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Friday, 23 February 2024
Rare justice for Syrians
Ian Black

Acts of justice often pass unnoticed – obscure legal judgements that are difficult for laymen to understand. But that was not the case with last week’s ruling by a German court against a Syrian called Eyad al-Gharib. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison because of his role as an intelligence officer serving the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

 Weeks before the 10th anniversary of the 2011 uprising in Deraa, the decision by Koblenz judge Anne Kerber was the first time that any European court has convicted a Syrian for crimes against humanity in the service of Assad. This was a landmark moment for the families of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, tortured or disappeared in state-run prisons – and it attracted appropriate media attention.

 Gharib was found guilty of arresting protesters and despatching them to the notorious al-Khatib detention centre (also known as Branch 251 ). His co-defendant and former superior, Anwar Raslan, alleged to have been a colonel in the General Directorate of Intelligence and head of investigations at al-Khatib, stands accused of crimes against humanity, including overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others. Raslan’s case continues.

 The significance of Gharib’s conviction lay not only in establishing his personal guilt but exposing the brutal system in which he had operated. In the words of German prosecutors, he and Raslan were “cogs in the wheel” of a security apparatus that tortures on an “almost industrial scale.”

 Both men believed they had escaped their country’s bloody civil war when they fled to Germany (which has the most liberal refugee policy in the EU) in 2012 and applied for asylum. Unlike most of those seeking refuge however, they had once formed part of Assad’s machinery of repression, but believed - wrongly it turned out - that their defection would protect them from their past.

 The two were arrested in 2019 in a joint operation by German and French police. Germany has also issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate, the most feared branch of regime security, though he cannot be prosecuted in absentia.

 The fact that a German court has begun delivering justice for Syrians is replete with historical irony. The country that saw the Allied-run Nuremberg trials from 1945-1946 against senior Nazis was one of the very first to recognize universal jurisdiction in 2002. Crucially, that means that war crimes can be investigated and prosecuted wherever they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims. A war crimes unit in Germany’s federal police was set up in 2003, charged with investigating suspected genocides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Yugoslav wars.

 That national legislation enables Germany to bypass the paralysis in the global justice system embodied by the International Criminal Court in The Hague because Syria is not a party (along with the US, Russia, Israel) to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, which prosecutes states rather than individuals.

 Moscow and Beijing, Assad’s loyal allies, have used their UN security council vetoes to block increased humanitarian aid to Syria and to ensure that their man in Damascus stays in power. They have also refused to support the idea of mandating the ICC to set up a special tribunal for Syria.

 Days after Gharib began his prison term, there was yet more ostensibly positive news from Syria: US president Joe Biden, just over a month since his inauguration, ordered an attack on Iranian-backed militia forces in the northeast of the country – in retaliation for missiles fired at US troops in Iraq.

 But that was widely seen as part of ongoing efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and not connected to the fate of Assad. The Pentagon statement about the operation mentioned an “unambiguous message” that Biden will act to “protect American and Coalition personnel.”

 After all, his predecessor Donald Trump also ordered two attacks against Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons – while making clear that the “Assad must go” slogan that Barack Obama had come up with was no longer US policy. As one Syrian exile tweeted in response the news of Biden’s first military response: “You know you are an irrelevant entity when a foreign country strikes another foreign country *in your own country* but it is totally not about you. “

 Assad’s supporters in the west, especially leftists opposed to what they call “imperialist” intervention in the Middle East, have repeatedly dismissed (in line with Russian disinformation) evidence of the regime’s use of chemical weapons and insisted these attacks were staged. They are clearly happy as expectations grow that Biden will not act any differently from either Trump or Obama.

 In general good news is hard to come by on Syria. But at least the Koblenz ruling means that not all hope for an end to impunity for those who serve Assad has been lost – even if he remains in charge in Damascus. Other victims may yet have their day in court.