April 23, 2020

Today Syrian state torture goes on trial

The world's first trial of a senior member of the Syrian military for war crimes begins today

Photo: April 23 2020, Anwar Raslan – a former colonel in Syrian state security – arrives at court in Koblenz, Germany for the first court case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. (Thomas Lohnes / various sources / AFP)

My name is Anwar al-Bunni and I am a human rights lawyer and a refugee in Berlin. Back in Syria in 2006, I was arrested with a long list of accusations including ‘weakening the national sentiment’ and charged with five years of cruel detention. The physical and psychological scars of those years are forever marked on my body and in my heart.

In 2014 I came to Germany with my family and in the refugee camp in Berlin I saw the last person I imagined I’d see. It was Anwar Raslan, the officer who arrested me back in 2006 and the head of military intelligence at the notorious Branch 251 in Damascus.

Today is a historic day for countless Syrian survivors of detention and torture. Raslan, alongside another secret service officer Eyad al-Gharib, is facing trial in the town of Koblenz in Germany. He was arrested in Berlin last year for overseeing the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012. That torture resulted in the deaths of at least 58 people.

This is the first trial over state-sponsered torture in Syria. It will uncover a chain of command that leads all the way up to Bashar al-Assad. It is the first time a Syrian official is being held responsible in court for their heinous crimes against humanity in regime-held detention facilities.

Raslan and al-Gharib are being tried under the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’, where individuals can be prosecuted for serious crimes against international law. Human rights defenders and lawyers in Germany, together with Syrian survivors of torture and their families, have led on these arrest warrants, to try to find a route to justice as Russia and China have blocked efforts at the UN to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

My family has suffered years of detention. My brother Akram was detained in Tadmor, Sedanya and Adra prisons for over 20 years. My brother Youssef was detained in Mazzeh, Sedanya and Tadmor for over 15 years. My sister and my brother in law also had their share of detention. Today other detained and forcibly disappeared lawyers who should have been with us at this moment, such as Razan Zaitouneh and Khalil Matouk, are also in my thoughts.

Now there is hope for victims, survivors and their families and even if the process is slow, justice will eventually take place. The trials in Germany are sending a clear message to the criminals who are still in Syria, and who continue to commit crimes, that their time of impunity is over. They’ve always felt they won’t be held accountable, but what my family and other families went through won’t pass.

There will be no peace in Syria without justice, and no justice without accountability.

Anwar al-Bunni is a Syrian human rights lawyer and the Executive Director at the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research based in Berlin, one of the organisations that provided evidence and testimonies for the cases.

Join families of Syrian detainees in demanding the release of all detainees held in prisons and unofficial detention centers amid the rapid global spread of COVID-19. Sign their petition here https://act.thesyriacampaign.org/sign/covid19-protect-syrian-detainees/