First Syrian Torture Trial Done: Where Does It Lead?

On February 24th, a court in Koblenz, Germany returned a conviction in the first trial on torture in the Syrian civil war. Eyad al-Gharib, a 44-year-old former intelligence officer under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has been charged with four and a half years in prison for arresting over 30 protestors in 2011, whom the government would later detain, torture, and murder. Al-Gharib fled to Germany and obtained asylum status there, but was later arrested in 2019. The same court will soon hear another ex-officer who murdered 58 people.

Human rights observers have highly praised the trial. Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer who was imprisoned by the Syrian government and later exiled to Germany, commented to the B.B.C. that the trial “represents the first step towards justice that the Syrian victims have truly felt… Although this trial is centred on two defendants … it targets the infernal machine of torture and murder.” On his Twitter, Steve Kostas, a lawyer who represents Syrian plaintiffs, described the trial as “HISTORIC” [emphasis his] and an “important validation of the struggle by Syrian victims and activists to secure accountability for the government’s crimes.”

Indeed, the verdict brings an enthusiasm that Syrian victims will have their justice through these trials. But how important are these trials to Syrian victims? As Al-Gharib’s defence lawyers argued, al-Gharib worked for his superiors, and those superiors would punish him if he didn’t carry out orders. He is not a particularly high-ranked officer in Assad’s regime. According to a report by Andrew Rathmell, Assad’s intelligence services had tens of thousands of personnel before the war. Al-Gharib was convicted, and there will be more trials, but it is impossible to try all other operatives.

Individuals may be symbols of a repressive regime, but they are not that regime. There are always people who work for repressive, rights-violating regimes. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court rules that when a group commits international crimes, it should consider individuals’ roles in groups. For crimes of aggression, the Statute even limits responsible personnel to “persons in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State.” Al-Gharib is guilty, but he is a less relevant participant in Assad’s regime. Before the directors of these crimes receive justice, focusing too much on such little trials means little. Even worse, it may split Syrian asylum seekers, causing them to accuse each other of previous relations with the Assad government.

There is no doubt that the trial is a positive sign that justice will be served for those who suffered under the Assad government. It is vital to continue trying those who have committed serious crimes. However, international observers need to keep in mind that this is a symbolic victory, not a practical solution. Verdicts on a few operatives alone cannot solve Syrian civilians’ problems. It’s more important to provide Syrian asylum seekers assistance and to encourage rapprochement than to be overoptimistic about this trial’s results.

Jiannan Luo