This week, Germany began attempts to prosecute two Syrians who, prosecutors allege, committed crimes against humanity on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The two men, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, have been held since February this year. They were apprehended by German and French authorities in a joint operation.
Raslan and al-Gharib are accused of participating in the regime’s great apparatus of torture on the auspices of the regime’s intelligence services.
Raslan, who is alleged to have led an ‘investigative unit’ which ran its own prison near Damascus, has been charged with crimes against humanity. So grave are the charges he faces that fifty-eight additional charges of murder, and more of rape and aggravated sexual assault, are listed as supplemental.
In Raslan’s jail, prosecutors said, 4,000 people were held, and suffered ‘brutal and massive torture’, between April 2011 to September 2012.
Al-Gharib worked closely with Raslan, German authorities say. He manned regime checkpoints and followed fleeing demonstrators after anti-government protests in Douma in 2011. More directly, al-Gharib is charged with allowing and abetting ‘the torture and deprivation of liberty of at least 30 [of the] people’ he caught.
It is necessary to dwell a little on how this torture is alleged to have been carried out. Syrian human rights monitors have documented over 70 distinct methods of torture employed by the regime. Torture has become a routine part of opposing the regime. What Raslan and al-Gharib are accused of barely disturbs the surface.
They are accused only of torturing 4,000, and murdering fifty eight. These numbers pale in comparison when laid alongside the numbers of dead, the numbers of unlawfully imprisoned, the numbers of tortured and the numbers of summarily executed – for all of which we have extraordinary evidence.
Nonetheless, here is what German prosecutors allege took place in one prison in the Damascus area for a few months at the beginning of what will soon become a decade-long war.
In addition, prosecutors submit, ‘to blows with fists, sticks, pipes, cables, whips and hoses [there] was also the administration of electric shocks’.
These more direct forms of violence were only the beginning.
‘Some prisoners were suspended by the wrists on the ceiling so that their toes just touched the ground’, the charge goes on, grimly noting that ‘the victims were also beaten in this position.’
Torture was not restricted to the physical. Raslan’s ‘investigative unit’ used ‘threats of abusing close relatives, and violent sleep deprivation for several days … as torture devices’.
Sexual violence, widely employed as a weapon against men, women and children throughout Syria’s war, also featured in the deposition.
This sort of violence is not mere sadism, however much it must gratified sadistic impulses among the torturers. It serves a series of practical purposes, and this is why it is such an integral part of the Assad regime’s way of waging war, and why it is a feature of its method of government.
Not only does torture punish transgressors, and terrify those who may consider stepping out of line by the threat of unimaginable cruelty. But there are also coldly cynical reasons for an ‘investigative unit’ to inflict such suffering.
‘The systematic brutal physical and psychological abuse served on the one hand to enforce confessions and on the other hand to gain further information on the opposition movement’, prosecutors write.
Torture and all its accompaniments are priced in to the regime’s enforcement of its law. Through torture, people can be induced to confession and inducted into punishment in the same act.
When they were not being tortured, ‘the detainees were subjected to arbitrary physical abuse’ by their guards. The prison itself was a place of inhuman conditions. Cells were overcrowded; so crowded that prisoners could not sit or lie down. All prisoners, prosecutors note, were denied medical care ‘throughout’, as a matter of course.
All of these features have been noted in other jails, and carried out by other men.
This one prison, and these two men, represent the story of Syria’s jails in miniature. These are places were human life is of no value; where brutality is commonplace; and where violence is so institutionalised and part of a pattern of doing business, that it produces hallmarks of ‘standard practice’ observable in prisons across the country.
In Sednaya, a much larger prison in Damascus and another microcosm, it is thought by Amnesty International that up to 13,000 people were summarily executed between 2011 and 2015. Thousands of photographs of the dead have been smuggled out by a defector who uses the name ‘Caesar’.
There is so much material documenting torture and ‘extermination’ in Syria’s prisons that it is difficult to believe no one has, until this case, been charged for crimes that are so clearly in evidence.
Prosecution has certainly been attempted. Numerous initiatives have spent the past decade collecting evidence of the regime’s crimes. And on presenting warrants, Germany has led the way. Last April, it issued an arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, who was formerly head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate, for his role in crimes against humanity. Hassan has fallen from favour in Syria, but remains unlikely to face international prosecution.
But despite all the evidence gathered, and the testimony submitted, the regime appears to have escaped serious punishment.
Raslan and al-Gharib are only in custardy now because they decided to flee Syria to Europe.
Raslan fled Syria in 2012, arriving in an activist Germany in July 2014. Al-Gharib left Syria in 2013, appearing in Germany last year.
Those who remained in Damascus, and remained in power, face no such charges. And they are sufficiently protected by their Russian and Iranian allies to continue to torture, to rape and to kill with impunity in regime prisons. They are still doing it now, and they will not stop.
This prosecution proves that war crimes committed in Syria cannot be fled without some fear of justice catching up. But it is still the vanguard of a losing battle to make crimes committed in Syria prosecutable across the world.
Now all attempts to remove Assad and his people from power have been renounced, the torturers have been allowed to remain in place, and to continue their evil work.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.