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.
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.
In 2015, Dr. M. arrived in Germany on a skilled worker visa and continued to practice medicine. He was arrested five years later over alleged complicity in offenses of sexual violence, torture, and killing of Syrian civilians. His trial opened on Jan. 19, 2022, at the Regional Court of Frankfurt and will continue into 2024.
“I want the people who committed these crimes to be convicted,” says Dania Habaal, who traveled from Marburg to Frankfurt to witness history at the court. “I am really rooting for the victims, and I believe in the justice system here. Even if this is a little part of justice, it is very meaningful.”
A psychology student with Syrian roots, Ms. Habaal sees herself eventually providing expert testimony and supporting witnesses in such difficult trials. This August session ran from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the climax being a deliberation over whether the witness’s phone could be confiscated to rule out that he was being coached by a Syrian human rights lawyer on what to say. The judges ruled no.
“All the events that I have mentioned in prison, I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears,” the male witness stressed at the end of the hearing. “I am a survivor of torture. I lost my work. I lost my land. I lost relatives. My homeland humiliated me.”
Arab countries this May moved to normalize relations with the Assad regime after a dozen years of opposing it. They resumed diplomatic and economic ties in a bid to rival Iranian influence in Damascus, facilitate reconstruction, encourage a return of refugees, and provide an incentive for Syria to crack down on the flow of illegal narcotics into their countries. But Western nations have sought to keep the issue of accountability on the international agenda. The Netherlands and Canada have filed against Syria at the International Court of Justice at The Hague over allegations of torture. In the eyes of some Syrians, such efforts are comforting – essential even. To others, they are better than nothing but still disappointing, given the scale of the crimes committed in their country.
Syrian human rights defenders argue their country deserves no less than an international criminal tribunal like the ones set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Others want transitional justice after a political solution is reached in the country. Many worry that putting lower-ranking officials on trial in Europe will deter higher-ups in Syria from defecting since they’d risk being tried. Geopolitical developments suggesting Mr. Assad will remain in power, enjoying complete impunity, add to the malaise confronting even the most ardent justice-seekers.
“This is not justice,” says Mazen Darwish, a France-based Syrian human rights defender who is building cases related to a barrel bomb attack on a school in Daraa and the 2013 chemical weapon attacks in eastern Ghouta. “This is the alternative choice. Because we can’t reach justice, we try to use universal jurisdiction and extraterritorial jurisdiction. This is only a tool to keep the file of justice on the table because the regime and the other lords of war, their regional and international supporters, want to go to a political agreement without taking into consideration accountability or victims’ rights.”
Accountability is key. “This is the only way that we can guarantee that those who are refugees, like me now, have a possibility to go back,” adds Mr. Darwish, president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and of the Violations Documentation Center in Syria. “If there is no guarantee that those people who arrested me, tortured me, are held accountable, then there is no guarantee that this will not happen to me and my family again. It’s like asking me to give the killer a second chance.”
“Internationally, the whole conversation should be about holding Assad to account,” says Nuran al-Ghamian, who found asylum in Switzerland and testified in the Koblenz trial about her prison ordeals. “Now, even places in Europe are thinking about returning Syrians to Syria. What security guarantees can there be? There is a very long history that paints a very clear picture of who this person is that is still in power.”
The last time Dr. Redwan Burhan’s family saw him alive was on June 20, 2013. His wife, Thawra Kerdia, sat in the passenger seat of their golden Nissan, their youngest daughter, Ola, or “Lulu,” in the back seat. The soldier at the Zabadani checkpoint took his mobile phone first. Then the car keys. Finally, he dragged the doctor out of the car, pulling his T-shirt over his head. Lulu cried and tried to hang on to her father, fearful that she would never see him again.
“I felt that if I let him go, he will not return,” says Lulu, who now lives with the rest of her family in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
Her premonition proved accurate.
Dr. Burhan was a pediatrician. He was among the first demonstrators in March 2011 in Souk al-Hamidiya, a covered market in the old city of Damascus. For that act of defiance, he endured two weeks in detention. Still, the first question he asked when released was, “Are the demonstrations still going on?” They were. He opened his clinic to protesters wounded in the terrible military crackdown that pushed Syria into war. For that he was accused of “treating the children of terrorists” and detained again.
The image of his tortured corpse appeared among some 55,000 photographs known as the Caesar photos. Exfiltrated from Syria by a military defector, the images represent one of the most compelling bodies of evidence of the scale and systemic nature of the torture in Syrian prisons and detention centers, which have been crucial to propping up the regime of Mr. Assad and his father, Hafez, before him. The corpses were numbered, a triggering reminder of the Jewish Holocaust.
“I don’t know who killed my husband, but I know Assad is responsible,” says Ms. Kerdia.
“When a person is detained and killed, it is not just that person who suffers,” adds her middle daughter, Hind, who looked at the image of her tortured father to confirm his identity. “It is the whole family that suffers. This is why these trials [in Europe] matter. For them [the regime], he was a number. Not a person. Not a member of the family. We are not the only family who suffered this in Syria. There are many families like us.”
Ms. Kerdia and her three daughters walked across countries and braved the Mediterranean to reach Europe, capsizing three times. They succeeded on the fourth attempt by using their shoes to tip out water from their dinghy. “You have to be strong,” says Ms. Kerdia, who continues her activism in Austria. “You have to carry on.”
Syrians have put themselves and their families at risk to build current and future cases against the Assad regime. Many have a long and painful history of challenging the regime. Among them is Mohammad Al Abdallah. Twice a political prisoner, he knows just how harsh Syrian prisons are.
Today he is the founding director of the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center, which collects and analyzes information and evidence relating to human rights and humanitarian law violations. One area of focus now is the use of barrel bombs by the regime against opposition areas. The other is disseminating best practices for authorities to debrief victims of torture so that they are not re-traumatized.
“The biggest leads come from the victims themselves,” he stresses. “Everyone kept an eye on their perpetrators. … What Alaa [M.] allegedly did, including with other military officials, speaks to a widespread practice that Syrians have known about but have not seen [anyone] held publicly accountable [for]. Sitting and talking about torture in Syria is not easy.”
While Syrians in Europe and North America build cases, others across the Middle East, including in Syria, are quietly doing their part, collecting digital evidence for potential future trials. They upload videos and photos of war crimes and killings of relatives, friends, and neighbors from their phones and social media accounts to activists via a Telegram channel, the Syrian Revolution Archives. Such crimes may no longer make headlines, but they continue.
Syrians involved in this work want the world to understand the systematic nature of the regime’s crimes and the cold calculus that came from the top. “It is very important to prove that all these violations and all these crimes have been committed systematically,” says Joumana Seif, who works on Syrian cases at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. “This proves the responsibility of Assad himself as the head of state.”
But no one is optimistic about seeing Mr. Assad in the dock soon.
The United Nations International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), headed by Catherine Marchi-Uhel, was born out of frustration in 2016. Its mission is to assist in the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed in Syria after March 2011. This was deemed the best way forward after efforts to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court were scuppered by Russia and China’s 2014 vetoes at the U.N. Security Council.
Ms. Marchi-Uhel says her team has two key challenges: lack of access to Syria and the sheer volume of data that has been preserved – no less than 246 terabytes. One terabyte is roughly equivalent to about 472 broadcast-quality videos or 130,000 digital photos.
“The big difficulty is to treat them in a forensic way that is going to facilitate admissibility in court,” she says in a Zoom interview. “These investigations are very different in focus. They concern different times of the Syrian situation. They concern different directorates within Syria. They concern different perpetrator groups and victim communities.”
In addition to its direct assistance to competent jurisdictions, the IIIM is running three lines of investigation. Two lines focus on the crimes committed in detention centers and unlawful attacks against civilians, including with chemical weapons. That covers many of the core international crimes that have been attributed to Syrian state actors. The third line concerns crimes by the Islamic State, still operating in Syria. Currently, the IIIM supports 15 competent jurisdictions on Syria-related cases. It has received over 298 requests for assistance for 219 distinct investigations.
“When you look at the current number of cases that have led to judgments and, [in] a number of instances, convictions, the reality is that the level of perpetrators who have been apprehended and found guilty is not the highest level,” Ms. Marchi-Uhel says. “But these cases are anyway extremely important because they are the foundation for a broader picture, more comprehensive forms of justice.”
4,712. A number is all that Abu Yasser has left of his brother, Mohammed, who was detained by regime forces in 2012 for suspected protest activity in their hometown of Daraa.
Abu Yasser, who wishes to remain anonymous fearing government reprisals, sits in a bare apartment in the border town of Ramtha, Jordan, where he fled with his mother and sister 11 years ago, a few miles away from their hometown.
The former schoolteacher bears scars on his stomach from his own imprisonment and torture by government forces. He has buried three brothers, a sister, and his father. But to him the scar due to his missing brother is the freshest and deepest. If alive, he would be Abu Yasser’s only male relative to survive the conflict.
He opened a file with the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2014, hoping to find his brother. For years, the committee called with the latest tip or rumor of his whereabouts: a prisoner fitting his description seen in the notorious Sednaya prison, a recently released detainee who believes he spotted him in a Damascus jail. But the calls stopped and leads dried up three years ago.
“The missing are taken from us, yet they are always with us,” Abu Yasser says, gazing at a photo of Mohammed, who would now be 36. “We constantly worry, not knowing. Are they alive? Are they dead? Are they suffering? Can we save them? Can we mourn them?
“We may achieve some cases of accountability, but I personally do not believe justice can be achieved for the Syrian people,” he continues. “Can you bring back my father, my brothers, my sister?”
A court cannot restore lost childhoods or reunite destroyed families, Abu Yasser says.
“In order for anything resembling justice to take place, we need, [at] the very least, to know the fate of our missing,” he adds.
Not knowing about the life or death of those missing is a crisis that affects Syrians across geography, class, ideology, and lines of pro- and anti-regime. Nearly every Syrian family frets over a missing relative who has disappeared in regime- or militia-run jails. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based watchdog organization, 112,713 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared as of August 2023.
The vast majority, 96,100, disappeared at the hands of Syrian government forces. “We know that they are ending up in mass graves,” says Diab Serriya, head of the Turkey-based Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison. “But who is responsible? Where is the grave? Who is writing the reports? There was a full system. Nothing was left to chance.”
Although Arab states made transparency regarding missing people a condition for resuming full ties with the Assad regime, the Syrian government has provided no answers, dashing the hopes of hundreds of thousands and leaving many lives on hold.
Um Amjad presumes her husband is dead; he has not been heard from since he was arrested and disappeared in Homs in 2012. She and her three daughters live in an apartment complex for Syrian widows and orphaned children in Ramtha, one of dozens of such housing areas provided by charitable associations and wealthy individuals in the Persian Gulf.
But without proof of what happened to her husband and a death certificate, she, like many Syrian widows, cannot obtain full legal custody of her children, creating obstacles for traveling, resettling, or even receiving health services. Most Syrian widows and wives of those missing are left vulnerable to losing their children to their husband’s male relatives – whom Jordanian and Syrian laws recognize as rightful guardians.
“We move on with our lives, but we are also stuck, as if waiting for him to walk through that door at any moment. Every day we are reminded he is gone,” Um Amjad says. “There cannot be accountability until we have truth.”
Syrians in Europe pushing for justice may have to play an outsize role and speak for millions of Syrians who cannot.
Most Syrian refugees in the Middle East, some 5.6 million in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt, are unable to publicly speak out against the Syrian government. Host governments normalizing ties with the Assad regime do not wish refugee political activity to hurt their diplomatic rapprochements. Syrian refugees who give evidence or speak to the media risk being deported to Syria, as has already occurred in Turkey and Lebanon. That can be a death sentence.
Refugees with relatives in Syria also fear regime or militia retribution against their family should they speak out. Then there are the 6.8 million Syrians displaced within Syria, many of whom (along with millions who never left their homes) are living in regime-held territory. They know any effort to provide evidence could end with their being arrested or assassinated.
“We are not part of the movement for justice and court cases in Europe, because we can’t,” says Abu Yasser, the former schoolteacher. “Syrians in Europe and Canada are free to talk. Although we all oppose the regime and want to see justice, we are too vulnerable to take part.”
He walks over to his fourth-floor apartment window and points down to the bustling street of carpenter workshops and grocery stores.
“Every day, I see a former regime officer who killed my neighbors walking freely in the streets in my neighborhood here in Jordan,” he says, wincing as he peers out from behind a curtain, his face only half showing.
“Can I say anything to him? Can I come forward with this information?” he asks before immediately answering, “I can’t, unless I want to be sent back.”
Many Syrian refugees in Jordan are unaware of Europe’s court cases.
Zaineb Isra has been busy “acting as mother and father” to her five children since her husband, Abdulmanim Alowayed, a grocery clerk and handyman, was killed by shelling in their village of Sayyida Zaynab, outside Damascus in 2013. She welcomes the court proceedings as “good news.”
“We have seen so much injustice,” she says from her apartment in Amman, showing a photograph of her husband on her phone. “Everyone involved in the war deserves to be held accountable. Justice for one is justice for all.”
And as for her husband, “God will bring me justice on Judgment Day.”
Ms. Kerdia, whose husband’s death was revealed by a gruesome photo, waved the flag of the Syrian revolution in defiance as tanks shelled Zabadani in 2012. She waves it still on a regular basis in Vienna – sometimes on her own, sometimes with crowds. Hundreds gathered for a recent demonstration at the foot of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a mobilization she credits to the revival of the spirit of the Syrian revolution as defiant protests once again sweep her homeland with slogans affirming the unity of the Syrian people.
“A people who rose once will rise again,” Ms. Kerdia says. “After all that has happened, I did not lose hope. And I will not lose hope. If we do not see this regime fall, our children will.”