Syria’s Arab Spring lives on in hearts – and courts

Syrian doctor Alaa M. entered the courtroom in Frankfurt in a hooded parka that kept the judging eyes of observers at bay. Once seated, he kept his hood on until five judges swept into the wooden chambers in a flurry of black robes. Then a different Dr. M. emerged – one sporting a crisp blue suit with tired, agitated eyes that missed nothing and thin lips that battled to stay shut.

That Aug. 8 session opened with documents in Arabic projected onto a drop-down screen. One showed that the witness testifying that day was fired for not showing up to work for two weeks – the period he was in detention. Another revealed a prison visitors log. All to establish that the witness had been at the scene where Dr. M., prosecutors say, tortured people. Dr. M. and the defense team zeroed in on numbers and names, and challenged translations to cast doubt.

“We have the duty to ask critical questions. Please do not take it personally,” the presiding judge told the witness.

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Can a regime be held accountable for its brutality? Syrians and their allies around the world are attempting to do just that.

The accused worked as a resident in military hospitals in Homs and Damascus, both notorious for the brutal treatment of detainees undergoing interrogations by various security branches, and in a prison run by Syria’s military intelligence. Dr. M. allegedly severely beat patients with batons and a plastic tube, gave a lethal injection to one person, and set fire to a teenage boy’s genitals. Prosecutors accuse him of 18 cases of torture, killing one person, and contributing to the death of another. The doctor denies the charges.

Syria has been a brutal police state for decades. The brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime escalated when the Arab Spring swept into the country in 2011 and Syrians took to the streets demanding freedom and dignity. Regime forces shot at demonstrators and then pounded towns and homes with shelling and airstrikes, plunging the country into a civil war between various rebel factions and the government. 

Rami Zayat/Reuters/File

A boy carries his belongings in a part of Aleppo, Syria, allegedly hit by a barrel bomb dropped by President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists, April 2, 2015.

The war directly involved Western nations, Gulf states, Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Today President Assad’s grip on power appears secure, thanks to Moscow’s steadfast support, waning Western interest, and Syria’s reintroduction into the Arab League. By March 2021, the conflict had killed over 350,000 people, according to the United Nations, and displaced more than half of the prewar population of about 21 million. At least 100,000 people are missing, their statuses unknown. But the real figures for those killed and missing are probably much higher. 

Today European courts are central to the quest for justice for crimes committed in Syria. Germany, by virtue of taking in a million refugees from 2015 to 2016, has both Syrian perpetrators and victims on its soil. Germany also has an expansive view of universal jurisdiction, a principle that scraps territorial restraints on prosecutions for particularly grave atrocities, such as genocide and war crimes. Last year, a court in Koblenz, Germany, became the first to convict an Assad government official for crimes against humanity in Syria. Spain, Austria, Sweden, and France are pursuing similar cases.