Syrian torture survivors finally came face to face with their tormentor. But the reckoning took place far from home

The court docket in Koblenz delivered this historic verdict on Thursday morning. And scores of Syrian activists — largely family members of people that have been forcibly disappeared or killed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — poured into this tiny German metropolis to witness it.

Outside the court docket on Thursday, a gaggle of ladies held a vigil for his or her disappeared family members as they waited for Raslan’s sentencing. News of the judgment then arrived by means of a German activist who learn out a textual content message from contained in the courthouse: The panel of judges had discovered that Raslan was complicit in at the very least 4,000 instances of torture, 27 murders and two instances of sexual violence.

A pregnant pause hung within the air because the information sank in. Some activists began to quietly weep.

“I cry because of my relationship with the survivors,” stated Joumana Seif, a Syrian lawyer, human rights activist and a part of the authorized staff that represented 17 plaintiffs on the trial. “The Syrians deserve justice. We deserve so much more than the situation we are in.”

The courthouse is perched on the banks of the junction the place the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet. It’s a world away from the infamous Damascus detention facility on the heart of the trial, the place Raslan headed the intelligence division from 2011 to 2012.

Former prisoners of Branch 251, as it’s identified, recounted how they have been in overcrowded cells and took turns sleeping due to the shortage of area. They have been disadvantaged of sufficient meals and drugs, and have been tortured. Some have been raped and sexually assaulted. Many died.

It was a part of the Assad regime’s labyrinth of jail programs the place greater than 100,000 are believed to have disappeared and tens of hundreds have perished since 2011.

“I’m happy because this is a victory for justice,” stated Anwar al-Bounni, a Syrian human rights lawyer and former political prisoner, outdoors the courthouse.

“I’m happy because it’s a victory for the victims sitting inside,” Bounni added, his booming voice choked with emotion as he gestured towards the courthouse. “I’m happy because it’s a victory for Syrians back home who couldn’t come here. It’s also a victory for Syrians who didn’t survive.”

At this bittersweet gathering in Germany, a number of Syrians repeatedly acknowledged that, for now, accountability may solely be delivered distant from their homeland, the place the justice system has been completely undermined by the autocratic regime.

Not even the International Criminal Court at The Hague may strive the Assad regime for the numerous conflict crimes and crimes towards humanity of which it’s extensively accused, as a result of Syria is just not a celebration to that court docket. Syria may very well be investigated by the ICC if the United Nations Security Council refers it, however Assad’s allies — Russia and China — have struck down earlier motions to take action.

Closer to residence, justice seems ever extra distant. Assad’s regional foes — particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — have repaired diplomatic ties with the regime, strikes which can be believed to mark the start of the tip of the Syrian President’s isolation.

Yet in Koblenz, the torturer and the survivors have traded locations. Raslan arrived at court docket shackled. His victims have been free and now driving proceedings towards their tormentor and — by extension — towards the Assad regime. The court docket heard the survivors draw on their private testimonies and copious quantities of incriminating proof collected by activists and advocates for the reason that begin of Syria’s 2011 rebellion.

In addition to discovering Raslan personally responsible, the court docket additionally dominated that the Assad regime “systematically” dedicated crimes towards humanity.

Yet it was a single authorized mechanism that made this potential. The Principle of Universal Jurisdiction offers courts jurisdiction over grave violations of worldwide regulation even when they occurred outdoors of the state to which the court docket belongs to, and whatever the nationalities of the events concerned.

As a consequence, survivors undertook what they stated was step one in a “long road to justice.” More trials are underway towards Assad officers who sought refuge in Europe from Syria’s conflict. Some activists name it a “tactical war,” with the last word purpose of bringing the Assad authorities to its knees.

Even if that bold purpose is not met, Thursday’s judgment, they stated, will at the very least allow them to sleep somewhat simpler.

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni stands outside the courtroom in Koblenz.

Branch 251

Wassim Mukdad’s condominium mirrors the way in which he describes his life in exile. Arab lutes — referred to as oud — line the partitions of an workplace overlooking a quiet Berlin avenue. His library is a mixture of Arabic and German books.

“One of the good things about living abroad is you can pick and choose what you want to take from Arab culture and from Western culture,” he quipped, his palms draped over his classic three-piece swimsuit.

Against the backdrop of his new life lurks Mukdad’s darkish historical past in Syria, the place he says he was imprisoned for his anti-regime activism 3 times, and jailed a fourth time by al Qaeda-linked fighters. His second stint in detention was in Branch 251, the place he believes Raslan was within the room directing his interrogation periods. Like all his fellow prisoners, Mukdad was blindfolded all through his torture.

“(Raslan) ordered directly to a man next to me … ‘making him lay on his belly and raise his feet in the air,'” stated Mukdad. “Once my answers didn’t suit (Raslan), the other man on command starts to hit until he says stop.”

Wassim Mukdad (L) speaks to reporters after the guilty verdict against his torturer.

Mukdad stated he instructed his interrogator he was a health care provider, fearing his torturers would break his fingers if he confessed to being a musician. Syrian cartoonist and dissident, Ali Farzat, had come to thoughts, Mukdad stated. Farzat’s tormentors smashed his fingers. They stated it was cease him from drawing political cartoons, Farzat later stated.

“It was like hell,” Mukdad says of his imprisonment in Branch 251. “How did humanity come up with this?”

Throughout the trial in Koblenz, Raslan not often spoke. His statements — wherein he tried to current himself as a conscientious objector to the regime’s practices — have been learn out by his protection staff. He spoke solely when the judges requested him a query, which not often occurred. When it did, his solutions have been monosyllabic.

Mukdad, a musician in Berlin, was an outspoken plaintiff in the Anwar Raslan trial.

Some Syrian attorneys and plaintiffs speculated that he did not need his victims to acknowledge his voice from their interrogation periods in detention. Several plaintiffs stated they’d seen his face beforehand however, apart from one survivor, stated they’d solely seen him in his workplace. Raslan and his protection staff haven’t defined why the previous colonel has refused to talk within the trial and the Raslan protection staff has repeatedly declined CNN’s requests for remark.

“Every one of us was blindfolded. They didn’t want us to see, but they cannot prevent us from hearing (the interrogator),” stated Mukdad. “But now he has prevented us from hearing him.”

Unlike his co-defendant Gharib, Raslan appeared to make no effort to cover his face throughout the hearings. “He stood tall and looked arrogant,” recalled Seif. “He would look each of the plaintiffs in the eye, one after the other, as if to say ‘who do you think you are?'”

“Over the past two years in court Raslan has been sitting in his chair doing nothing with his face and writing,” stated Human Rights Watch Assistant Counsel Whitney-Martina Nosakhare, who attended all the trial periods. “When the judge read out the verdict, he had no reaction in his face.”

“This is an intense moment. Being sentenced to life in prison is a huge deal. It’s not something that you lightly brush off,” Nosakhare added. “But he made us believe it was something that he didn’t care about.”

Yasmen Almashan says the Raslan's trial was the least activists could do for their disappeared loved ones.

‘Convicted in lieu of the Syrian regime’

Raslan’s attorneys stated they’ll attraction his sentencing, and specialists count on his case to stay within the courts for years to come back. After the decision was learn, protection lawyer Yorck Fratzky continued to disclaim that Raslan was personally responsible of the fees.

“The defense does not make a secret of being discontent with the verdict,” Fratzky stated in a press briefing after the trial concluded. “We see that Raslan has been convicted in lieu of the Syrian regime.”

This competition, that Raslan served as a scapegoat, resonates with some Syrians, even these actively against the Assad regime. Some liken the Koblenz trial to crumbs provided by the worldwide group within the absence of political change in Syria.

“My main concern is that politically these trials are used as an alternative for states in the international community to actually do something,” says Berlin-based activist Wafa Mustafa, who says her father — Ali Mustafa — was forcibly disappeared by the regime in 2013.

Wafa nonetheless helps the trial, although, and has gone to Koblenz a number of instances, carrying her father’s framed {photograph}. “I carry him to places I know he would like to go to,” she stated, flashing a large smile of defiant optimism.

“But I fear that they are using this trial as an alternative to their failure to actually deal … with the fact that a war criminal like Assad is still in power after ten years.”

Wafa Mostafa carried her father's photo to court in Koblenz. She says she felt he would have liked to be there.

Similar issues seem to have tempered celebrations within the aftermath of the decision.

Asked how she feels in regards to the sentencing, Yasmen Almashan gestures to a photograph collage of 5 of her six brothers. All of them, she says, have been disappeared or killed. “Wasn’t this the least we could do for them?” she requested.

One of the plaintiffs, Ruham Hawash, regarded visibly shaken after she emerged from the hours-long judgment session. The court docket had learn out every of the plaintiffs’ testimonies. Hawash would not wish to bear in mind her expertise in Branch 251, she stated, not to mention have it recited aloud.

“I don’t want to speak about my torture, I only want to speak about the trial,” she stated.

“In the past I used to say that I was imprisoned and tortured and my freedom was taken away from me and the story had a sad ending,” stated Hawash. “Today I can say that I was imprisoned, and tortured and my freedom was taken away from me but that I helped to bring those officials to this trial.

“There’s a giant distinction between these two tales. It’s not a tragic story. There was closure.”

Asked what she plans to do now that the trial is over, she shrugged, her feet shifting as she spoke. “I do not know what’s subsequent. Probably a brand new section in my life,” she said. “I’m prepared to maneuver on.”

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