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Pursuing Justice Against a Criminal Regime

A glimmer of hope has finally emerged for survivors of torture in the Assad regime’s prisons, along with their families and friends, after years of testimony and activism. This comes amid a years-long absence of transnational justice and attempts to obscure the stories of hundreds of thousands of victims. 


European courts have recently begun to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many tormentors of the Syrian people have fled the country and attempted to disguise themselves among the refugees they once victimized and displaced. New investigations by law enforcement have rendered erasing one’s social media and pretending to be a supporter of the Syrian opposition has become far less effective than in previous years. 


The widening scope of crimes, in terms of the number of victims and perpetrators who jumped ship from the regime after brutalizing scores of people, has also made it easier for researchers to track down alleged offenders in Europe. 


French judges have issued arrest warrants for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad, and two other senior officials over the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. They have been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes following a criminal investigation into chemical attacks in the town of Douma and the district of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013–more than a thousand men, women, and children were poisoned by sarin gas.


This is the first international arrest warrant that has been issued for Assad, whose forces responded to protests in 2011 with a brutal crackdown characterized by what UN experts described as war crimes.


These are also the first international arrest warrants that have been issued over the Ghouta massacre. “[This] is a new victory for the victims, their families, and the survivors… a step on the path to justice and sustainable peace in Syria,” said Mazen Darwish, a Syrian lawyer and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)–it was the SCM who filed the case in France. 


Arrest warrants for sitting heads of state are rare because they generally enjoy sovereign immunity from prosecution. However, international law has exceptions in place for when a head of state is accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity, such as genocide. The International Criminal Court (ICC) currently has arrest warrants for two heads of state: Russian President Vladimir Putin and the other former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. 


In the first case before the highest United Nations court related to the war in Syria, the International Court of Justice in The Hague announced that the Netherlands and Canada had jointly filed a complaint against the Syrian government. The lawsuit accused the Assad regime of a myriad of violations of international law since at least 2011. These include the use of torture and other forms of inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment against detainees, inhumane conditions in detention facilities, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, gender-based violence, violence against children, and the use of chemical weapons. This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and innumerable injuries, causing the severest forms of physical and mental suffering.


The interim measures sought include orders for the regime to allow international monitors into detention centers, the release of arbitrarily detained prisoners, and the disclosure of burial sites for those who died in detention while preserving evidence, including medical records.


Canada and the Netherlands aim to hold the Assad regime accountable for torture and other serious human rights violations under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Damascus ratified in 2004 after its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1984. 


Western countries, at a conference in Brussels, pledged to hold war criminals in Syria accountable, with many European countries, including France, highlighting the trial of war criminals from all parties as a fundamental condition for peace and reconciliation. Needless to say there are many obstacles to achieving this.


Hope has returned to Syrians striving for justice and ending the era of impunity after recent criminal trials in Koblenz, a small town in western Germany, against Colonel Anwar Raslan and his assistant Eyad al-Gharib. This marked the first public trial in Europe against figures associated with the Assad regime. Raslan, the former head of the State Security’s Branch 251, was convicted of torturing more than four thousand detainees, at least 58 of whom died as a result of the mistreatment. He defected from the Syrian regime in September 2012 and fled to Berlin, where he was eventually spotted by none other than former prisoners he had victimized after they too fled to Germany. 


These survivors reported him to the police and a joint French-German investigation against Anwar Raslan culminated in his 2019 arrest. Seventeen witnesses, including twelve former prisoners who spent time in Branch 251’s custody, came forward to testify and enabled the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Germany to successfully seek a life sentence. He was the first Syrian intelligence officer to face prosecution and incarceration for crimes against humanity after the world’s first criminal trial focused on atrocities attributed to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.


The second verdict in this trial was issued to Eyad Al-Gharib, a lower-ranking former intelligence officer. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his involvement in the arrest of protestors in 2011 and their transfer to the al-Khatib detention center, where they were tortured. 


A subsequent high-profile trial saw Syrian doctor Alaa Moussa charged with 18 counts of crimes against humanity during his service in military intelligence in Homs, central Syria. The doctor participated in the beatings and torture of people arrested for protesting in 2011 instead of providing medical care, according to witness testimonies. Among his victims was a protester with epilepsy who was kicked in the head and beaten with a pipe after suffering a seizure, who died shortly after the abuse.


The German prosecutor’s office also described an exceptionally horrific allegation that, “Alaa poured alcohol on a detainee’s genitalia and set it on fire,” according to the testimony of former doctors at the military hospital in Homs. A May 22,2022 Der Spiegel report shed light on the story of the doctor torturer, just one of many who arrived in Germany among the ranks of refugees in 2015 before being identified by other Syrians in the city of Essen.


More recently France’s Court of Cassation upheld a judicial ruling convicting Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of Bashar al-Assad, for acquiring French properties worth millions of Euros through funds illegally transferred from the Syrian state. The Court of Cassation upheld the “unlawful enrichment” charges after years of deliberations and various appeals. Rifaat was sentenced to four years in prison and the confiscation of his assets, a decision initially made by the Paris Court of First Instance on June 17, 2020 and upheld on appeal on September 8, 2021. 


Sherpa, a French human rights lawyers’ group, said, “the assets held by Rifaat al-Assad in France that were seized during the proceedings will be definitively confiscated.” 


Rifaat, now 85 years old, lived in exile since the mid-1980s, mostly in France, after being accused of attempting to seize power from his brother, the late President Hafez al-Assad. He returned to Syria in October 2021 after losing control of his wealth and being sentenced to prison in France. This man was once the leader of the “Defense Brigades,” who spearheaded the 1982 Hama massacre, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people.


Also in France, six years of painstaking work by human rights organizations also culminated in the issuance of a memorandum for the trial of three high-ranking officials of the Syrian regime before the French criminal court. The significance of this move lies in the fact that war crimes and crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations, this will have an important political impact in light of the current trend of normalization with the Syrian regime.


Not having the accused appear before the French judiciary will lead to the issuance of arrest warrants that will be turned over to Interpol, followed by criminal judgements against them in absentia for committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. 


The three accused Are Ali Mamlouk–the special presidential advisor for security affairs and former director of the General Intelligence Office, Brigadier General Jameel Hassan–the director of Air Force Intelligence, and Brigadier General Abdul Salam Mahmoud–the director of investigations in the Air Force Intelligence, according to the SCM. 


Mamlouk is accused by human rights organizations of responsibility and supervision of Syria’s chemical arsenal and the liquidation of prisoners in Tadmur and other prisons. Hassan is considered one of the main supervisors of the violent military crackdown on the 2011 protests, accused of involvement in killings, torture, and multiple other human rights violations. Mahmoud directly oversees interrogation and torture in the notorious Air Force Intelligence prisons, where thousands of Syrians were detained, tortured, and killed under his orders.


Since the three officials are not present on French soil and are unlikely to comply with their court summons, the trial will take place in absentia according to French law, and in this case the trial is expected to be shorter than if the accused were present. It may last only a few days, civil parties and witnesses will be able to participate and provide their testimonies. At the end of the trial, a judgment is expected to be issued on the same day. If the accused are convicted, the Paris criminal court will issue new international arrest warrants based on their convictions, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. 


Today activists are reporting that one of the key leaders of Assad’s militias has arrived in Europe, settling in Germany with his five children.


Mahmoud Diab, also known as “Abu Azam,” was the commander of the “Qalamoun Shield,” militia in the town of Hafir al-Fawqa. Diab joined the National Defense Forces and led a center in his hometown as part of the militia’s formation. In May of 2016, the Assad regime in agreement with Russia decided to support militia groups formed by the residents of Qalamoun to combat ISIS. It was agreed to establish the Qalamoun Shield forces with funding and training from the Russian Ministry of Defense. Each member of these militias received a monthly salary estimated at $200 a month, far higher than a conscripted soldier’s pay. 


The Qalamoun Shield militia participated in the regime’s offensives in Eastern Ghouta, Daraa, Homs, and Deir ez-Zor, committing numerous massacres and displacing many thousands of residents. Mahmoud Diab alone led more than 600 militiamen under his command, personally leading into contested territory and carrying out atrocities. 


Diab fled Hajir al-Fawqa after being targeted by unknown assailants in late May of 2022–he was wounded but survived the attack. He subsequently fled to Libya and from there to Europe. He arrived in Germany to meet with his family after a long history of war crimes and human rights violations against the residents of the Qalamoun region and Syrians in general. 


Today it is the responsibility of Syrians to gather information related to the war criminal Mahmoud Diab and promptly provide it to organizations working for justice and accountability of Syrian war criminals. Additionally it is the responsibility of the German government to pursue the case and consider the officer who is residing on its soil as a refugee after committing a long list of atrocities and crimes against humanity. It is unacceptable for him to escape accountability and live a peaceful life after the heinous crimes he committed in Syria.


The jurisdiction of European local courts clearly provides an opportunity for those seeking justice. While transitional justice is yet to be achieved, and senior regime officials have not been held accountable for their crimes, such trials remain steps that expose the systematic repression the Assad regime continues to impose on Syrians. They also expose those who live in Germany and other European cities as supporters of the dictatorship, some of whom engage in intimidation and espionage or even travel and engage in combat. 


This will be shown in upcoming prosecutions, which serve as a means to recover the voices and cries of those who perished under the rubble of buildings or were forcibly disappeared in the Assad regime’s prisons–as well as those of survivors who still live with the physical and psychological cars of torture, trauma, and survival after years of suffering. 


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