After nearly a decade of war, Syrians have endured over 500,000 deaths, over 200 chemical attacks, 12 million displacements, and almost 130,000 recorded disappearances. Though the regime of Bashar Assad still has its hold on the state, small steps have been made to bring the perpetrators to justice with evidence in international courts. One such instance is the trial which is now going on in Germany, where two intelligence officials, Anwar Raslan, former head for investigations at the notorious Al Khatib prison in Damascus, and his sidekick Eyad Gharib, are accused of having aided and abetted crimes against humanity by arresting and imprisoning protesters.
Survivors of torture, relatives of victims, and regime defectors are helping the court paint a fuller picture of government crimes with their testimony. Germany adheres to the principle of universal jurisdiction, which enables taking legal action against those responsible for grave crimes committed outside its borders. The current trial is likely to embolden several victims to come forward and signal to the regime that it could one day face trial.
The use of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture has been key to the apparatus created by Assad and his father. Its means and methods were famously revealed by more than 50,000 pictures of dead and brutally mutilated Syrians. The pictures were smuggled out of Syria by a photographer for the military police. With the war showing no signs of abating and the future of Assad secure as ever, the stakes are high for those still missing and left even more vulnerable due to the coronavirus.
Syrians now turn to international courts for answers on the fate of nearly 130,000 missing people who disappeared within the impenetrable maze of prisons, each a black box for those inside. So notable for the trial was the testimony from the gravedigger who documented in great detail the names of hundreds of thousands of dead Syrians, the locations for their mass graves, and the secret service branches where they had been held.
Among those witnesses involved in the trial is human rights attorney and activist Anwar Bunni, who spent his life defending dissidents in Syria then was jailed in 2006 for signing the Damascus Declaration, which called for democratic reform and radical change. Bunni languished in prison for five years before he was released and fled to Germany in 2014. His arrest and detention was overseen by Raslan, one of the two defendants in the trial.
Bunni encountered his torturer years later in a settlement in Germany. The two had been, on a weird twist of fate, sent to live on the same settlement in Berlin after Raslan had defected in 2012. This chance encounter set into motion the trial against Raslan for the “systematic and brutal” torture of at least 4,000 individuals of which almost six dozen died under his watch.
While it is a limited step toward justice, the trial is nothing less than a win for efforts to hold perpetrators accountable for torture that is condoned by the state. For the first time in years, the trial offers hope for those who cannot forget the complicity of the world community in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history. The trial is now inspiring the investigation and prosecution of similar cases. One such criminal lawsuit was brought against regime officials, including Assad and his brother, in behalf of the victims of the horrible sarin gas attacks in Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun.
Such moments could not have happened without human rights activists like Bunni and many others who at great risk tenaciously collected over a period of time thousands of government documents and solid testimony, tracked witnesses and defectors, and even helped protect them, shining light over how much more work is needed to bring the regime to justice.
Prosecutions will not address the dissatisfaction among survivors of such brutality of the regime, especially if they do not indict the perpetrators or compensate victims. But such cases will serve as stark reminders that the regime responsible for gruesome human rights violations against its own civilians should neither be part of the solution nor in the future for Syria.
Patricia Karam is regional director of the Middle East at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy.