Syria: Landmark ruling offers hope to regime’s victims

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Paris, 14 January 2022 — Syrian former colonel Anwar Raslan was sentenced yesterday to life in prison in a historic ruling in Koblenz, Germany, in what is the first conviction for crimes against humanity for a senior member of the Syrian regime. FIDH and its member organisation SCM welcome this judgment, which offers a measure of justice and hope to victims, insisting that it must be the first of many trials holding alleged perpetrators accountable for atrocities committed in Syria.

"This groundbreaking decision was made possible by the courage and determination of Syrian victims, witnesses, and activists. It is to be hoped that other trials will follow, as the fight against impunity for the regime’s atrocities must persist.”

Clémence Bectarte, coordinator of the Litigation Action Group of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The ruling could be precedent-setting and pave the way for other alleged perpetrators to be tried outside of Syria; this must be the start to a series of litigation efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the crimes of the Syrian regime—the vast majority of whom enjoy total impunity.

The trial, held in Koblenz, Germany, began in April 2020 and was the first in the world addressing the Syrian regime’s crimes against the civilian population. The regime remains in power, despite having killed hundreds of thousands of civilian victims. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), along with three other lawyers, supported the 14 plaintiffs. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (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.

"While they are no substitute for a national path to transitional justice, today’s verdict, and potential future decisions by European judiciaries under universal jurisdiction, can challenge impunity and keep victims’ rights at the center of any future political solution.

Mazen Darwish, SCM’s founder and executive director.

Senior regime official Anwar Raslan headed the investigation unit of a secret prison near Damascus known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, where anti-government protesters were tortured and murdered. Raslan was judged guilty of all charges brought against him: he was found to be a co-perpetrator in at least 4,000 cases of torture, 27 murders, and two sexual assaults. He does not have the possibility of parole.

Pursuing pathways to justice

FIDH and its members are active in seeking accountability for crimes in Syria through various litigation initiatives. The Federation has taken action to hold accountable those involved in serious crimes committed by regime officials, rebel actors, and Russian nationals.

In October 2018, French judges issued international arrest warrants for three high-ranking regime officials charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes in connection with the disappearance, torture and death of Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh, thanks to the ability to pursue perpetrators of atrocities in national justice systems in third countries – extraterritorial jurisdiction. FIDH and its French member organisation, LDH, had initiated this case, with the active support of SCM.

FIDH, LDH, and SCM—the Syrian member organisation of FIDH—were instrumental in the arrest and indictment in 2020 of Islam Alloush, spokesman of Syrian rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, a group that committed crimes against civilians living under its rule. The group is also suspected of having abducted, detained and tortured human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, co-founder of the local coordination committees, and two of their colleagues, political activist Samira Al-Khalil and human rights lawyer Nazem Al-Hammadi (The Douma 4).

More recently, FIDH, SCM and the Federation’s Russian member organisation, Memorial Human Rights Centre, facilitated a complaint against Russian actors who tortured and killed Syrian victim, Mohamed A., in 2017. The perpetrators were acting as part of the Wagner group, a paramilitary entity under the authority of the Russian government. This lawsuit filed in Moscow contributes a modicum of justice for the horrendous crimes committed by Russian actors in Syria—no small feat, given the veto power enjoyed by Russia thanks to its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

FIDH and its members will continue pursuing avenues to justice to ensure that actors on all sides of the Syrian conflict answer for their crimes.

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