Berlin [Germany], February 24 (ANI): A court in Germany convicted a former Syrian security officer on Wednesday of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for his role in arresting and transporting protesters to an interrogation center known for torture.
According to The New York Times, the defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. He is the first former Syrian official to be convicted of crimes against humanity, in a case that rights groups have hailed as a landmark in the effort to ensure justice for violations committed during Syria's civil war.
Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer and activist, said in a statement quoted by NYT said the conviction "is a message to all criminals who still commit the most horrific crimes in Syria that the time of impunity is over, and you will not find a safe place to go."
As the Syrian war completes a decade, the country is "marred by destruction and sinking into a profound economic crisis, with poverty and hunger spreading."
But President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, after his government's widespread use of violence and torture to stamp out an uprising that sought to push him from power. CNN reported that al-Assad's regime has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity over the course of the country's nearly decade-long war.
Attempts to set up an international tribunal "were hampered" by Russia and China's veto at the United Nations Security Council.
"A sense of hopelessness about achieving justice within Syria or in the International Criminal Court has led rights campaigners to focus on European courts, many of which are willing to try foreigners for grave crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction," NYT reported.
Patrick Kroker, a senior legal adviser with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who represented 10 co-plaintiffs in the trial said that Wednesday's case was new not just in who was convicted, but in the amount of information it revealed about the inner workings of the Syrian government's detention centers.
"That in my mind is what makes this significant and makes it way more important than this individual person," he told NYT. The co-plaintiffs are civil parties who under German law can join the prosecutors' case and testify in court, but are also allowed to question witnesses.
Al-Gharib entered Germany in April 2018 and was arrested along with a more senior Syrian intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, in February 2019.
It was further reported that the two men were put on trial together at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz in April 2020, but al-Gharib's case was peeled off this month because the prosecution had no more evidence to present against him. Raslan's trial is scheduled to continue at least through October.
The events in question occurred in the early days of the uprising against Al-Assad, which erupted in 2011 and evolved into a civil war. Al-Gharib told German investigators that he had helped round up 30 protesters and bus them to an interrogation facility known as Branch 251 in the Syrian capital, Damascus. "The protesters were beaten on the way there, and he knew they could be tortured after they arrived," he said.
Raslan was a senior officer at that center, which prosecutors say gave him oversight of the torture of at least 4,000 detainees with methods that included beatings, electric shocks, overcrowding and the denial of medical care, according to NYT.
The prosecution presented evidence that included a forensic analysis of tens of thousands of photos of corpses smuggled out of Syria by a police photographer who defected; Syrian government documents that shed light on the chain of command in the security services; and the testimony of a Syrian refugee in Germany who had worked at a mass grave for people killed by the government.
The news outlet reported that German lawyers tracked down Syrians in Europe who had been held in the interrogation center to testify against Raslan. No witnesses were found linking al-Gharib directly to the crimes he was accused of, so the primary evidence against him was his own testimony to German investigators.
Al-Gharib's lawyers argue that his testimony should be excluded since he did not know at the time that he was being questioned as a suspect rather than as a witness. They also argued that the Syrian government would have punished him had he not done his job.
The court allowed Al-Gharib's testimony to stand, but took the other information he provided to investigators into account when determining his sentence. Prosecutors had sought a sentence of five years and six months; Al-Gharib's lawyers had asked that he be acquitted.
He has one week to file an appeal. (ANI)