The Dabbagh Case: French judges order the trial of three senior Syrian officials before the Paris Criminal Court Questions and Answers
What are the facts behind the case?
On November 3, 2013, at midnight, Patrick Abdelkader Dabbagh, who had dual French-Syrian citizenship and was then a 20-year-old student in his second year of arts and humanities at the University of Damascus, was arrested at his home in Mezzeh on the outskirts of Damascus.
A group of two officers, two soldiers and a computer scientist, who claimed to belong to Syrian Air Force Intelligence, forced Patrick Abdelkader to follow them for interrogation, without indicating any grounds for his arrest.
At the same time the next day, the same individuals returned to the Dabbagh family home, this time accompanied by nearly a dozen armed soldiers. They accused Patrick Abdelkader’s father, Mazzen Dabbagh, of failing to raise his son correctly and proceeded to arrest him, claiming that this would teach him how to properly bring up his son. At the time, Mazzen worked as a senior education adviser at the French High school of Damascus.
Witness testimony confirms that Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader were both taken to a detention centre at Mezzeh Military Airport, run by Syrian Air Force Intelligence and notorious for the use of brutal torture. The UN Independant International Commission of Inquiry on Syria believes that Mezzeh has one of the highest mortality rates among detention centres in Syria.
Both father and son have not been seen since.
Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick Abdelkader were never involved in any protest movements against the Assad regime, before or after March 2011. Their fate is similar to that of tens of thousands of Syrians, who have been arrested and detained without reason by the Syrian regime and are still subject to enforced disappearance.
In early 2018, Syrian civil registration services began issuing thousands of death certificates for disappeared persons. In July 2018, the Dabbagh family received formal notification that their family members had died. According to the documents received by the Dabbagh family, Patrick Abdelkader died on 21 January 2014, soon after his arrest. His father, Mazzen, died almost four years later, on 25 November 2017.
Why was the case filed in France and not in Syria or before the ICC?
Despite the gravity and scale of crimes perpetrated in Syria since the brutal repression of the March 2011 uprising that led to more than ten years of conflict, there are limited avenues for victims and their families to obtain justice and redress. Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute and, despite attempts to obtain a resolution from the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC, Russia and China’s repeated vetoes have prevented the ICC from opening an investigation on Syria.
With the path to the ICC blocked, and no real prospect of independent justice and accountability inside Syria, victims have turned towards other countries – such as Germany, Sweden, France and Spain – to investigate cases based on what is known as extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction. Since 2012, Syrian lawyers, individuals and organisations as well as international human rights organisations have launched cases in these countries to obtain investigations on torture, crimes against humanity and/or war crimes charges.
What criteria apply in France for initiating investigations into crimes perpetrated in Syria?
In the case of Patrick Abdelkader and Mazzen Dabbagh, the father and son were both French-Syrian nationals. French courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed against French nationals or those with dual nationality, as well as crimes perpetrated by French nationals or those with dual nationality. Thus, it is on the basis of Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader’s dual Syrian-French nationality that a criminal investigation was initiated in France in November 2016.
However, many victims of international crimes seeking justice, including many Syrians, do not have French nationality. In order to allow them to still have access to justice, the French legislator has adopted several pieces of legislation.
For instance, since the United Nations Convention against Torture was transposed into French law in 1986, any suspect found on French territory can be prosecuted and tried in France on torture charges.
The same condition applies since August 2013 for suspects of enforced disappearance, following the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance into French law.
Irrespective of their nationality and country of residence, victims of torture and enforced disappearance can file a criminal complaint with the French prosecutor and participate in the proceedings as civil parties. This status gives victims extensive rights throughout the investigation, such as the ability to request that specific acts of investigation be undertaken, or that certain witnesses be called to testify.
Regarding crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes committed abroad, on August 9, 2010, the French Parliament adopted a law incorporating the Rome Statute into French law. This law grants French courts jurisdiction to judge the perpetrators of these crimes if the following conditions are met:
- the suspect resides in France,
- there is incriminating legislation of such acts in the State in which they were committed, or either the State in which the crimes were committed or the State of which the suspect is a national is party to the Rome Statute, and
- prosecutions can only be initiated at the request of the French prosecutor.
- the suspect is not subjected to any extradition request or prosecution from an international or national court
These provisions were timidly modified by the March 23, 2019 law which excluded the double criminality requirement for the crime of genocide, and removed the express declination of jurisdiction by the ICC.
On 1 January, 2012, a specialised unit for the prosecution of crimes against humanity and war crimes was created in Paris. This unit now consists of a team of five prosecutors, three independent investigating judges and a team of specialised investigators, working exclusively on international crimes cases. At present, the French unit is conducting 85 preliminary investigations and 79 judicial investigations relating to international crimes committed outside French territory, of which approximately 10 concern crimes committed in Syria
In September 2015, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs transferred the Caesar files to the specialised unit in Paris, which led to the opening of a preliminary investigation into the regime’s practice of systematic torture of detainees, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, amongst other violations. This preliminary investigation was reclassified in 2018 as a structural investigation into crimes committed by the Syrian regime, and is still ongoing.
How was the Dabbagh case initiated and how did it reach the point of international arrest warrants?
On 24 October 2016, FIDH and its member organisation in France, the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, with Mr. Obeida Dabbagh (Mazzen Dabbagh’s brother) and the active support of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), referred the case of Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader Dabbagh to the French war crimes unit.
In the complaint filed with the prosecutor, the plaintiffs requested immediate judicial investigation, through the appointment of an investigative judge, into the crimes of enforced disappearance and torture amounting to crimes against humanity that they claim have been committed against Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader Dabbagh by members of the Syrian regime.
On 7 November 2016, the Prosecutor opened a judicial investigation and three investigative judges were appointed to investigate the case.
Between December 2016 and September 2018, Mr. Obeida Dabbagh, represented by FIDH lawyers, testified three times before the investigative judges as a civil party to the case.
Throughout the procedure, in collaboration with SCM, FIDH and LDH filed legal briefs and specific requests with the investigative judges, and also identified key witnesses who testified on crimes perpetrated by Syrian Air Force Intelligence agents in the Mezzeh detention centre and elsewhere.
On 8 October 2018, the investigative judges in charge of the case issued three international arrest warrants against Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud for complicity to crimes against humanity, torture, enforced disappearance and war crimes.
On April 2, 2021, the SCM association was admitted as a civil party in the case. SCM supported the lawsuit by providing several testimonies and witnesses including its general manager, Mazen Darwish who was arrested and detained along with his colleagues by the same investigative branch of the Syrian Air Force intelligence services back in 2012. SCM also provided comprehensive chains of command detailing the structure of the Syrian Air Force intelligence services at the time of Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh’s disappearance.
A total of 23 Syrian witnesses have agreed to testify in this case, either because they were survivors of the Mezzeh detention centre or because they had personally been confronted to one of the Syrian officials targeted by these proceedings.
From their testimony, recurring patterns of repression were revealed, highlighting the systematic and widespread use of deliberate attacks on life, torture and enforced disappearances, constituting crimes against humanity.
The investigation also highlighted the responsibility of the defendants in the confiscation of the Dabbagh family home, a widespread practice in Syria whereby missing persons and detainees were dispossessed and deprived of their property.
On 31 March 2022, the investigating judge in charge of the case closed the investigation.
On 27 January 2023, the prosecutor requested the indictment of Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud before the Paris Criminal Court for complicity in crimes against humanity ("deliberate attacks on life, torture, enforced disappearance, imprisonment or other serious deprivation of liberty") and war crimes ("extortion and concealment of extortion of property") committed against Patrick Abdelkader and Mazzen Dabbagh.
On 29 March 2023, the investigative judge ordered their indictment before the Paris Criminal Court on the same charges.
Who are the 3 high level Syrian officials targeted by the international arrest warrants and what are they charged with?
Major General Ali Mamlouk - Special Advisor to the President on Security Affairs and Director of the National Security Bureau since 2012
Before becoming head of the National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk was Director of Syria’s General Intelligence Services since 2005.
He joined Syrian Air Force Intelligence branch early on in his career, where he first managed the investigative branch before becoming Director of Air Force Intelligence between 2003-2005. Human rights organisations hold him accountable for overseeing the chemical arsenal in Syria and using it against political prisoners detained in Palmyra prison between 1985-1995.
Mamlouk is responsible for rebuilding the Syrian government’s external intelligence relations. He made several visits abroad, most recently to Rome in late February 2018, where he is reported to have met the former Italian Interior Minister and a senior Intelligence official.
Mamlouk was one of the first top Syrian security officials to be placed under EU sanctions. In May 2011, the EU imposed a travel ban on him and froze his assets due to his role in violence against demonstrators.
Major General Jamil Hassan - Director of Air Force Intelligence
Hassan became Air Force Intelligence Director in 2009. Prior to that, he briefly managed the Air Force Intelligence branch in eastern Syria also during 2009, after serving as Air Force Intelligence officer at the Mezzeh military airport since 2007.
He is one of the pillars of the security system established by Hafez al-Assad, father of current president Bashar al-Assad, who took control of Syria in the 1970s.
As one of the most important supporters and supervisors of the violent military repression of demonstrations that began in 2011, he is accused of involvement in murder, torture and multiple violations against civilians.
In a rare press statement in 2016, Major General Hassan mentioned that tougher tactics, such as those used in Hama in the 1980s, would have ended the revolution early on.
A warrant for Hassan’s arrest was issued by the German Federal Prosecutor in June 2018, on the basis of charges of crimes against humanity.
He has been under EU sanctions since 2011, subject to a travel ban and asset freeze due to his role in violence against demonstrators.
Major General Abdel Salam Mahmoud - Director of Investigation at the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Damascus
Mahmoud became Director of the Air Force Intelligence Investigation Branch in 2010. He is one of the most prominent intelligence officers in Syria, conducting his affairs from his headquarters at the Mezzeh military airport in the outskirts of Damascus.
Mahmoud is nicknamed the "Legal Brigadier General", as he holds a law degree. As part of his role as head of investigations, he directly supervises interrogations and torture taking place in the notorious Air Force Intelligence prisons.
Under his leadership and on his orders, large numbers of Syrians were arrested, tortured, and killed, including victims of the Massacre of Saida (April 2011), during which hundreds of people were killed. Among them is Hamza al-Khatib, a 13 year old boy whose body was returned to his family after he was killed under torture.
Abdel Salam Mahmoud has been under EU sanctions since 2012, for his role in torture of detainees (at the time) as head of the Air Force Intelligence (Damascus) branch in Bab Touma.
At an autumn 2016 meeting of the UN Security Council, the US delegation cited the names of eight senior Syrian regime officers, stating that they are “war criminals who will have the same fate as their disgraced predecessors". One the names listed was Major General Abdel Salam Mahmoud.
How will the trial be conducted in France?
Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud are currently not on French territory, and it is highly unlikely that they will travel to France before the trial begins.
However, French law provides for the possibility of holding a trial even when the defendants are absent. It will therefore be a trial in absentia, during which the three defendants will have the right, even if they are absent, to be represented by a lawyer of their choice. The trial will be public, but will be presided over by 3 professional judges, without a popular jury. The trial will necessarily be shorter than a trial in the presence of the accused, and will probably last only a few days. As a comparison, trials for international crimes held in France to date, with the accused present, have lasted between 3 to 8 weeks.
During the trial, civil parties and witnesses will be able to participate and testify.
At the end of the trial, the verdict will be issued on the same day, and if the defendants are found guilty, the Paris Criminal Court will issue new international arrest warrants on the basis of their convictions. If any of them is arrested, they will have the right to oppose their conviction and to be retried by the court.