A German court on Thursday convicted a former Syrian secret police officer of crimes against humanity for overseeing the abuse of detainees in a prison near Damascus a decade ago.
Syrians who suffered abuse or lost family members at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the country’s long conflict have eagerly anticipated the verdict in the landmark trial.
The Koblenz state court concluded that Anwar Raslan was the senior officer in charge of a facility in the Syrian city of Douma known as Al Khatib, or Rama 251, where suspected opposition protesters were detained.
The court sentenced him to life imprisonment. His lawyers asked the judges last week to acquit his client, claiming that he never personally tortured anyone and that he defected in late 2012.
German prosecutors alleged that Raslan oversaw the “brutal and systematic torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people.
Both men were arrested in Germany in 2019, years after seeking asylum in the country.
Victims and human rights groups have said they hope the verdict will be a first step toward justice for countless people who have been unable to file criminal complaints against officials in Syria or before the International Criminal Court.
“We are starting to see the fruits of a determined push by courageous survivors, activists and others to achieve justice for horrific atrocities in Syria’s network of prisons,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
“The verdict is a breakthrough for Syrian victims and the German justice system in cracking the wall of impunity,” she added. “Other countries should follow Germany’s lead and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”
The trial is the first of its kind worldwide and other courts may cite the verdict and evidence heard in Koblenz, said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. The group represented several victims who under German law were able to take part in the proceedings as co-plaintiffs.
A key part of the evidence against Raslan were the photographs of alleged torture victims smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer, who goes by the alias of Caesar.
Conservative estimates put the number of those detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria at 149,000, more than 85 percent of them at the hands of the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Most disappeared or were detained soon after peaceful protests erupted in March 2011 against al-Assad’s government, which responded to the rallies with a brutal crackdown.
The Syrian government denies it is holding any political prisoners, labeling its opposition terrorists. After battlefield wins, it has negotiated limited prisoner exchanges with various armed groups, which families say offer partial solutions for a very small number of people.