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Former officer jailed for war crimes in Syria after landmark German trial

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COBLENCE – A German court on Thursday sentenced a former Syrian intelligence officer to life imprisonment for murder, rape and crimes against humanity, delivering the first-ever sentence for state-backed torture during Syria’s civil war afterwards of a historic trial.

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Anwar Raslan was found guilty on 27 of 58 counts of murder, rape and sexual assault committed in a Damascus prison run by a unit of the security services of President Bashar al-Assad he headed.

The 58-year-old man, a colonel when he defected from the Syrian opposition in 2012 and who, according to prosecutors, was granted asylum in Germany two years later, had denied all charges.

The Assad government denies torturing prisoners.

The trial was conducted under German universal jurisdiction laws, which allow courts to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

Prosecutors backed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) had gathered evidence since 2016 from nearly 50 Syrian torture survivors living in Germany and others based elsewhere in Europe, said the ECCHR – an NGO founded by lawyers in 2007 -.

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Mariam Alhallak, whose son died during questioning by government agents after being kidnapped from Damascus University in 2012, the year after the war began, welcomed the verdict.

“It means a lot to me because I have a feeling that justice is being served,” she told the court in the city of Koblenz in western Germany, part of a group of Syrian mothers holding photos of children they say were killed or tortured in Syria. government facilities.

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“It is a small step towards justice, we hope: to be held accountable to all those who committed violations, including the criminals who killed my son.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet hailed what she called “a historic leap forward” in the pursuit of justice for the grave human rights violations perpetrated in Syria.

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“This is a clear example of how national courts can and should close accountability gaps for such crimes wherever they are committed,” she said in a statement from Geneva, urging other States to use the same principles of extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Inside the courtroom, Raslan, clad in a black jacket and wearing glasses and a white mask, gave a brief wry smile as he waited for the verdict to be read after a police officer removed his handcuffs.

Syrian human rights lawyers said he defected to Turkey before moving in 2014 to Germany, where he contacted police saying he feared former colleagues could take his life. He was arrested by German authorities in 2019.

The verdict against Raslan, which will give hope to survivors of atrocities committed during the war after failed attempts to create an international tribunal for Syria, was the second delivered in the trial, which began in April 2020 .

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Last year, another former member of the Syrian intelligence services was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for encouraging the torture of civilians.

“The lawsuit demonstrates that responsibility for the heinous atrocities of the Assad regime is possible … if national prosecutors and judges choose to act,” said Eric Witte of the Open Society Justice Initiative, who supported several witnesses in the case.

“As much as we welcome the outcome of this trial, we must also remember that the cruelty of crimes proven in court continues to this day in Syria.

A second trial of a Syrian doctor suspected of crimes against humanity, including torturing prisoners in a military hospital in the city of Homs in 2011 and 2012 and killing one by lethal injection, opens in Frankfurt next week.

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At the UN Security Council, Russia and China have vetoed attempts by Western powers to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court, leaving survivors of torture and chemical weapons attacks with limited options to seek justice.

But some of the estimated 800,000 Syrians living in Germany have opposed the Koblenz trial, saying it discourages defections of Syrians who may have more evidence of government crimes, after Raslan was encouraged by senior officials opposition to change sides.

“It is natural that Syrians have different views on how to seek justice,” Witte said. “Some want an amnesty and save the trial of Bashar al-Assad and his senior officers.”

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