Syria: In convicting ex secret police officer for crimes against humanity, German court issues landmark verdict

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FIDH welcomes the momentous verdict issued in Koblenz, Germany, on 24 February 2021, in a case concerning crimes against humanity committed by an actor of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The ruling could be precedent-setting and pave the way for other alleged perpetrators to be tried outside of Syria.

Former Syrian secret service agent Eyad A. was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. In 2011, he brought anti-government protesters to a secret prison near Damascus known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, where they were tortured and murdered.

Eyad A. is one mid-level actor involved in the Syrian government’s vast machine of systematic torture, but his case has wider implications for seeking accountability for the atrocities committed by regime actors, which have since 2011 brutally repressed the population, from mass arrests and systematic torture to enforced disappearances and killings.

The key roles of victims and civil society

The conviction of Eyad A. was possible thanks to the courage of victims and survivors. Mazen Darwish, a Syrian lawyer who directs the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), saluted survivors’ fundamental role. “Through sheer determination they created a first that no one could have imagined only a few years ago. We can only reaffirm our support to them.”

SCM, which is a member of FIDH, played an essential role, along with other civil society organisations, by identifying perpetrators, gathering evidence, collaborating with the prosecution to build the cases, and providing testimony.

Darwish put the broader significance of the case into perspective. “The verdict issued today in the Court of Koblenz is not only a conviction of accused Eyad A. It is a judicial indictment of all the security services in Syria and of all the violations that they committed. And it’s just the beginning.”

Universal jurisdiction: justice in Germany and other third countries for crimes in Syria

A German court was able to take on the case on the basis of universal jurisdiction, by which certain abuses of international law can be prosecuted in a different country – Germany, in this case.

Germany, along with Sweden, is one of the European countries with the broadest form of universal jurisdiction, allowing for investigation and prosecution of serious international crimes committed abroad, even where the crimes have no direct impact on their national interests. This is based on the premise that certain crimes so deeply shock the conscience of humanity that every State has an interest in holding the perpetrators accountable.

Given that such crimes could not be tried in Syria, given the regime’s power and lack of independent judiciary, and given that the International Criminal Court’s hands are tied due to Russia’s veto power, prosecution of crimes in third countries is, for now, the most viable way to seek accountability.

Attorney Clémence Bectarte, who coordinates FIDH’s Litigation Action Group, explained to France Culture the utility of universal jurisdiction for crimes committed in Syria. “This is the first conclusion of tremendous efforts that have been carried out for many years, first by Syrian activists, Syrian lawyers, refugees, victims, and witnesses, and supported by international NGOs who wanted, in the face of the enormity of the crimes committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in the face of the impotence of the international community, in the face of the failure to attempt to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, to file complaints in Europe before national jurisdictions by virtue of this principle of universal jurisdiction.”

What’s next

The trial of one of Eyad A.’s superiors, Anwar R., is ongoing and a verdict is expected this fall. Both men were arrested by German authorities in 2019 and their trial opened in April 2020. The conviction of Eyad A. will hopefully be the first of many, so that the brutal abuses committed over the past decade do not go unpunished.

“This verdict means that, in the end, we will have justice. It means that when the survivors take the lead in their fight for justice and accountability, they can achieve a result."

Mazen Darwish, who was himself detained and tortured by the Syrian regime for three and a half years

Many other proceedings based on universal jurisdiction or extra-territorial jurisdiction are ongoing for crimes committed in Syria, including in France, where FIDH, its Litigation Action Group, and SCM are quite involved and participate as civil parties.

The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) is gathering, analysing and preserving evidence of international crimes committed by various actors in Syria, in order to help current and future proceedings, including universal jurisdiction cases in Europe. FIDH and SCM are actively involved in submitting information and collaborating with the IIIM.

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