Syrian official faces war crime charges for overseeing brutal prison torture

On Thursday in a German courtroom, a verdict will be rendered in the world's first trial against a high-ranking former officer in the Syrian regime for crimes against humanity. Anwar Ruslan was in charge of interrogations in a government prison and stands accused of overseeing mass torture, rape and killing. For Reveal and PBS NewsHour, Adithya Sambamurthy and Luna Watfa report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow, in a German courtroom, a verdict will be rendered in the world's first trial against a high-ranking former officer in the Syrian regime for crimes against humanity.

    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.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    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 (through translator):

    It's something we have been waiting for, for a very long time. We thought it was never going to happen. But then, when it happened, you tell yourself, it's a dream, it can't possibly be true.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    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 (through translator):

    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.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    Ghrer was imprisoned for about 3.5 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 lead the interrogations unit there.

    Patrick Kroker, Attorney, 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, yes, breaking the physical and psychological existence of the person by harming them, beating them with objects, hanging them on the wall, electrocuting them.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    Raslan, whose face cannot be shown due to German privacy laws, is charged with at least 4,000 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 U.N. Security Council to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

  • Patrick Kroker:

    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 U.N. 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.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    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 and laid the foundation for contemporary international human rights law; 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 shows 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.

    Thomas Wenzel, Professor, Medical University of Vienna (through translator): 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 six centimeters.

    You wouldn't be able to do this by simply taking a picture. This kind of basic documentation is useful in court.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    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.

    Usahma Felix Darrah, Executive Manager, Friends of the Syrian People: You have to see how much hope really rests on this kind of work. This is the only type of justice, 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 who are actually playing a role in making accountability happen. Our plan is, of course, 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.

  • Thomas Wenzel (through translator):

    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.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    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 (through translator):

    I feel nervous. It's the first time ever that there's 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. Inshallah, I can deliver my message inside.

  • Adithya Sambamurthy:

    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.

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