Germany: Syrian ex-secret police go on trial for war crimes

Women were raped and male prisoners tortured or killed in Syrian prison, German court hears, as trial begins of two Assad-regime agents accused of crimes against humanity

  • Anwar Raslan, 57, is accused of being in charge of the facility near Damascus
  • Eyad Al-Gharib ‘roamed Syria for protesters and took them back to the centre’
  • The centre, known as al-Khatib or Branch 251, was allegedly a state-run prison where large numbers of opposition protesters were tortured by Assad’s forces

Women were raped and male prisoners tortured and murdered in a Syrian prison, a German court has heard.  

The revelations were made as two former members of Syria’s secret police went on trial today accused of crimes against humanity for their role in a government-run detention centre where large numbers of opposition protesters were tortured.

The trial of Anwar Raslan, 57, and Eyad Al Gharib, 43, is the first time that two representatives of the Syrian government face trial abroad for war crimes allegedly committed during the country’s years-long civil war.

Today the court heard an account of the appalling horrors suffered by 24 former inmates at the detention centre known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, near Damascus, many of whom were arrested for taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations during the Arab Spring in 2011.

Speaking from behind a sheet of plexiglass due to the coronavirus pandemic, public prosecutor Jasper Klinge said Raslan ‘knew the extent of the torture’ which took place in order to extract ‘confessions and information about the Syrian opposition’.

Syrian defendant Anwar Raslan arrives at a court for the first trial of suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security services for crimes against humanity, in Koblenz, Germany today

He said prisoners were murdered ‘under Raslan’s direction and responsibility’ and described ‘inhumane’ conditions, with 140 people crammed into cells of just 50 square metres in ‘incredible heat’.

The prosecutor also referred to a woman who was subjected to electric shocks and raped during interrogation after her arrest in Damascus in May 2011. 

Raslan and Al-Gharib, who were arrested in Germany early 2019, will face testimony from several Syrian refugees who allege they were tortured at the detention centre.

Syrian defendant Eyad al-Gharib (left) hides under his hood before his trial today in Koblenz, western Germant. Al-Gharib is accused of crimes against humanity  in the first court case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by Bashar al-Assad’s regime

Federal prosecutors allege 57-year-old Raslan was in charge of the site and thereby responsible for crimes against humanity, rape and the murder of at least 58 people there. The indictment by German prosecutors accuses him of complicity in more than 4,000 cases of torture.

Al-Gharib, 43, is accused of being part of a police squad that detained protesters and brought them back to Branch 251, where they were then mistreated.

At least nine torture victims are represented as co-plaintiffs in the case, as allowed under German law, while several more are expected to be called as witnesses. They are supported by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

If convicted, Raslan could face life imprisonment. Al-Gharib could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity.

Co-plaintiff and filmmaker, Feras Fayyad, who was tortured by the Assad regime, answers journalists’ questions outside the courtroom during a break in a trial against two Syrian defendants accused of state-sponsored torture in Syria, today in Koblenz, western Germany

The defendants’ lawyers declined to comment ahead of the trial, which is scheduled to last several months. 

The men, who themselves left Syria for Germany before their arrest in February 2019, remain in prison.

The trial has been described as a pivotal moment in the effort to bring Syrian officials accused of crimes to justice.

Pictured: A visitor looks at photographs from ‘Caesar’s Photos: Inside Syria’s Secret Prisons’, a collection of photographs smuggled out of Syria documenting the atrocities committed by the Assad Regime against his people in Washington, USA on July 15, 2015. The store of over 55,000 photographs is set to be used as evidence against Raslan and Al-Gharib

‘With other avenues for justice blocked, criminal prosecutions in Europe offer hope for victims of crimes in Syria who have nowhere else to turn,’said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. 

‘The trial in Koblenz shows that courts, even thousands of miles away from where the atrocities occurred, can play a critical role in combating impunity.’

The Koblenz regional court, where the trial is being held, has reduced the number of seats available to reporters and the general public by a third, due to social distancing rules to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

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