German Trial for Wartime Atrocities Opens in Syria

Human Rights Watch

Judges in Frankfurt, Germany will begin hearing evidence on January 19, 2022 in a trial involving allegations of torture and murder by state agents during Syria’s decade-long brutal armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. The start of the second trial in Germany for crimes against humanity committed in Syria, shows that justice efforts for atrocities committed there are gaining momentum.

“Over the past decade, a large amount of evidence about atrocities in Syria has been collected, and now, as this case in Frankfurt shows, those efforts are starting to bear fruit,” said Balkees Jarrah, interim international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Syrian survivors, lawyers, and activists have been central to these efforts – not only pressing for justice but doing the groundwork that makes justice possible.”

The accused in the case is Alaa M., who allegedly worked as a physician in two military hospitals in the cities of Damascus and Homs, Syria. German prosecutors accuse him of torturing civilians in the hospitals and in a detention facility run by Syrian intelligence services in Homs between April 2011 and the end of 2012. Alaa M. arrived in Germany in mid-2015 and worked as a doctor near the city of Kassel until he was arrested in June 2019. He has since been in pre-trial detention.

Some of the charges against Alaa M., who is identified with only the first initial of his surname under German privacy laws, stem from alleged serious crimes committed in Military Hospital 601 in Damascus. Human Rights Watch research confirms that some of the so-called “Caesar” photographs were taken in the garage of this facility. The photos, smuggled out of Syria by a defector, were taken as part of a bureaucratic effort by the Syrian security apparatus to maintain a photographic record of the thousands who have died in detention since 2011, as well as of members of security forces who died in attacks by armed opposition groups.

The issues at stake in the trial offer a glimpse into the role medical personnel played in Syria’s hospitals and detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said.

The court in Frankfurt initially rejected parts of the indictment. However, on January 18, a higher-level German court approved a request by prosecutors to keep all of the charges outlined in the initial indictment.

The trial is possible because Germany’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction over some of the most serious crimes under international law, allowing for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes no matter where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims.

On January 13, a German court in the city of Koblenz convicted Anwar R., a former Syrian intelligence official, for crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison. Anwar R.’s conviction was a meaningful moment for civilians who survived torture and sexual abuse in Syria’s prisons, Human Rights Watch said. Anwar R. was the most senior former Syrian government official to be convicted for serious crimes in Syria. Another defendant in the Koblenz trial, Eyad A., was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in February 2021.

The court in Frankfurt should make every effort to make information about the trial available to the public and communities affected by the many crimes committed in Syria. Inadequate outreach to affected communities can have a direct impact on the success of accountability efforts in relation to serious international crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Lack of translation into Arabic of the proceedings marginalized survivor and community participation in the Koblenz trial. Non-accredited Arabic language journalists and people from affected communities who spoke Arabic were not given access to translation devices in the courtroom. Although some of the interested Arabic speakers had a basic knowledge of German, it was not easy for some of them to follow the court sessions, especially due to the technical language used and the speed of the conversations in the courtroom.

The Frankfurt court decided on December 15, 2021 not to provide the public with translation of the proceedings after the accused in the case waived his right to Arabic interpretation. The court also cited financial considerations. At the same time, the court has translated news releases about the case into English. Witnesses and formal parties to the proceedings who do not speak German will be provided with interpretation.

Another problem for affected communities’ ability to follow the proceeding in Frankfurt is that the court has prohibited visitors from taking notes in the public gallery unless they can demonstrate a “research interest.”

Lack of awareness and understanding of the proceedings and judicial systems prevents Syrians and others from fully understanding justice efforts taking place outside Syria and from being able to contribute to them, Human Rights Watch said. Research by Human Rights Watch and others has shown that meaningful outreach efforts have a positive impact on affected communities.

“To be meaningful, justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done.” Jarrah said. “Court authorities should make Arabic translation more widely available for these cases involving the world’s worst crimes committed abroad.”

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