Patrick Dabbagh had been arrested and taken to the Mezzeh military airport detention center in Damascus, renowned for its inhumane detention conditions and brutal torture sessions. The investigative branch of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service there was headed by Abdel Salam Mahmoud.

After their arrest, their family had no information as to what had happened to them. It was only in July 2018, when death certificates were issued by the Syrian authorities, that the Dabbagh family was informed that Patrick and Mazzen had respectively died in January 2014 and November 2017.

"It is essential to remember that the crimes that will be addressed during this trial are not crimes of the past, these crimes are still ongoing because the Syrian authorities continue to enjoy total impunity. It is crucial to shed light on the importance of the fight against impunity to ensure sustainable peace, complete defeat of extremism, and the voluntary return of refugees." declares Mazen Darwish, General Director of SCM and Secretary General of FIDH.

At a time when certain States are normalizing their diplomatic relations with Bashar al-Assad, France must continue to firmly oppose any attempt at normalization. In view of the scale and gravity of the mass crimes committed in Syria, it must demonstrate its resolute commitment to the fight against impunity, and we hope that this trial will be one of the first steps in this direction” declares Patrick Baudouin, President of LDH and lawyer for FIDH and LDH.

The public trial of Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud will take place from 21 to 24 May 2024 before the Paris criminal court.

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