Will the Koblenz Court Hold Syrian Regime Criminals Roaming in Europe Accountable?

Friday 26 February 202101:23 pm
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الحكم على إياد الغريب بالسجن… هل محكمة كوبلنز هي بداية معاقبة نظام الأسد؟

The Higher Regional Court in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in the city of Koblenz issued its verdict on February 24th, 2021 against the defendant Iyad al-Gharib, a former Syrian intelligence officer, to four and a half years in prison. Al-Gharib, who has been under arrest since February 2019, is charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and facilitating the torture for more than thirty detainees.

For its part, the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research welcomed this ruling in a statement and considered it a “historic” decision and a “bright spot in the history of the German judiciary and the history of global justice.” It is the first time that such a decision has been issued against a criminal belonging to the security system of the Assad regime who committed his crime through his position there.

Four and a half years’ jail term for torture and crimes against humanity. Was the Koblenz verdict too lenient on al-Gharib?

In an interview with Raseef22, Syrian lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research Anwar al-Bunni said that it “is the first time that a person has been sentenced because he belongs to a regime, and one that is still in power. The ruling on Iyad did not come just because he was a person who committed a crime in Syria, but because he was part of a systematic infernal machine that kills and tortures people and hides their corpses.”

Al-Bunni went on to add, “Therefore, the ruling targets this entire machine, and is a condemnation of the top of the pyramid along with all its pillars that carry out these crimes against humanity. Of course, this ruling, which targeted a person who only facilitated the commission of serious crimes, gives off the very strong indication that there is no impunity for not only those who commit crimes, but also for those who facilitate them. This is a very important issue for us and for the future of justice in Syria.”

According to the German magazine Zeit, Al-Gharib’s lawyers pleaded innocent for their client, claiming that al-Gharib had committed these actions because he was forced to carry out the orders of his superiors. Iyad al-Gharib, 44, is accused of aiding in the committing of crimes against humanity after he arrested thirty people in the fall of 2011 and took them to the notorious “torture prison” known as the al-Khatib security branch (or Branch 251). In the court session that took place on February 17th, the German public prosecutor called on the court to sentence al-Gharib to 5 and a half years in prison. This came after judges decided to split the proceedings in two – separating the trial of former intelligence officer Anwar Raslan from that of al-Gharib’s – due to the fact that Raslan is the main defendant in the al-Khatib prison case due to his high rank.

Syrian musician Wassim Mukdad – a former detainee in al-Khatib prison who testified before the court in Koblenz – informed Raseef22 that “the importance of this trial is that it is the first step on the road to justice in Syria. Whatever the ruling against the two defendants (Iyad al-Gharib and Anwar Raslan) may be, the path to justice will not be impeded before Bashar al-Assad and his close agents, military and civilians alike, are brought before the courts.”

According to Mukdad, this trial allowed Russia and China to circumvent their role in order to hinder any legal action in the United Nations and the UN Security Council when it comes to penalizing war criminals in Syria (by virtue of using their right of veto).

It is the first sentence on someone because he belongs to a regime, and one that is still in power. The ruling on Iyad al-Gharib wasn't just because he was a person who committed crimes in Syria, it is because he was part of a systematic infernal machine.

The Final Proceedings of the Public Prosecution and Iyad al-Gharib

In his final decision, the German Public Prosecutor asked for the court to hand out a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence to Iyad al-Gharib.

According to the ECCHR (the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights) update on the court proceedings, on the 60th day of the Al-Khatib branch trial on February 17th, 2021, the court held the session of the public prosecution representative for the Arab Spring, with him and his colleague referring to the Syrian regime’s brutality in suppressing dissidents even before 2011.

The representative of the public prosecutor’s office said that Germany is holding this trial to counter crimes against humanity and in the interest of the international community that must not allow torture to remain unpunished. The Koblenz trial marks the beginning of the punishment for such injustices, since crimes of international law do not have a statute of limitations. The prosecution also highlighted that all the testimonials and statements of the previously detained witnesses were completely truthful.

As for the final defense of Iyad al-Gharib, it took place on February 18th, 2021. Al-Gharib’s defense lawyer said that had it not been for the testimonials of his client in the criminal authority’s investigations, Anwar Raslan would not have been indicted at all. He also said that the actions of al-Gharib must be taken into account, as he defected from the regime and felt great sympathy for the Caesar photographs (photos detailing tortured detainees). Al-Gharib began to cry while the defense continued to plead before the judges, relying mainly on the claim that the accused had no choice but to follow the orders of his superiors.

The Evidence

Attorney Patrick Krocker of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) – as well as the acting representative of the victims in the court – disclosed to Raseef22 during a press conference held by the organization on February 9th, that the court will rely on three types of evidence in order to issue its ruling:

The first type of evidence is the testimonies of male and female torture survivors in al-Khatib prison. They provided strong indications of patterns of systematic torture, and later, further indication of the defendants’ individual responsibility for these crimes.

Krocker emphasized that it is essential to identify the general context of the violations for the sake of history and for this trial to set a legal precedent that will later be used to try Anwar Raslan among others.

He went on, “As for the second type of evidence, it centers on the testimony of expert witnesses, including the lawyers of our partners at the center, such as Anwar Al-Bunni, Mazen Darwish, Riad Seif, as well as the journalist Christoph Reuter from Der Spiegel [magazine].”

Whereas the third type includes the use of the Caesar photographs, which constitute strong evidence of torture and death and intersect with the testimonies of witnesses about the adopted methods of torture.

Al-Gharib had presented his statement as a witness. His testimony, which has been taken as the main piece of evidence in the charges against him, comes along with the testimony of two witnesses who had identified him and the ID card that was found with him.

The ruling is a condemnation of the construct that carries out these crimes against humanity. This ruling against one who only aided in committing crimes, indicates there is no impunity for those who commit crimes and those who facilitate them

The Door to Trials has been Opened

The sentencing of Iyad al-Gharib is considered a legal precedent. It is the first of its kind in the world, and it will open the door to additional trials for many crimes of torture as well as crimes against humanity in Germany and other European countries. It is also a strong indicator for all regimes and perpetrators around the world that there is a means for justice and that they will even be tried outside their countries under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, the most pressing issue now, which is the verdict against Iyad al-Gharib, gives an indication of the expected sentencing period for Anwar Raslan, whose trial sessions will resume on the 10th of the upcoming month of March, as additional witnesses will be heard and new evidence collected.

That is why Andreas Schulz, one of the victims’ attorneys in the Anwar Raslan case, told Raseef22 that by examining the ruling on al-Gharib, the court is expected to sentence Anwar Raslan to a minimum of ten years.

Regarding the matter of Anwar Raslan’s lawyers calling for his acquittal, lawyer Schulz says, “This is a fantasy,” falling back on the principle of proportionality when it comes to court rulings. According to this principle, it is impossible to sentence Raslan to less than ten years as a minimum – for there is a proportionality in the verdict between those who helped and colluded in 30 cases and was eventually sentenced to four and a half years, and between those with a much higher rank who were directly accused of 4,000 cases of torture and 58 cases of murder and sexual violence.

Germany’s brilliant idea of ​​seeking justice and designing the law on crimes against humanity has unintentionally created a potential danger – a person considering dissent may fear being tried in the event he leaves Syria or if the regime falls

"The Regime Lives On"

To conclude, Schulz reminds us that the Crimes Against Humanity Act has been established with the intention of holding any rogue and fallen nations accountable. If a regime falls, the government that follows it – or a country from the international community – holds it accountable. But the Nuremberg trials in 1946 also opened the door towards indicting individuals who had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the fallen Nazi regime. In the case of Syria, the regime lives on and appears to be winning the war, in accordance with Schulz’s opinion. Therefore, Schulz believes that trying individuals within the margins of this law will allow regimes to shirk responsibility and claim that the violations are made by lone individuals instead of systematic, and the regime has nothing to do with them.

Schulz assures Raseef22 that the Crimes Against Humanity Act is two-faced: The brighter side of the coin is that those committing crimes against humanity are subject to accountability anywhere in the world.

As for the darker side, it applies in the case of the still-present Syrian regime, and the message that comes from the trial is “Do not defect from the regime, because if you do, you will be tried in Germany or in other European countries.”

In Schulz’s opinion, what happened in this first trial may frighten many and push them to refrain from defecting or cooperating in the future. Therefore, the German lawyer believes that Germany’s brilliant idea of ​​seeking justice and designing the law on crimes against humanity has created a potential danger that neither the court nor the legislators intended – a person considering defecting may fear that he will be tried in the event he leaves Syria or if the regime falls. He explains that if someone defected and cooperated with the court, he would be jailed, after which he would lose his refugee status and may be deported to Syria, indicating that this would push agents of the regime to not defect or cooperate in the future. Therefore, in Schulz’s view, it would be more effective in these cases to issue higher and longer sentences that will deter perpetrators from the original act. For example, a 15-year-sentence for Iyad al-Gharib, who was complicit in conspiring to torture and murder, and a life sentence for Anwar Raslan with no chance of conditional release. Otherwise, the punishment will not have any deterrent effect.

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