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The Assad regime is on trial for crimes against humanity. The tribunal is set to rule on the highest official to date

Anwar Raslan, a senior regime official, headed the investigative unit at a notorious Damascus detention center known as Branch 251. He is accused of complicity in at least 4,000 cases of torture, dozens of murders and three cases of sexual assault and rape.
His co-accused, Eyad al-Gharib, a junior officer who also served at the facility, was convicted in February 2021 for aiding and abetting torture and deprivation of liberty as crimes against humanity. He is serving a four and a half year sentence.

If convicted, Raslan can receive a life sentence. He would become the top regime official to be punished for torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual assault allegedly systematically committed by members of the Assad regime.

Raslan, who defected from the Syrian regime in 2012 and fled the country, denies all charges against him.

The landmark move comes as the Assad regime – accused of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians with conventional and chemical weapons – has restored diplomatic relations with former regional enemies, such as the United Arab Emirates and Arabia Arabia. The United States and the European Union criticized their Arab allies for bringing Assad into the regional fold, but said there was little they could do to stop the rapprochement.

“Maximum pain”

The court in the German city of Koblenz relied on nearly 100 testimonies, according to lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Several Branch 251 torture survivors spoke up and came face to face with their alleged persecutor. They told detailed accounts of physical and psychological abuse, as well as of severely overcrowded cells where they were denied food, water and medical care.

An anonymous female witness described being examined naked, as well as being beaten in the detention center. She detailed her meeting with Raslan after she was taken away with her clothes torn from the assault, claiming that he ordered the blindfold removed and offered her coffee. The next day, according to a summary of her interactions with Raslan by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, she was transferred to another district and released.

Co-complainant Wassim Mukdad, a Syrian musician living in Berlin, said he was beaten on the soles and heels of his feet and on his knees during questioning. “They knew exactly how to inflict maximum pain,” he told the court.

In their closing statements, the plaintiffs made moving speeches, praising the court and berating Raslan for denying his charges. More than 100,000 people have reportedly been kidnapped, detained or missing in Syria, the United Nations has said, and a co-complainant criticized the judicial process for excluding enforced disappearances from charges.

The co-complainant, Hussein Ghrer, recalled that his captors at the detention center had said he would “disappear behind the sun”. He told the court that to those close to him he was like Schrödinger’s cat, appearing both alive and dead. He said he was “banned from life without actually dying”.

“It doesn’t matter how long [Raslan] will be imprisoned, he will have a clock near him, he will see the sun and will know when it rises and when it sets, ”Ghrer told the court. “He will have medical attention when needed and he will receive visits from relatives who will know how he is, just as he will know how they are. ”

The Assad regime is on trial for crimes against humanity.  The tribunal is set to rule on the highest official to date

Raslan’s trial is seen as the culmination of nearly a decade of evidence gathered by activists and lawyers seeking to hold the Assad regime accountable for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In the early years of the war-turned uprising in Syria, which began in 2011, volunteers known as “document hunters” smuggled hundreds of thousands of documents out of abandoned regime facilities. Many said they braved an assault with bullets and rockets to smuggle out papers that served as evidence in investigations against the regime.

In 2013, a defector codenamed Caesar smuggled tens of thousands of photographs showing prisoners allegedly tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. The images were also part of the evidence in the landmark trial.
The Assad regime is on trial for crimes against humanity.  The tribunal is set to rule on the highest official to date

Lawyers and activists pledge to continue the prosecution of former and current regime officials implicated in crimes. In Germany, Raslan and Gharib were arrested under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which gives a state jurisdiction over crimes against international law even if they did not occur within that state.

The Syrian regime cannot be tried by the International Criminal Court because it is not a party. Syria could be the subject of an ICC investigation if the UN Security Council dismisses it, but Russia and China have blocked a previous attempt to do so by the UN Security Council.

In July 2021, a German prosecutor indicted a Syrian regime doctor, Alaa Mousa, who is accused of burning the genitals of at least one prisoner. His trial begins in Frankfurt this month.

“We all agree that this can only be a first step,” said Patrick Kroker, lawyer at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights representing joint plaintiffs, at a press conference Monday. “International arrest warrants are still pending against persons of higher rank and we hope and demand that they be prosecuted.”

“There will be no safe haven in the world for these people.”