International Law – Assad’s henchmen in chains

There was torture in Syrian prisons even before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. From this point onwards, however, the torture took on an almost unimaginable dimension. It is estimated that 60,000 Syrians died from systematic torture in the regime’s notorious secret prisons. Many simply disappeared; their fate remains forever uncertain.

Now, in the world’s first trial of state torture in Syria, the defendant Anwar Raslan has been sentenced to life imprisonment. The German judges in Koblenz found the 58-year-old guilty of crimes against humanity, 27 murders, torture and other offenses. According to the indictment, he was a former employee of the Syrian secret service and is said to have headed the Al-Khatib detention center in Damascus.

The verdict is groundbreaking for human rights activists and lawyers. It is a “historic signal in the global fight against impunity”, said the Secretary General of Amnesty International in Germany, Markus N. Beeko. For the victims, the Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Assad was also convicted of guilty. They hope that the dictator will one day be held accountable himself.

Former inmates recognize their tormentors

The picture that the UN and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International paint of the conditions in the notorious Syrian secret prisons is harrowing. Those who escaped from Assad’s prisons reported being beaten, electric shocks, and some had their fingernails torn out. Survivors say that prisoners were run over by tanks and that their fellow prisoners had to pick up the bodies and bring them to the institution’s own crematoria. The prisoners were hung by their hands without clothes, there was hardly anything to eat.

The goal of the regime under dictator Assad is still to break all resistance. In many prisons, guards demand bribes from relatives in order to obtain visiting rights or a sign of life.

The prisoners are brought to the prisons from the police stations, from the street or directly from home by truck and blindfolded and beaten by the guards from the first minute. There is a permanent climate of fear there, the prisoners are defenseless against the sadism of the guards. They are not allowed to talk to each other or look the guards directly in the eyes. There are reports that inmates must appoint a “spokesperson” who must then select someone from the group for beatings and torture. If he refuses, he will be mistreated himself. Sexual violence is the order of the day, prisoners are forced to eat their rations straight from the floor and wear wet clothes for days. In winter the cells are unheated, disease and infections are widespread, and there is almost no medical help.

According to the report, it is clear to the UN that the Syrian government is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But: Not only the regime, but also the Syrian rebels and the Syrian Democratic Forces led by Kurds use inhuman methods against their prisoners.

Syria's dictator Assad holds on to power thanks to aid from Russia and Iran.  - © AFP / SYRIAN PRESIDENCY FACEBOOK PAGE

Syria’s dictator Assad holds on to power thanks to aid from Russia and Iran.


Those who escaped the horror often decide to flee Syria and most often seek refuge in Germany. Not only the victims, but also the perpetrators flee to Europe. Former Syrian prisoners recognize their tormentors through chance encounters or via Facebook and report them.

It was the same in the case of the trial in Koblenz, which has now come to an end. At least 4,000 prisoners are said to have been tortured in the Al-Khatib detention center between April 2011 and September 2012 under the authority of the now convicted, many of whom died as a result. In the trial, which started in April 2020, a second man was also charged who was involved in the torture as a subordinate. The court sentenced him to four and a half years in prison a year ago in its own trial for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.

Pioneering work for worldwide reappraisal

The fact that the trial could take place in Germany is due to the so-called world law principle in international criminal law. According to this, acts may also be negotiated that have no direct connection to Germany. In addition, an “international mechanism” set up by the United Nations in 2016 is intended to facilitate the investigation of serious crimes in Syria. He collects evidence in order to be able to bring those responsible to justice later.

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights stated that the Koblenz state torture process had shown what the international criminal justice system can achieve “with all deficits”. The verdict creates a “solid base” for other prosecutors. Germany’s Justice Minister Marco Buschmann described the court ruling as a model for criminal prosecution in other countries as well. The “pioneering work” of the Koblenz court deserves to be recognized worldwide.

By the way, Austria should not have covered itself with fame here. According to “Kurier”, in 2015 the BVT smuggled a Syrian general suspected of having committed war crimes into Austria at the request of the Mossad. Where the Syrian could live undisturbed for three years before going into hiding.

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