A Ruling Against a 'Small Fish' Is Being Hailed as Historic

Germany for first time convicts Syrian regime officer of crimes against humanity
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 24, 2021 2:05 PM CST
Why a German Court Case Matters So Much in Syria
Syrian defendant Eyad Al-Gharib hides his face as he arrives to his hear his verdict in a court room in Koblenz, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.   (Thomas Lohnes/Pool Photo via AP)

A landmark decision in Koblenz, Germany, on Wednesday marks the first time a court outside of Syria has ruled in a case involving officials with Bashar al-Assad's regime who are accused of committing crimes against humanity. The Guardian calls it "a historic first victory for efforts worldwide to bring legal accountability for atrocities committed in Syria’s long war," which has been ongoing for a decade. Eyad al-Gharib, 44, a former colonel in the Syrian intelligence service, was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity through torture and the deprivation of liberty," per the judge, as quoted by NPR. He helped transport 30 detained protesters to a prison in Damascus known as al-Khatib, or Branch 251, that employed torture. More:

  • Gharib defected in 2012 and was given asylum in Germany in 2019. He was arrested there that same year under the principle of "universal jurisdiction"; though crimes in violation of international law were committed elsewhere, victims and defendants were in Germany, explains the AP.

  • As one Syrian human rights lawyer puts it, this case proves "there is no safe place to flee to."
  • CNN explains that the Commission for International Justice and Accountability has since 2012 been recruiting and training "document hunters"—Syrians who are advised by former war crimes investigators and lawyers on how to spirit government documents out of the country. CIJA provided evidence in Gharib's case.
  • Gharib went on trial along with Anwar Raslan, a more senior official who was head of investigations at al-Khatib; his trial is set to run for another 8 months. Gharib has testified against Raslan and tied him to more than 10 prisoner deaths.
  • The Washington Post reports the court found electric shocks, beatings, severe psychological abuse, lack of food or medical care, and inhumane conditions occurred at Branch 251. One Syrian who testified called the prison "hell" and said that at one point he was kept with 87 other people in a space measuring about 230 sq. feet.
  • Steve Kostas, legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, provided his take: "This verdict is against a single individual and he’s been, I think correctly, referred to as a relatively small fish. But the evidence in the case in order to prove the crime against humanity involved demonstrating the role of the entire Syrian government intelligence agencies going up to the highest levels."
  • But the head of the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center tells the AP that putting defectors like Raslan and Gharib behind bars could actually be seen by Assad as pleasing, "because this will deter anyone else from defecting or joining the opposition or supplying information to human rights groups." Other rights groups have noted that defectors may not be aware that info provided in their asylum applications can be used against them.
(Read more Syria stories.)

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