How Syrian War Crimes Are Being Investigated — in Europe
Torture survivor Qutaiba Idlbi speaks in Washington, D.C. in July 2015 about the horrors he faced while in captivity under the Assad regime. In the background are photographs documenting marks of torture on bodies of prisoners that were smuggled out of Syria by a defector. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
After more than eight years of fighting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, have corralled opposition forces into northwestern Syria.
The battle has been waged with exceptional brutality, with cities bombed into rubble and men, women and children dying far from the frontlines. In FRONTLINE’s For Sama, directors Waad al-Kateab and Ed Watts chronicle what happened to the rebel-held city of Aleppo from the early days of the revolution; how bodies of civilians were found with signs of torture after they disappeared from checkpoints; how the Assad regime and its allies hammered Aleppo from the air; how children were grievously wounded in bombings and brought into hospitals; and how the hospitals themselves became targets in the war.
Syria and its allies have denied that they launch attacks on civilians, hospitals and schools. In May, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar al-Jaafari said that “military operations” were being conducted in the remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib against a terrorist entity with the aim of “liberating the civilian population of Idlib and saving them from being used as human shields.”
However, over the course of the conflict Syrian activists, rights groups and international organizations have documented the Syrian government’s use of indiscriminate weapons such as barrel bombs against the civilian population, the suspected use of chemical weapons, and reports of the torture and deaths of political prisoners in detention facilities run by the authorities.
Over the last few years, European courts have made some progress in bringing cases against lower-level Syrian soldiers, and against people accused of carrying out atrocities while fighting for the opposition or terrorist groups like ISIS.
The path to holding high-ranking Syrian officials accountable has proven difficult, since Assad remains in power, and his allies have thwarted international efforts to pursue cases against members of his regime.
That may be beginning to change, as Syrian survivors, activists and lawyers seek to find alternate avenues to pursue accountability through European courts.
A year ago, Germany issued the first international arrest warrant for a senior official in the Assad regime since the conflict started, based on criminal complaints compiled by Syrian human rights lawyers based in Germany and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). French prosecutors followed suit, issuing warrants for three senior Syrian officials in connection to a case that involved the disappearance and subsequent deaths of a father and son who were French-Syrian nationals. Since then, Syrian survivors of torture have submitted criminal complaints in Austria, Sweden and Norway against senior Syrian officials.
Unless the alleged perpetrators leave Syria and are extradited, most of those cases may not yield many results right away. Nerma Jelacic, the deputy director of the non-profit Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), noted that there’s a “very small pool of individuals who are in jurisdictions where they could be put on trial.” Which means that in some cases the most the authorities can do after investigating is issue arrest warrants.
That in itself may be an achievement. “[T]he message is clear to the perpetrators that there’s no rest in this life,” said Stephen Rapp, who served as a prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. If the accused officials were to leave Syria for whatever reason — to travel or visit friends or family abroad, he added, “There’s always the chance that there’ll be a warrant for your arrest.”
That’s what happened to two men who ended up in Germany, seeking asylum. They were arrested in February. In a major development last month, German prosecutors filed charges against the two men, who are suspected of being members of the secret police. One man, a high-ranking official identified as Anwar R. was accused of overseeing a prison where at least 4,000 people were subjected to “brutal and massive” torture. Prosecutors charged him with participating in crimes against humanity, rape, serious sexual abuse and murder. The other man, identified as Eyad A., was accused of contributing to crimes against humanity. The trial is expected to begin next year.
ECCHR, which supports some of the survivors who are plaintiffs in the case, described it as the “first trial worldwide about state torture in Syria.”
The German case is “very significant” and “historic,” according to Rapp, who also served as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes from 2009 to 2015, in part because at least one man is a higher-level officer — and the trial will begin as the Syrian conflict is ongoing. In the past, cases handled by a third country’s criminal justice system usually involved lower-level people, or happened decades after the crimes had taken place. In this case, “It’s holding Syrian torturers to account at a time when torture is actually continuing in Syria.”
Cases like the trial in Germany also underscore the “systematic nature” of the alleged crimes committed by the Assad government, said CIJA’s Jelacic. It also highlights the “strategic approach” she says the regime took in responding so brutally to the uprising.
There’s also been a novel attempt to get the International Criminal Court involved. Syria is not a signatory of the treaty that created the ICC, which makes it difficult for the court to establish jurisdiction, and Russia and China have previously opposed U.N. Security Council efforts to refer Syria to the court.
But in March, British lawyers took a new tack, submitting information on alleged crimes to the ICC on behalf of Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan — using a precedent set just last year when ICC judges ruled that the court had jurisdiction in a case involving Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who fled to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, other organizations continue to gather evidence of atrocities for use in future prosecutions, either at the ICC or in national or regional courts.
The U.N. General Assembly created the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism in 2016, which is tasked with collecting, analyzing and preserving evidence of crimes committed by all sides during the Syrian conflict. At the time, Syria said the creation of the IIIM was a flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
So far, the office has received requests from authorities in at least five countries about Syrian cases, the head of IIIM told Reuters earlier this year.
Jelacic’s commission, which is funded by Western governments, has collected what amounts to 800,000 pages of evidence from a variety of security and intelligence agencies inside the Syrian state. While a majority of their evidence is on the Syrian regime, they also have some pertaining to ISIS and other extremist groups active in Syria.
The commission is supporting multiple ongoing investigations, according to Jelacic, and fields hundreds of requests from around a dozen countries related to war crimes cases and terrorism cases. She said CIJA also shared information about Anwar R. with German prosecutors.
In the terms of evidence related to the Syrian regime, the commission has focused on what Jelacic calls “linkage evidence” — documents and photos that can lay out a chain of responsibility to connect high-ranking officials with crimes.
Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer who has played a key role in some of the European cases, said holding high-level officials accountable is critical. “The goal of our work is to block any attempt to rehabilitate war criminals and people who’ve committed crimes against humanity,” he said in an interview with The Intercept in March. “It is not possible for Syria to stabilize unless these criminals are held accountable.”