Updated: January 14, 2022 3:28:50 pm
Written by Ben Hubbard and Katrin Bennhold
When detainees arrived at the security office in Syria, it “welcomed” them with an hour of whipping or beating, they told a German court.
They were held in packed, sweltering cells and fed potatoes that tasted like diesel. They drank from toilets. One recalled passing dead bodies in a hallway.
In the world’s first trial prosecuting state-sponsored torture in Syria, the German court, in Koblenz, on Thursday convicted the former intelligence official in charge of that security office, the Al Khatib unit in Damascus, of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison.
The ruling said the former officer, Anwar Raslan, 58, oversaw the torture of prisoners and the killing of at least 27 people, in addition to sexual abuse and “particularly grave rape” of detainees.
Human rights lawyers and Syrian survivors hailed the verdict as a landmark in the international quest to hold accountable those who committed war crimes during nearly 11 years of war in Syria. It also set a precedent reaching far beyond Syria: It was the first to target atrocities by a government still in power, said Stefanie Bock, director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany.
But the conviction also highlighted the stark limitations of international efforts to bring war criminals from countries such as Syria to justice. Raslan, who served as a colonel in a Syrian intelligence service, was just a cog in the machinery of repression in Syria.
Many Syrians more powerful than Raslan — accused not only of committing more extensive crimes but of crafting policies that resulted in mass civilian deaths — are living freely in Syria, including its president, Bashar Assad.
Raslan left Syria in 2012 and joined the political opposition, which helped him secure a visa to Germany in 2014. The war continued to rage for several more years, with Syrian forces using poison gas, imposing starvation sieges on rebellious communities and reducing residential neighborhoods to rubble through bombing campaigns.
Thursday’s verdict is only one small puzzle piece in the hope for justice, Bock said.
“In time, there needs to be a truth commission and alternative mechanisms to deal with all the injustices,” she said. “You need to think very long term.”
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