Activists have described the case, which involves charges of crimes against humanity in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, as a first, limited step toward justice.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — After her arrest for protesting against the government in Syria in 2011, Nouran Alghamian landed in a notorious interrogation center, locked in a bug-infested isolation cell so small that she couldn’t lie down.
She begged to see the center’s commander, Anwar Raslan, and pleaded for a normal cell. Mr. Raslan laughed at her, she said, and threw her back into isolation.
“He is a criminal and he needs to be tried,” Ms. Alghamian, 28, said by phone from Switzerland, where she has political asylum.
On Thursday, she got her wish, when Mr. Raslan and another former Syrian security officer went on trial in Germany on charges of crimes against humanity committed in the early days of Syria’s civil war.
Legal campaigners have described the case, in the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, as a breakthrough for international efforts to hold perpetrators accountable for the extensive abuses committed in the conflict.
Most efforts to prosecute Syrian officials in Europe have either been largely symbolic indictments of high-level figures who remain in Syria or trials of low-level soldiers.
So Mr. Raslan stands out as a former colonel in a Syrian intelligence service of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who has dismissed prosecutions in non-Syrian courts as meaningless. Mr. Raslan is the first high-ranking official to be tried on such grave charges, and the proceedings against him are the world’s first to deal with state-sponsored torture in Syria.
“It is important to show that the criminals will be tried, and the highest-ranking of them,” said Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer who was arrested by Mr. Raslan in 2005 and jailed for five years for his human rights work. “This man is not a cog in the machine, but an engine in this devilish apparatus.”
But the case also raises stark questions about the limits of justice for Syria, and who will be held accountable where. After nine years of brutal warfare that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and scattered refugees across the globe, there is no sign that Syria will be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the body set up to deal with such cases. That is largely because Russia, a Syrian ally, has used its seat on the United Nations Security Council to veto such a move.
So now only two men are on trial in Germany, far from where their accusers say the crimes took place, while many more senior perpetrators, including Mr. Assad, remain in power.
Further complicating Mr. Raslan’s status is his defection to the opposition in 2012, less than a year into the war. In 2014, he even joined the opposition delegation to peace talks sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva.
Some legal advocates fear that prosecuting someone like Mr. Raslan could dissuade other former Syrian officials from serving as inside witnesses to help build other cases because they might fear facing trial themselves.
Others worry that a small number of similar prosecutions could allow European governments to feel that they are doing enough and dissuade them from broader efforts to hold Mr. al-Assad and his subordinates accountable.
“It is a good first step, an important step, but it is not going to be sufficient to fulfill the demands for justice of the Syrian people,” said Mohammed Al Abdallah, the director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, which is monitoring the trial.
For Germany, the trial has become the most important of several prosecuted since 2002 on the principle of universal jurisdiction, under which national courts can try war crimes cases from elsewhere in the world.
Previous trials have dealt with crimes committed in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, but the Syria case is the first involving crimes against humanity brought against officials from a government that remains in power.
The idea for such proceedings goes back to the Nuremberg trials, organized by the Allies after World War II to prosecute surviving members of the Nazi regime.
Those trials were unique in their comprehensive analysis of the roles individuals played in the Nazi repression, from doctors to soldiers to propagandists, said Wolfgang Kaleck, a founding member of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which is representing victims in the Koblenz trial.
The war crimes division of Germany’s federal prosecutor is taking a similar approach to Syria, Mr. Kaleck said, and has amassed a body of evidence to help it understand the inner workings of Mr. Assad’s government in hopes that it will facilitate other trials of Syrian officials in Europe.
“We have to be able to say this is how the Syrian apparatus functioned and we have to target these other columns of power,” Mr. Kaleck said.
Mr. Raslan entered Germany in July 2014, and his co-defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, in April 2018. The German authorities arrested both men in February 2019 pending trial.
Contributing to the indictment itself was years of work by a loose network of organizations and Syrian activists who have amassed piles of documents, tracked down Syrian victims and explored ways to get their cases into European courts.
The case against Mr. Raslan, for example, partly rests on documents collected inside Syria that outline his role in the security services. And his arrest came after Mr. al-Bunni, the Syrian lawyer, spotted him on the street in Germany, where both men were refugees. Mr. al-Bunni later tracked down Syrian witnesses who had spent time in the interrogation center Mr. Raslan oversaw.
According to a court statement about the trial issued last month, Mr. Raslan stands accused of complicity in crimes against humanity “in the context of an extensive and systematic attack on the civilian population.”
He served as the head of a Syrian intelligence investigations unit that was responsible for security in and around the capital, Damascus, and had its own prison, the statement said.
That gave him oversight of the torture of at least 4,000 detainees with methods that included “brutal violence from beatings, kicks and electric shocks” and at least one case of rape and sexual assault, the statement said. Detainees were denied medical care, served inedible food and packed into cells so crowded that they could not lie down.
At least 58 people died because of ill treatment during Mr. Raslan’s tenure, the statement said.
His co-defendant, Mr. al-Gharib, worked for Mr. Raslan and stands accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, the statement said.
Mr. al-Gharib rounded up at least 30 protesters and bussed them to the interrogation center; many were beaten on the way and tortured once inside, the court statement said.
International legal experts watching the trial acknowledged that it in no way matches the scale of the violence committed by the Syrian government during the war. To crush the rebels seeking to push Mr. al-Assad from power, his forces have destroyed civilian neighborhoods, used chemical weapons and built an archipelago of prisons and torture centers across the country.
But legal advocates hope the trial, which is expected to last two to three years, will provide a measure of closure for victims, pave the way for future prosecutions and warn officials in Syria and other oppressive states that their turn in the dock could be coming.
“The overriding message to all members of the regime in Syria and all over the world is that you can’t be safe,” said Stefanie Bock, director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany. “If you are engaged in certain serious human rights violations, there is always a danger that you will be held accountable later. It may be a small risk, but there is a risk.”
“The argument for universal jurisdiction becomes that much stronger with a context like Syria, where there are really no other opportunities for justi ce,”
the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy’s Mai El-Sadany told Al-Monitor.
“Human-rights lawyers hope the trial, which is being held in the German city of Koblenz, could open the way for more prosecutions of Syrian war crimes, whether in German courts, elsewhere in Europe or in a future tribunal,”
Raja Abdulrahim and Ruth Bender write for the Wall Street Journal.