Update: Anwar Raslan was convicted on January 13 and sentenced to life in prison.
Anwar Raslan stands accused of overseeing mass torture, rape and killings from 2008 through 2012, at the start of Syria’s ongoing civil war. As a member of the Syrian secret police, he was in charge of interrogations at a government prison in Damascus. Now, Raslan is being tried in Germany under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, even if the accused is not one of their citizens and the crimes were not committed on their soil. If Raslan is found guilty, it would mark the first time in history that a high-ranking officer of a government that is still in power is convicted of crimes against humanity.
Reporter Luna Watfa and special correspondent Adithya Sambamurthy delve into what’s at stake in the potentially precedent-setting trial in a story for PBS NewsHour in collaboration with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Reporters: Adithya Sambamurthy, Luna Watfa
Producer: Adithya Sambamurthy
Editor: David Ritsher
Exec. Producers: Amanda Pike, Sara Just
Senior Producers: David Ritsher, Morgan Till, Richard Coolidge
Graphics: Kojo Boateng
Editor in Chief for Reveal: Sumi Aggarwal
Legal Counsel: Victoria Baranetsky
Director of Photography: Adithya Sambamurthy
Sound: Hannes Marget
Gaffer: Alexander Schmutzler
Additional Camera: Christian Eichenauer, Alexander Schmutzler, Eleanor Power
Pool footage provided by Ruptly
Additional Archive: Associated Press, Getty Images, Archive.org
ANCHOR INTRO: And now to Germany, where the world’s first trial against a high ranking former officer in the Syrian regime for crimes against humanity, is heading toward a verdict.
Anwar Raslan was in charge of interrogations in a government prison while working for the Syrian secret police. He stands accused of overseeing mass torture, rape and killings, at the start of Syria’s ongoing civil war.
From our partners at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, reporter Luna Watfa and special correspondent Adithya Sambamurthy have the story.
And a warning to our viewers: This story contains graphic images from inside Syrian prisons.
NARR: Hussein Ghrer is getting ready for his day in court.
Ghrer is a plaintiff in the trial against Anwar Raslan, a high ranking officer of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, for crimes against humanity.
Hussein Ghrer, plaintiff: It’s something we’ve been waiting for, for a very long time. We thought it’s never going to happen, but then when it happened, you tell yourself, it’s a dream, it can’t possibly be true.
NARR: In Syria, Ghrer blogged about his support of Syria’s wave of the Arab Spring, which began in March 2011…and has led to nearly 11 years of civil war.
For his support of the demonstrations, Ghrer says he was imprisoned and tortured at al-Khatib, one of the largest in a labyrinth of government prison complexes in Syria.
Hussein Ghrer, plaintiff: For me, the psychological torture was worst. The psychological torment is in waiting for the next session of torture. As a detainee I was always waiting for the next torture session. Asking all sorts of questions. Being between life and death. It was a difficult situation.
NARR: Ghrer was imprisoned for about three-and-a-half years. After his release in 2015, he fled to Germany, joining nearly a million Syrians who were granted political asylum by then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
And that created the conditions for this historic trial to take place in a German courtroom in Koblenz.
Most participants in this landmark trial, from the 2016 joint plaintiffs, to key witnesses and Anwar Raslan himself arrived in Germany as refugees in the last six years.
Patrick Kroker is co-counsel to Hussein Ghrer, and 13 other plaintiffs in this case, who allege being detained and tortured at al-Khatib, when Anwar Raslan led the interrogations unit there.
Patrick Kroker, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights: I mean, each and every story is very different, but there are some very common elements to them. It was really more about breaking the physical and psychological existence of the person by harming them, beating them with objects, hanging them on the wall, electrocuting them.
NARR: Raslan, whose face cannot be shown due to German privacy laws, is charged with at least 4000 counts of torture, at least 30 counts of murder, 26 counts of bodily harm, two counts of hostage taking and three counts of sexual violence, from the time he was in charge of interrogations at the al-Khatib prison.
The defense claims that Raslan had no real power to stop the abuses at al-Khatib.
Raslan says he did what he could to help civilians detained under his watch, and that he defected and fled Syria as soon as he could.
Kroker says he had initially hoped that a case of this magnitude would be referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Patrick Kroker, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights: In 2015, it became clear that the political chances of there being such a referral to the court aren’t there anymore, simply because Russia vetoed any attempt to refer this in the UN Security Council. And then China went along with that. So at that point in time, it became clear no international court for Syria, at least at this point.
NARR: So the prosecutors used a legal principle called universal jurisdiction to try the case in a German court instead.
Universal jurisdiction states that countries have a duty to prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, even if the accused are not their citizens, and the crimes were not committed on their soil.
Germany’s embrace of universal jurisdiction grew out of the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War.
Allied judges tried prominent Nazi leaders for their roles in planning and executing the Holocaust and other war crimes. The tribunals created the legal definition of genocide
21st century Germany has adopted a very expansive definition of universal jurisdiction, giving prosecutors and judges a lot of leeway in trying such cases.
To meet the threshold of crimes against humanity, prosecutors have submitted evidence and testimony to the court, that details the industrial scale of torture employed inside Syrian government prisons.
These include some 30,000 images smuggled out of Syria by a former military photographer code-named Caesar.
A forensic examination of these images showed that detainees were beaten with blunt and sharp objects, shot, and exposed to electric shocks and burns.
The Caesar photos form an important part of the evidence, not only in the case against Anwar Raslan, but in future cases to come.
The next trial in Germany is due to start a week from today.
And criminal complaints against high ranking members of the Syrian government have been filed in four European countries that allow universal jurisdiction.
Prosecuting these cases has created a need for authorities to work more closely with Syrian refugee communities.
In this workshop in Berlin, Syrians now living in eight countries across Europe are being instructed by Professor Thomas Wenzel, on how to collect evidence that would hold up in court, and how to encourage potential witnesses to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement.
All of the workshop participants used to be legal professionals in Syria.
Prof. Thomas Wenzel, Medical University of Vienna: You see this is a scar of an African patient, it’s not the greatest picture, but you can tell from the ruler placed next to it exactly that it is 6cm, you wouldn’t be able to do this by simply taking a picture. This kind of basic documentation is useful in court
NARR: Workshop organizer Usahma Felix Darrah, believes the trial in Koblenz has been a watershed moment- and that it is paving the way for Syrians to play a crucial part in the quest for justice through national courts in Europe.
Dr. Usahma Felix Darrah, Friends of the Syrian People: You have to understand how much hope really rests on this kind of work. This is the only semblance of justice that many Syrians have seen, in nine years of a very very bitter war. The war is still ongoing, and we have Syrians that are playing an active role in actually making accountability happen. Our plan is to document testimonies of survivors, of victims, and of witnesses, and to systematize those in a manner that can be usable in a court of law.
Prof. Thomas Wenzel, Medical University of Vienna: When speaking with a witness, we always need to ask, was a doctor there? If a doctor stands by when someone is being tortured, and says, stop, now you need to take a break, and now you can continue, that doctor is classed as a torturer.
NARR: Even advocates say that it’s too early to determine if these efforts are scalable, and whether European courts using universal jurisdiction will become a routine alternative to international tribunals, in prosecuting war crimes cases.
But back in Koblenz, Hussein Ghrer is clear that under the circumstances, this process is the best way forward.
He’s on his way to court, to give his closing statement in the case against Anwar Raslan.
Hussein Ghrer, plaintiff: I feel nervous, it’s the first time ever, a case against a member of the Syrian regime, and it’s unusual that a plaintiff like me gets to give a closing statement in front of the judges.
Insha’llah I can deliver my message inside.
NARR: The state prosecutor has called for a life sentence for Anwar Raslan, with no possibility of parole after 15 years.
Should Raslan be found guilty, it would set a precedent, marking the first time in history that a high ranking officer of a government that is still in power, is convicted of crimes against humanity.
For Reveal and PBS Newshour, I’m Adithya Sambamurthy in Koblenz, Germany.
Anchor outro: A verdict in the trial is expected tomorrow.