A German court will deliver a landmark verdict on Wednesday in the world’s first state-sponsored torture trial by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Almost 10 years since the Arab Spring reached Syria on March 15, 2011, the judgment will be the first in the world linked to the brutal crackdown on protesters by the government in Damascus.
Eyad al-Gharib, 44, is accused of being an accomplice in crimes against humanity as a low-ranking member of the intelligence services.
The former colonel reportedly helped arrest at least 30 protesters and handed them over to al-Khatib detention center in Damascus after a rally in Douma, northeast of the capital, in the fall of 2011.
Gharib will be the first of the two defendants tried since April 23 to be sentenced by the Koblenz court, after the judges decided to split the proceedings in two.
The second defendant, Anwar Raslan, 58, is directly charged with crimes against humanity, including overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others.
Raslan’s trial is expected to last at least until the end of October.
Both men are being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity, including war crimes and genocide, regardless of where they are committed.
Other such cases have also arisen in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrians who have sought refuge in Europe are turning to the only legal means currently available to them due to the paralysis of the international justice system.
Koblenz prosecutors are calling for five and a half years for Gharib, who defected in 2012 before finally fleeing Syria in February 2013.
After spending time in Turkey and then Greece, Gharib arrived in Germany on April 25, 2018.
He has never denied his past and, in fact, it was his stories told to the German asylum authorities that ultimately led to his arrest in February 2019.
Prosecutors accuse him of being a cog in the machine of a system where torture was practiced on “an almost industrial scale.”
With attention focused mainly on Raslan during the 10 months of hearings, Gharib remained silent and hid his face from the cameras. He wrote a letter read by his lawyers in which he expressed his pain for the victims.
And it was with tears streaming down his face that he listened to his lawyers demand his acquittal, arguing that he and his family could have been killed had he not carried out the regime’s orders.
His defense also said he lived in fear of his superior Hafez Makhlouf, a cousin and close associate of Assad, known for his brutality.
But Patrick Kroker, a lawyer representing the co-plaintiffs, argued that Gharib could have been more open during the trial, rather than remaining silent throughout the hearings.
People like him “can be very important in informing us about the [Syrian officials] we’re really aiming, but that’s something he chose not to do, ”Kroker said.
During the trial, more than a dozen Syrian men and women took the stand to testify about the terrible abuses they suffered in the al-Khatib detention center, also known as “branch 251”.
Prosecutors said they were victims of rape and sexual abuse, “electric shocks”, punches, wires and whips and “sleep deprivation” in the prison.
Some witnesses were interviewed anonymously, with their faces covered or wearing wigs for fear of reprisals against their relatives still in Syria.
The trial also marked the first time that photos of the so-called Caesar files have been presented in court.
The 50,000 images taken by the defector of the Syrian military police “Caesar” show the corpses of 6,786 Syrians who had been starved or tortured to death inside the detention centers of the Assad government.
They were examined during the trial by coroner Markus Rothschild, whose analysis was deemed to constitute overwhelming physical evidence.
Last year, the New York Times newspaper published a report on how the Syrian government managed a network of secret torture facilities across Syria as the civil war unfolded in the country.
The exact number of civilians held in these prisons is unknown, but around 128,000 Syrians are either considered detained or dead, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Although the Syrian government has denied having committed systematic abuses, it has recently acknowledged the deaths of hundreds of people in detention by issuing death certificates or “listing them as dead” in family registration files.
Today, nearly six million Syrian refugees have fled the war in Syria. Even as the war ends, many fear persecution upon their return and have expressed their need for a UN-sponsored safe return process.
The ongoing trial has inspired Syrian activists and NGOs across Europe to press their federal prosecutors to issue international arrest warrants against high-ranking members of the Syrian government.