First Worldwide Trial on State Crimes in Syria

A German court convicts a former agent of the Assad regime for crimes against humanity on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction

On February 24, the Koblenz tribunal (Germany) sentenced Eyad A. to four years and six months imprisonment for aiding and abetting the crime against humanity of torture, committed against anti-regime protesters in "Branch 251" of Al-Khatib prison in Damascus. The decision is part of the proceeding held from April 23, 2020 against two former officials of the security services of Bashar al-Assad regime. The separate case against the co-defendant Anwar R. for the torture of at least 4.000 detainees, sexual violence and the death of 58 dissidents under his military control will continue at least until October 2021.

The proceeding belongs to the “structural investigations” (Strukturverfahren) held by German authorities on the international crimes committed in the Syrian conflict, with the important contribution of lawyers and human rights organizations. Since 2016 Syrian victims have submitted several criminal complaints in Germany against agents of the Syrian regime, with the help of lawyers Anwar Al-Bunni (Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research), Mazen Darwish (Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression) and of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) based in Berlin.

In February 2018 the German Supreme Federal Court issued a warrant of arrest against Eyad A. and Anwar R.; Al-Bunni then recognized the defendants in a refugee center in Germany. For over 60 days, judges heard the testimonies of victims and witnesses. They also analyzed important pieces of evidence, such as the photos (so-called 'Caesar files') sent by a former official of the Syrian military police, showing the bodies of people killed and tortured in the detention centers from May 2011 to August 2013. The Koblenz tribunal thus recognized the contextual element of the widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population required for crimes against humanity (paragraph 7 of the German Code of Crimes Against International Law), in light of the recourse to violence by the Assad regime in suppressing political antagonism.

The decision against Eyad A. constitutes a key step for international criminal law: it represents the first worldwide judgement against a former agent of the Syrian regime based on the principle of universal jurisdiction (paragraph 1 of the German Code of Crimes Against International Law). In fact, the principle of universal jurisdiction allows the prosecution of international crimes even if committed abroad and without any connection with Germany, i.e. when (active or passive) personality and territorial principles are not met.

National proceedings in Germany and in other European countries (such as Austria, Norway and Sweden) are the only way currently available to assess criminal responsibility for the grave breaches of international criminal law in the Syrian conflict. The International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot exercise its jurisdiction on these facts, as Syria is not a State party to its Statute and Russia and China vetoed the United Nation Security Council’s resolutions to bring the situation in the country before the ICC (art. 13 ICC Statute).

As stated by Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR General Secretary, “Hopefully, this verdict will motivate other European prosecutors to initiate similar proceedings. The goal must continue to be to bring high-ranking officials of Assad’s security apparatus to justice. They are responsible for abusing, torturing and executing of tens of thousands of people in Syria – not just over the past several years; even today.”

For the ECCHR press release, click here.

See also C. Meloni, M. Crippa, State-run Torture in Syria: the First Trial Worldwide on International Crimes by the Assad Regime Opens before German Courts, May 7, 2020.