German court delivers historic verdict on Syrian torture regime

Former secret police agent (44) sentenced for aiding crimes against humanity

Syrian defendant Eyad Al-Gharib hides his face as he arrives to his hear the verdict. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/Pool Photo via AP

Syrian defendant Eyad Al-Gharib hides his face as he arrives to his hear the verdict. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/Pool Photo via AP

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In a historic verdict, a German court has sentenced a former member of Syria’s secret police for aiding crimes against humanity in his homeland.

Eyad al-Gharib, a 44-year-old former agent, was given a prison sentence of 4½ years after being found guilty of rounding up 30 anti-government protesters for torture.

Nearly a decade after anti-government protests of the Arab Spring reached Syria, Wednesday’s ruling set a precedent as the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on torture linked to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

During the trial, the court in the western city of Koblenz heard testimony from more than a dozen Syrian witnesses about their torture in “Branch 251”, the colloquial name for the al-Khatib detention centre near Damascus.

They spoke of being tortured with electric shocks, wires, whips and sleep deprivation. Many gave evidence anonymously for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Syria.

Prosecutor Jasper Klinge said the witnesses were left with physical scars and “psychological damage and suffering that will never heal”, including panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Al-Gharib defected in 2012, fled Syria a year later and arrived in Germany in 2018, after living in Turkey and Greece. He was arrested the following year.

His defence asked for an acquittal, saying al-Gharib was a low-level colonel in the secret police who feared his family would be killed if he disobeyed orders. His direct superior was Hafez Makhlouf, a cousin and close associate of Mr Assad who defence lawyers said was notorious for his brutality.

Al-Gharib’s defence argued he had refused orders to shoot demonstrators and had mentioned his past during his asylum interview on arrival in Germany. The defence is appealing the verdict.

Prosecutors accused him of being a small cog in a larger, industrial-scale torture regime.

Separate trial

A related trial continues in Koblenz against a more senior ex-Syrian official, Anwar Raslan, who was responsible for security in Damascus and environs, and the Branch 251 facility.

German prosecutors say about 4,000 people were tortured under his command. He faces charges of crimes against humanity and 58 charges of murder.

Several investigations accuse the Assad regime of operating a network of secret torture camps. One Syrian human rights group estimates nearly 130,000 people are either dead or missing after being rounded up.

Syria’s government denies responsibility for systematic abuse but, in recent months, has acknowledged the deaths of hundreds of people in detention by issuing death certificates and listing them as deceased in official records.

Crucial to securing a prosecution in the al-Gharib case was a cache of thousands of photographs, which were smuggled out of Syria by a defector police officer known as “Caesar”, showing the injuries of nearly 7,000 alleged victims of torture.

The 10-month trial took place in Germany after prosecutors invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing war crimes committed by citizens of one country to be prosecuted in another jurisdiction.

Syrian torture survivor Wassim Mukdad, a joint plaintiff in the Koblenz trial, welcomed Wednesday’s verdict as sending an important signal to his homeland.

“This trial is for me, and other survivors, really a first step on the long path to justice,” he said.

The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which supported Syrian survivors in the legal action, expressed hope that other European jurisdictions would begin their own trials.

“It has to be the goal to bring to trial high-ranking functionaries of Assad’s security apparatus,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR secretary general.