A German court on Thursday sentenced a former Syrian colonel to life in jail for crimes against humanity in a “historic” verdict marking the end of the first global trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria.
Anwar Raslan, 58, was found guilty of overseeing the murder of 27 people at the Al-Khatib detention center in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251”, in 2011 and 2012.
He sought refuge in Germany after deserting the Syrian regime in 2012.
Prosecutors had accused him of overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the center, but not all of the deaths could be proven.
Presiding judge Anne Kerber said the Syrian regime had resorted to “violence” and “the heavy use of munitions” to suppress protests that erupted in March 2011.
Victims held in the regime’s detention centers were not only “tortured but also starved and deprived of air” in unsanitary, crowded cells where they could not sit or lie down, she said.
Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, which provided some of the evidence used in the trial, told reporters in Geneva the verdict was “really historic”.
“The court… clearly and formally established inhumane detention conditions, systematic torture, sexual violence and killings in Syria,” said Markus N. Beeko, head of Amnesty International in Germany.
More than 80 witnesses, including 12 regime deserters and many Syrian men and women now living across Europe, took the stand to testify during the trial, with around a dozen also attending the verdict.
Judge Kerber said they deserved “full respect”.
Syrian activists gathered outside the court on Thursday holding banners and posters with slogans such as “Where are they?” referring to their relatives who have disappeared in Syrian detention centers.
Raslan was put on trial in April 2020 along with another lower-ranking defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, who was accused of helping to arrest protesters and deliver them to the detention center.
Gharib was sentenced to four and a half years in prison last year for complicity in crimes against humanity, in the first verdict worldwide over torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s government.
The case against the two men was brought using the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows offences to be prosecuted even if they were committed in a different country.
Other such cases have also sprung up in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrians who have sought refuge in Europe turn to the only legal means currently available to them.
In another prominent case in Germany, the trial of a former Syrian doctor charged with crimes against humanity is due to open next week.
Amnesty International’s Beeko said he expected “further trials in Germany and other states to build on these findings in accordance with the principle of universal jurisdiction”.
Raslan remained emotionless as his sentence was read out in court, wearing a green winter jacket and listening to the verdict through headphones.
‘Fists, wires and whips’
Prosecutors say he oversaw rape and sexual abuse, “electric shocks”, beatings with “fists, wires and whips” and “sleep deprivation” at the prison.
Witnesses reported flogging, electric shocks, cigarette burns and blows to the genitals. Some say they were hung by the wrists, with only the tips of their feet still touching the ground.
One man testified about mass graves that he was responsible for cataloguing.
“I hope we were able to give a voice to those who are deprived of it” in Syria, Wassim Mukdad, a former detainee who testified in the trial, told AFP ahead of the verdict.
Images of dead Syrians smuggled out of the country by “Caesar”, a defector who had worked as a photographer for the Syrian military police, were also used as evidence in the trial.
Raslan has never attempted to hide his past and told police about his time in Syria in February 2015 when he sought police protection in Berlin.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, at least 60,000 people have been killed under torture or as a result of the terrible conditions in Assad’s detention centers.
“This trial is very important for Syrians because it examines very serious crimes that continue to be committed today,” said Syrian lawyer Joumana Seif.