The crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s power apparatus are finally getting the legal attention they deserve as a trial for crimes against humanity in Syria comes to a close in Germany. But there’s an important hitch: The men being tried actually deserted from the regime.
About the Reporters:
Christoph Reuter, 53, is DER SPIEGEL’s Middle East correspondent. He has been reporting on the war in Syria since 2011, witnessing indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Homs, Aleppo and elsewhere. In 2013, he met defector Baslan in Amman. Reuter also testified as a witness at the trial in Koblenz.
Hannah El-Hitami, 30, is a freelance journalist in Berlin who covers the Middle East and migration issues. She attended close to 100 days of the trial in Koblenz.
A slender woman with curly hair and dark eyes brings the horrors of Syria to life in the German courtroom. Testifying at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, the journalist, who is now 38, describes her arrest during the early days of the uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad on May 2, 2011, while filming at a women’s demonstration in Damascus. After being dragged from place to place, the woman, who we’ll call L., finally wound up in the al-Khatib prison, part of Branch 251. She says she was forced to stand for hours facing the wall in a hallway, and that she was beaten by the guards as they passed by. “That was normal there,” she says. “It happened without orders.” She says the guards called her a whore and threatened to rape her.
Perhaps the irony in some of her answers helps L. to create a bit of distance between herself and the fear she felt back then. Why was she tasered? “I wouldn’t know,” she replies, laughing dryly. “I had the feeling they just wanted to try it out.” L. was ultimately released, but she continued going to protests and was arrested again a year later. It was during her third day in custody that she met the man now sitting in the dock in Koblenz, just a few feet away. Anwar Raslan, head of the al-Khatib investigations department of Syrian state security Branch 251.
She claims that Raslan ordered the guards to remove her blindfold and then asked her to sit down. They offered her coffee, which she refused out of fear. Before they took her away again, she adds, “I said to him that I couldn’t believe that the army had gone into the streets to kill people. He just nodded and asked the officer to take me back to the cell.” She says he allowed her to smoke a cigarette in the hallway after she asked if she could. Once again, L. was released. She soon fled to the Jordanian capital city of Amman.
No Apology, No Gratitude
A friend there who had also escaped from Damascus told her in late 2013 or early 2014 that Raslan, too, had fled and was also living in Amman. He asked if she would be interested in meeting him. “I was curious about seeing him for a second time,” she says. “It’s a strange situation, sitting next to someone you were arrested by, and suddenly you’re having coffee with them.” So, why did Raslan want to see her? She says she doesn’t know, but “he seemed to think that his renunciation of the regime and active opposition activity were a kind of acquittal for the acts he had committed before. He didn’t apologize.”
Raslan also recalls the meeting, although he had different expectations for it: “I thought she wanted to thank me,” apparently for his cordial treatment of her, he wrote in a detailed written statement he produced for the German court. But, he adds, she didn’t express any gratitude.
On Thursday, the “world’s first criminal trial against members of the Assad regime for crimes against humanity” is slated to end in Koblenz. That, at least, is the description used by the Chief Federal Prosecutor’s Office in the trial of Raslan and a lower-level official from the Syrian state security. Over the course of more than 100 days of proceedings since April 2020, the allegations against the defendants have been explored, but the case has also served as an indictment of the entire repressive and murderous system established under Assad’s rule.
The principle of universal jurisdiction holds that any country can prosecute international crimes, even if they didn’t take place within their own borders and don’t affect their citizens. Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, passed a law allowing such legal proceedings in the country in 2002.
A Less than Clear-Cut Case
Observers expect that Raslan will receive a long sentence, possibly even life in prison. Not because it has been proven that he actively tortured or killed people, but because such activities occurred under his responsibility. “His role in the crime stems from his position within the hierarchy of Branch 251,” Raslan’s indictment states. The defendant denies having had any actual responsibility in the branch after mid-2011. Germany admitted him in 2014 on humanitarian grounds. He has never made a secret of his former job.
It is a tremendous achievement of this trial to have shed light on the monstrous crimes of the Syrian intelligence apparatus, which since 2012 has served not only to suppress, but to literally annihilate insurgents in Syria. The court in Koblenz shed light on the disappearances of at least 102,000 people and the documented murder-by-torture of more than 14,000. That is greatly beneficial.
Less clear-cut, though, is the question as to who are actually on trial here. Unlike the UN special tribunals, such as the one for Rwanda, for example, the court in Germany is considering crimes committed by a regime that is still in power. As such, the only people to whom the judiciary has access are those who turned their backs on the regime, deserted and fled.
Between Hell and Freedom
Colonel Anwar Raslan risked his life when he fled Syria at the end of 2012. It’s a similar situation for erstwhile co-defendant Eyad Alghareib, a sergeant whose trial proceedings were eventually made separate and whom the Koblenz Higher Regional Court already sentenced to four and a half years in prison in February 2021 for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. He filed an appeal, and a decision is still outstanding in that case.
When Raslan fled in 2012, the Syrian opposition in exile celebrated it as a win. The preferred to view him as a defector – his former activities weren’t the priority, since according to their calculus at the time, the more generals and colonels who switched sides, the sooner the dictatorship would collapse. Even the witness L., who is now living in Paris, says she also drew hope from the meeting with Raslan in Amman. “The revolutionaries weren’t supported by the world’s great powers, so each deserter was a source of strength,” she says.
The al-Khatib prison, over which Raslan officially presided until September 2012, was a wellspring of terror, a sort of purgatory on the road to disappearance or, perhaps, back to freedom. Branch 251 is under the authority of Syrian state security, and its two multistory buildings are located in the middle of a residential area in the Al-Khatib neighborhood of Damascus, hence the prison name. It sits across from a hospital and is flanked by supermarkets, a pharmacy and a park. Most of the inmates, who were blindfolded and brought in on crowded buses, saw nothing of that.
A Syrian witness now living in Germany
In Koblenz, survivors have testified about their time in al-Khatib. About the “welcome parties” in the courtyard, during which guards would ferociously beat incoming prisoners. About the hallway into the basement, where most rotted away without any access to daylight. The unlucky ones were thrown into solitary cells and feared losing their minds after days spent in total isolation. Or they were placed in overcrowded collective cells, where prisoners had to take turns sitting and lying down.
A Tomb for the Living
“They put me in cell-of-death No. 5,” recounted a Syrian man in his mid-50s, who had worked as a clerk in a laboratory and had probably only been arrested as the result of a mix-up. He now has official refugee status in Germany. “I’m still experiencing that cell of death to this day,” he says. “It’s like a tomb, with no light and no window, just a crack under the door, with 130 to 140 people around me.” As punishment, the guards would sometimes close the ventilation shaft, which would result in panic within just minutes as prisoners had trouble breathing.
A witness at the Higher Regional Court
But worse than the beatings and the excruciating conditions were the screams, many of the survivors testified in the Higher Regional Court. They would echo through the corridors and cells, day and night. One witness described how those screams sometimes mixed with the voice of the Lebanese singer Fairouz, who the guards liked to listen to on the radio. “The screams convinced me that I was going to end up like that, too,” one witness recounted. Another witness recalled: “On one occasion, they tortured someone very severely. His screams were loud, and you could hear them for a long time. But then, at one point, you couldn’t hear him at all anymore.”
Raslan would later say in Germany that it was the mass arrests and the indiscriminate killings that led him to flee. He is one of only a handful of senior intelligence officers who defected to the opposition, while hundreds stayed in Syria. But as Raslan has repeatedly made clear – both in his written pleas and in earlier questioning – he didn’t have a fundamentally moral motive for leaving. “What are we as investigators supposed to do with dead people?” he stated during questioning in October 2017 at the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) of Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart as a witness in another case. “We can’t interrogate them.”
“What Are We as Investigators Supposed To Do with Dead People?”
During a meeting with DER SPIEGEL in April 2013 in Amman, the former colonel provided a detailed account of the inner workings of the intelligence services. He knew their expert double game: They began building up jihadist terrorist groups in 2005, so that they could use them to wage war in Iraq, in Lebanon and, from 2011 onwards, in Syria itself.
It wasn’t with the security apparatus per se or with the repression that Colonel Raslan had a particular problem – it was the fact that the apparatus was going losing control. He didn’t like the fact that real terrorists had been armed and that “masses of civilians were killed who had absolutely nothing to do with the armed opposition.” He says he was charged with wringing confessions out of people who had nothing to confess. “They made a mockery of my work,” he said of the generals. It sounded like a mixture of horror and wounded professional pride.
From the perspective of rule of law, both are barbaric. Torturing people or throwing them in prison without a fair trial isn’t allowed, no matter who it is. But this moral construct, which differentiates between good and evil injustices, is one that Raslan shares with many of those who have defected from the army, the party and the intelligence services in Syria. In his opening statement in the trial, Raslan said he had been able to identify with the Syrian judicial and state system until 2011. After that, he couldn’t any longer.
The Illusion of an Innocent Career
Unlike most officers in the highest ranks of the intelligence services, Raslan doesn’t belong to Assad’s Alawite religion. He’s a Sunni Muslim and comes from the central Syrian city of Houla – an unusual background for a stellar career in the Syrian government apparatus. Ambitious and highly intelligent, Raslan studied law in Damascus after graduating from high school. He then applied to the police force and completed a course for prospective police officers in 1993 as second best in his class. The prestigious State Security was pleased to employee him and he would work his way up the ladder to become head of the department responsible for investigations.
But when the uprising against Assad began in 2011, his hometown of Houla joined the rebellion so quickly and resolutely that Assad’s death squads committed an early massacre of civilians there, in May 2012. Raslan found himself between the fronts. His relatives in Houla were fired upon by his colleagues; and in Damascus, his superior said, accusingly: “The people of your town are traitors.”
His self-image of being able to work as a professional investigator, even in Assad’s system, was shattered. He decided to flee, which, according to his account, required months of preparation until the end of 2012, because, he says, he had long since been placed under surveillance.
Doing What He Did Best
Almost as soon as he had joined the ranks of the opposition in exile, he wanted to continue doing what he did best: running an intelligence service. Only now, it would be for the other side. The failure of that project is one of the more bizarre accounts that has been given in the Koblenz courtroom. The story was told by a former Syrian Air Force pilot turned dissident novelist who wound up as a prisoner in Raslan’s branch in 2011. At the time, Raslan apparently told him that he actually wanted to be a writer as well, and would have preferred to talk to him about his novel rather than interrogate him.
The former pilot testified that the two of them remained in contact after that and that they both left the country. In 2014, he said, Raslan suddenly called him one night in Istanbul. “He asked if I could come to Taksim Square,” the former pilot recounted on the witness stand, adding that Raslan had come to Istanbul to establish an intelligence service for the Syrian opposition. But the man who had organized the meeting simply vanished, he said, leaving the participants to pay the hotel costs. “Raslan was standing there in the rain with a suitcase, looking frustrated and sad,” recalled his former prisoner, who invited him to stay at his home for a few days.
Raslan remained active in the opposition for a time, even flying to Geneva in 2014 as a member of an opposition delegation for talks with the UN special envoy for Syria. Riad Seif, a prominent critic of the Syrian regime, who now lives in exile in Berlin, recommended Raslan to the German Foreign Ministry as a candidate for a humanitarian admissions program. Raslan and his family were able to enter the country legally with visas in 2014 and found shelter in Berlin.
Was His Life in Jeopardy?
Several witnesses in Koblenz confirmed that Raslan had always been afraid, ever since his escape – not of his victims taking revenge, but of his former colleagues. In February 2015, Raslan wrote to the Berlin police: “I feel acutely threatened, my life is in danger.” He was convinced he was being followed by agents of the Syrian regime, and he was afraid he might be kidnapped. He described to Berlin officials the position he had held in Syria and why he feared being killed as a traitor. But Raslan’s suspicions were too vague for him to be given any special security protection. Neither, though, did the police open an investigation into him. No one, it seemed, was interested in Colonel Raslan’s past.
Nothing would happen until a group of elderly Syrian men who meet regularly in Berlin’s Tegel district, got the ball rolling. Raslan met with an old acquaintance there who put him in touch with the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Baden-Württemberg as a potential witness in an investigation against a Syrian officer. The Stuttgart police spoke with Raslan but determined he could contribute little to their case. But Raslan used the occasion to speak at length about his own past, about violence during interrogations and about killings. It caught the LKA’s attentions and they forwarded the information to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in 2017, which in turn opened an investigation.
By the time of the arrest of Raslan and former sergeant Eyad Alghareib on Feb. 12, 2019, there was no longer any hope that Assad’s dictatorship would fall anytime soon. The defectors no longer had any political influence. But they were easily found at the addresses where they were officially registered in Berlin’s Pankow district and in the city of Zweibrücken, respectively. In other cases, attempts to arrest former or still serving senior members of the Assad regime living abroad had failed.
Former brigadier general Khalid al-Halabi, once head of the State Security branch in the city of Raqqa, still lives as a free man in Vienna despite years of efforts by European prosecutors. In 2018, federal prosecutors in France and Germany issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, once the head of air force intelligence. Hassan nevertheless sought medical treatment in Lebanon at least twice in 2019 alone, without being apprehended. A year earlier, Raslan’s former boss, who is now the most powerful man in the Syrian services, Ali Mamlouk, flew to Italy without any problems whatsoever to chat with the interior minister and the head of foreign intelligence.
During his trial in Koblenz, Raslan has been meticulous about taking notes and frequently asks his interpreter to help him with the correct spelling of German names. If maps or documents are projected onto the wall, he puts on his glasses and examines them closely. He greets the representatives of the Chief Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the interpreters with a measured nod of the head. It almost seems as if he considers himself an investigator in his own case. It’s not possible to surmise how much guilt he might feel when he hears the victim-witnesses who, with great difficulty, put the agony they experienced into words. Raslan shows no emotion in the dock. Sometimes he laughs; on rare occasions, he’ll shake his head or look up with his eyes narrowed.
During the trial in Koblenz, for the first time ever, the harrowing images of a Syrian military photographer called “Caesar” were used as evidence. He had been ordered to take numerous photos of people killed by various secret service agencies, in part, apparently as proof of their performance. He then fled and released thousands of the images to the public.
In November 2020, a forensic pathologist projected photo after photo onto the wall of the Koblenz courtroom. The photographs showed emaciated corpses, most of them with lips slightly opened, their skin yellowed and slips of paper with numbers stuck to their foreheads.
Other occurrences, such as the systematic disappearance of secret service victims in mass graves, came to light for the first time in the Koblenz court. The man who provided testimony on the disappearances entered the courtroom wearing a jogging suit. He was assigned the identification number Z30/07/19 to protect his identity.
Accounting for the Dead
Z30/07/19 had worked for the Damascus Funeral Authority until 2011, when he was required by intelligence to drive bodies to mass graves outside the city and record how many they buried and where.
Witness Z30/07/19, speaking before the Koblenz court
“As soon as the doors of the trucks were opened, the stench started spreading,” he recalled in his testimony. He said that blood and maggots dripped from the loading areas, with helpers often using their bare hands to heave the bodies into the trenches. Afterward, Z30/07/19 recounted, he would return to his office and, together with an intelligence officer, write down the number of bodies delivered in a registry book. They also wrote down the names and the numbers of the secret service departments they came from. Then, he said, he sent copies to his superiors before placing the registry back in the safe. He said he kept records that way for six years – an average of four trips a week, with up to 700 bodies in each truck.
When the second defendant, Eyad Alghareib, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison last February, Syrian opposition activists celebrated the verdict as a first step against the impunity of the Assad regime, which has used brutal force against its own people for decades without ever being held accountable.
Opposition Divided over Case
But that specific case also divided the opposition. Not only because Alghareib was a low-level subordinate who had spent most of his career in state security as a fitness trainer for new intelligence recruits or because he deserted early on. But also because he was ultimately convicted on the basis of statements he made at his own asylum interview.
It took more than five years for Alghareib’s family to escape. In April 2018, two weeks after arriving in Germany, he was asked a routine question at his asylum hearing: “Have you been a witness to, victim of or perpetrator of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity?” Yes, he answered, recounting a mission in which his commander fired on a peaceful sit-in. He said he had made the decision to desert at that moment. But that he couldn’t leave right away, because that would have been life-threatening for him and for his family. Instead of shooting, he claimed he had arrested fleeing protesters and taken them to the secret service, to Raslan’s department. Knowing that they would face torture there.
Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) forwarded his file to the Central Unit for the Fight against War Crimes (ZBKV) at the BKA, whose officers then spent eight hours questioning Alghareib. As a witness. At the time of his arrest six months later, he insisted it must be a misunderstanding. Not even representatives of the prosecution considered Alghareib to be an unrepentant supporter of Assad, as they wrote in their plea.
The Deserters’ Dilemma
Holding deserters, of all people, accountable for the misdeeds of a dictatorship is truly a double-edged sword. Turning such witnesses into defendants could also make it far more difficult to simply establish the truth. In the Koblenz trial alone, about a dozen deserters have testified, including an archivist who forwarded lists of wanted men to checkpoints, a witness who was present during torture interrogations and a fighter pilot who fled after the air force had already started bombing its own country. Their statements helped solve crimes in which the men may have participated.
Mohammad Al Abdallah, human rights lawyer
Mohammad Al Abdallah has already found that such witnesses will think very carefully about what they disclose in the future. The human rights lawyer, who has himself been detained in Syria, is the director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center in Washington. He says his organization almost succeeded in obtaining videos of executions in Syrian military hospitals from a deserter. “We were working out the details…. If he was called to testify, how does he deal with it?” Abdallah says. He decided not to participate, Abdallah continues, after seeing that a person who had come forward as a witness was now on trial in Koblenz. “So we lost that witness.”
He says he considers it important for survivors to be able to see their former tormentors in court. “A lot of activists in the human rights community in Syria … say prosecuting Anwar Raslan is actually (akin to) prosecuting the entire intelligence system in Syria. Yeah, that’s a good, symbolic line, but torture did not stop in Syria, the intelligence (apparatus) hasn’t started releasing prisoners. (…) Nobody is being deterred by these cases. If anyone is being deterred, it is (would-be) defectors. Nobody wants to defect now because they don’t have guarantees.”