Eyad al-Gharib, a former Syrian regime officer, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in February for crimes against humanity. This case marks the first verdict against a Syrian official since the war started in 2011.
The trial was held in the German city of Koblenz under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for a national court to hold proceedings against violations of international law, regardless of where they occurred. Gharib was accused of taking 30 detained demonstrators to the al-Kathib prison in Damascus, also known as Branch 251. The prison is infamous for its use of torture and murder. The BBC described survivors claiming they were beaten, raped, hung from the ceiling for hours, had their fingernails torn out, given electric shocks, and drenched with water. The 30 prisoners that Gharib accompanied were also beaten along the way.
Gharib joined the intelligence service in the mid-1990s, according to NPR, as a sports instructor, and then was assigned to a squad that arrested protestors and brought them to al-Khatib. He left Syria in 2013 and arrived in Germany with his family in 2019. He was helping prosecutors with evidence against his supervisor at the prison, Anwar Raslan, through a 30-page document that included details of torture. During this process, his status changed from witness to suspect.
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability Director Nerma Jelacic told CNN, “this is a historic verdict. Not only because it is the first to convict a Syrian regime official for crimes against humanity, but also because it recognizes his crimes were part of a widespread and systematic attack orchestrated by the highest bodies of the Assad regime.” During the trial, more than a dozen Syrian victims of torture gave testimonies, which were substantiated by 50,000 photos of victims leaked by a former police photographer who goes by the name of Caesar. The Guardian described them saying that al-Khatib was known as “hell on Earth.” Some of the witnesses had wigs or masks to protect their family members still in Syria. Gharib’s trial began in April and now, after ten months of hearings in which he hid his face from cameras, he cried as his defence supported his acquittal. He expressed sympathy for victims at al-Khatib and claimed that he and his family could have been killed if he did not follow the orders given to him.
Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights told The Guardian, “for Syrians who took to the streets 10 years ago, it shows the struggle is not over. Syria’s activists have been squashed, but they will never give up, and one day the fight for justice and democracy will be taken back to the country.” The salient question is how much these trials will really have an effect on the Syrian government’s activities. Mohammad Al-Abdallah, director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, told AP News that Gharib’s case “will deter anyone else from defecting or joining the opposition or supplying information to human rights groups.” Hassan Kansou, a trial monitor from the Syria Justice and Accountability Center told The New York Times: “it is symbolic that they sentence one officer, and there could be others, but it won’t change anything inside Syria.”
These cases need to continue if they are going to have an impact on the Syrian regime’s activities. Gharib was just a junior regime officer. While Raslan, a high-ranking former intelligence officer, has also been arrested and will be on trial until October, two cases are not enough. More high-powered officials who have been the decision-makers in Syria need to be brought to trial, even Bashar al-Assad himself, although now he is protected by his allies. Attempts to create an international tribunal by the UN Security Council were blocked by China and Russia. Now, state-run courts in Europe need to take the lead and the international community and the UN needs to focus on them, rather than on the International Criminal Court.
The Syrian war has caused the deaths of more than 387,000 people, 88,000 of whom have been victims of torture in the country’s prisons, according to the BBC. An undertaker described finding bodies from the prison in despicable shape. Foreign Policy quoted his testimony: “there were rivers of blood and maggots [coming from the bodies].” Their faces were “unrecognizable” and “the smell [of the bodies] stayed in my nose, even after I showered at home.” He told Middle East Eye that the trucks arriving at the mass graves had about 700 bodies. He was close to breaking down when he saw a corpse of a woman holding her child. Germany is a popular destination for Syrian refugees, now home to more than 800,000.
These new proceedings in Germany have the potential to decrease the chances of Syria being readmitted to the international community, and Assad could be further blacklisted, according to NPR.
Human rights groups are generally optimistic about the effects of Gharib and Raslan’s case. They are now working with Syrian refugees living in Europe to find witnesses that can bring more cases to the front. Bunni told The New York Times that at least these beginning trials are “a message to all criminals who still commit the most horrific crimes in Syria that the time of impunity is over, and you will not find a safe place to go.”