A German court made justice history on Wednesday when it sentenced a Syrian to four and a half years in prison, the first time a former member of the Syrian intelligence service has been convicted of a crime under international law.
Eyad A was tried on the basis of German laws which recognize universal jurisdiction for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Activists hope that this principle can be applied to prosecute other more important figures in the Assad regime who have so far escaped justice.
The 44-year-old worked for Syria’s hated General Intelligence Unit, but then defected and fled the country. He was convicted by the Higher Regional Court in the city of Koblenz, western Germany, for aiding and abetting a crime against humanity.
A, whose last name cannot be disclosed under German law, was specifically convicted for his role in bringing together 30 protesters in the fall of 2011, during the early days of the Syrian uprising, and sending them to “Branch 251”, a dreaded section of the General Intelligence Unit. The judge found him guilty of facilitating the torture, since as a security guard he probably knew that would be the fate of the protesters.
“This is a historic moment for every Syrian and for the families of more than 130,000 detained and missing people,” said Wafa Mustafa, a Berlin-based activist and journalist, whose father was arrested in 2013 and whose no. haven’t heard from since. “We should be witnessing a trial of Assad before the International Criminal Court, but this is the first step towards real accountability and justice.”
The trial against A’s co-accused Anwar R, a much more prominent figure in Assad’s intelligence apparatus, continues, with a verdict expected before October of this year.
Colonel and Chief of Investigation for Section 251, R is charged with 4,000 counts of torture, rape and assault as well as 58 counts of murder, and his case is considered far more important than that of A by those seeking to prosecute Syrian war crimes.
However, activists said A’s conviction was still an important precedent. “Today’s verdict is the first time a court has confirmed that the actions of the Syrian government and its collaborators are crimes against humanity,” said Patrick Kroker, who represents the co-plaintiffs in the Anwar case R.
“Hopefully this verdict will motivate other European prosecutors to initiate similar proceedings,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, secretary general of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who is supporting 29 torture survivors in the proceedings against Anwar R “The goal must continue to be to bring senior officials of Assad’s security apparatus to justice.
Justice for war crimes in Syria at the international level has long been problematic. In 2014, Russia and China blocked efforts by the UN Security Council to give the International Criminal Court a mandate on serious crimes in the ten-year-old civil war.
However, in 2016, UN member states established an international mechanism to collect and analyze evidence of war crimes for prosecution. This should be critical for testing in Germany and elsewhere.
Some observers have raised moral objections to Eyad A’s prosecution, fearing it will deter other lower-ranking deserters from coming forward. He was questioned by German investigators as a witness to the regime’s crimes in 2018 and has shown a willingness to cooperate with their investigation. But due to his extensive knowledge of torture tactics, the authorities subsequently decided to reclassify him as a suspect. A argued in court that he was following orders and that he would have risked his own life if he had defied them.