A court in Germany has found a former Syrian regime official guilty of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity, in a historic first victory for efforts worldwide to bring legal accountability for atrocities committed in Syria’s long war.
Eyad al-Gharib, a 44-year-old former colonel in the Syrian intelligence service, carried out orders in one of Bashar al-Assad’s notorious prisons.
A few weeks shy of the 10th anniversary of Syria’s revolution, the verdict in his case in Koblenz marks a groundbreaking moment of justice for the hundreds of thousands of people who have disappeared in the regime’s state-run torture system.
“The accused is sentenced to four years and six months for aiding and abetting a crime against humanity in the form of torture and deprivation of liberty,” judge Anne Kerber said, in the first legal ruling that the acts of the Syrian government constitute crimes against humanity.
Gharib went on trial alongside Anwar Raslan, a more senior official, in April last year. Both men received asylum in Germany but were arrested in 2019, accused by prosecutors of being “cogs in the wheel” of a security apparatus where torture is carried out on an “almost industrial scale”.
Gharib, who defected in 2012 and described his work for the regime in his asylum application, was found by the court to have helped arrest at least 30 protesters and deliver them to al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus after a rally in Duma, to the north-east of the capital, in the autumn of 2011.
Raslan, a 58-year-old former brigadier general and Gharib’s superior, is accused directly of crimes against humanity in his role as head of investigations at al-Khatib, including overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others. His trial is expected to conclude in October.
“This decision is historic because it condemns the entire criminal system that is the Syrian regime. Gharib is one man but he was part of an organised machine with orders to arrest peaceful civilians, disappear them, torture them, kill them and hide their bodies in mass graves,” said Anwar al-Bunni, a witness for the prosecution who was once arrested by Raslan and was shocked to bump into him by accident in Berlin in 2014.
The ex-colonel’s sentencing is an important first step on the long, slow road towards challenging the sense of impunity around crimes committed in Syria’s war. Plaintiffs in the Koblenz case hope that it will pave the way to eventually hold individuals at the highest levels of the regime responsible for their actions.
Paralysis in the international justice system has led to several Syria-related filings in European countries under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of crimes against humanity in national courts even if they happened elsewhere.
The case against Gharib was built on hundreds of hours of testimony from survivors, insider defectors and medical forensic analysis of the Caesar files – 50,000 images taken by a military police defector and smuggled out of the country in 2014 that show the corpses of at least 7,000 people starved or tortured to death inside government detention centres.
During the proceedings, more than a dozen Syrian men and women took the stand to testify about the appalling abuses they endured in al-Khatib, known to the Syrian opposition as “hell on earth”.
Some witnesses were heard anonymously for fear of reprisals against their relatives still in the country. They testified that they had been raped, beaten, hung from the ceiling for hours, given electric shocks, deprived of sleep, suffered mock-drownings, and had their fingernails torn out by torturers.
Gharib remained silent and hid his face from the cameras during the 10 months of hearings, writing a letter read out by his lawyers in which he expressed his sorrow for the victims. He cried as the defence called for his acquittal, arguing that he and his family could have been killed if he had not carried out the orders of his superiors.
“The message this decision sends to the Syrian regime is that these crimes will not be forgotten. In fact, this is only the beginning,” said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights representing the joint plaintiffs.
“The world has taken note and is starting to hold them to account. For Syrians who took to the streets 10 years ago, it shows the struggle is not over. Syria’s activists have been squashed, but they will never give up, and one day the fight for justice and democracy will be taken back to the country.”
A decade after Damascus launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests, spawning a conflict marked by the use of chemical weapons, the birth of the Islamic State, and the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war, Assad has clawed back all of Syria’s major cities from opposition forces with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies.
Three million civilians remain trapped in the northwest corner of the country, which is also home to jihadi groups, while Kurdish-led forces are in control of the north-east. People in areas back under regime control are struggling with a devastating economic crisis.
Revealing the fates of around 120,000 people who are still unaccounted for after vanishing in Assad’s prisons remains one of the biggest hurdles in sporadic international talks to end the war.