BERLIN — Human rights campaigners and torture survivors are closely watching a verdict expected from a German court Wednesday in the trial of a former member of the Syrian secret police, hoping the decision will set a precedent for other cases.
Eyad Al-Gharib is accused of being part of a unit that arrested people following anti-government protests in the Syrian city of Douma and took them to a detention center known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, where they were tortured.
Al-Gharib went on trial last year with Anwar Raslan, a more senior Syrian ex-official who is accused of overseeing the abuse of detainees at the same jail near Damascus.
The trial of the two men is considered a legal landmark because it is the first time that a court outside Syria will have ruled in a case alleging Syrian government officials committed crimes against humanity. German prosecutors invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes to bring the case that involved victims and defendants who were in Germany.
Syrian human rights activist Joumana Seif said that no matter how the judges in the western German city of Koblenz rule, it is significant that survivors of torture in the decade-long conflict were heard by a court.
“This is a victory because for the first time, the victims are recognized,” said Seif, who works for the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.
If convicted of aiding and abetting torture as a crime against humanity, Al-Gharib could be sentenced to more than a decade in prison. However, if the judges consider his defection and court testimony as mitigating factors and credit the time served since his arrest, Al-Gharib could be convicted and receive a suspended prison sentence.
His lawyer declined to comment ahead of the verdict. Syrian government officials did not testify during the trial.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights represented several victims during the trial. ECCHR lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck said the verdict will send a signal to prosecutors in Germany and other European countries about how to pursue cases involving war crimes in Syria.
Among the evidence reviewed during the trial were photographs of thousands of alleged victims of torture by the Syrian government. The images were smuggled out Syria by a police officer who goes by the pseudonym Caesar. The German court heard testimony on the pictures from a Cologne-based forensic specialist, Markus A. Rothschild.
Kaleck said the fact that the Syrian community is so large and well-organized in Germany was a “game changer” for the case.
“That enabled first us, but also then the prosecutors and the German police, to identify the victims and also to (link) them to certain accused and to certain crime situations,” he said. Several of victims, who under German law can act as co-plaintiffs in the trial, came to Germany as refugees — as did the two defendants.
Activists hope to mount similar cases, both in Germany and elsewhere, against perpetrators of gender-based violence in Syria, Kaleck added.
Raslan is accused of supervising the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of at least 58 people. A verdict in his case is expected later this year.
Al-Gharib was one of Raslan’s subordinates. When he was a sergeant major, his unit was allegedly involved in chasing down and detaining at least 30 people following a demonstration in Douma, and then bringing them to the detention center where they were tortured.
Al-Gharib left Syria in 2013 and came to Germany in 2018. Both men were arrested a year later.
Steve Kostas, senior lawyer at the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, praised Germany for taking a lead in the prosecution. He said other nations should move forward with prosecutions urgently, especially countries where Syrian government perpetrators are known to be residing.
“Although this verdict will be against a single perpetrator, the evidence demonstrated the scale and systematicity of the Syrian government’s torture program,” said Kostas, whose group represents four victims in the case against Raslan. Two clients withdrew due to concerns about their or their family’s security.
In another case that has yet to go to trial, a doctor suspected of torturing an inmate at a prison in the Syrian city of Homs was arrested last year in Germany. Federal prosecutors say the suspect, Alaa Mousa, is accused of bodily harm and committing a crime against humanity.