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Assad’s fugitive executioner gets life in Germany for mass torture


In the German city of Koblenz, a former officer of the Syrian secret service was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday. Anwar Raslan, 58, was found guilty by a judge of a range of crimes against humanity, including leading 4,000 torture and 27 murders.

It is a historic statement, as Raslan is the first senior officer of Syrian President Assad’s regime to be convicted of torture. His subordinate, Eyad al-Gharib, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison last year.

“This is a victory for justice,” Anwar al-Bunni, a self-tortured Syrian human rights lawyer, said on Twitter. „It is a victory for the victims in court […] and for the victims in Syria who cannot be here.”

Recognized by victims

At the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Raslan led the al-Khatib prison in Damascus, where opponents of the regime are tortured to this day. At the end of 2012, the colonel deserted and fled to Germany via Jordan. Raslan became involved with the Syrian opposition and even testified against other ex-officers. In doing so, however, he also opened up about his own past, so that he was eventually arrested himself in 2019.

Over a hundred witnesses have been heard in Koblenz over the past year and a half. Some of them burst into tears when they saw Raslan in the dock and told the judge in detail how they were tortured under his watch. Prisoners were suspended from the ceiling, doused with boiling water, raped and given electric shocks. They often stayed with more than a hundred people in small cells with no room to sit or stand. Guards sometimes shut off the ventilation so people could suffocate, said one of the witnesses.

In addition to the atrocities in al-Khatib, the court in Koblenz also mapped the wider operation of Assad’s torture machine. For example, it was the first time that a judge examined the well-known ‘Caesar’ photos, named after the pseudonym of a Syrian military photographer who smuggled 55,000 images of Syrians tortured and murdered by the regime. Another witness, who worked for the funeral service in Damascus, told the judge how he drove back and forth trucks that dumped up to 700 bodies into mass graves every week.

tortured to death

In total, nearly 15,000 people have been tortured to death since 2011, according to the Syrian Human Rights Network, and more than 100,000 have disappeared. Thanks in part to numerous leaked prison documents, there is an abundance of evidence, but a case against the Assad regime before the International Criminal Court in The Hague has never materialized — Russia and China are thwarting this with their veto in the UN Security Council.

National-level lawsuits such as the one in Koblenz are the only alternative for the time being. The fact that Germany is taking the lead in this is partly due to its far-reaching interpretation of the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows prosecutors to investigate crimes outside German territory, even when the perpetrators and victims are not German. In the Netherlands, such jurisdiction only exists if the suspect or victim is Dutch, or if the suspect is located in the Netherlands.

Also read: First Assads fighter, now asylum in the Netherlands

Nevertheless, a case like the one against Raslan would in principle also have been possible in the Netherlands — after all, the suspect was already within the national borders. Moreover, former accomplices of the Assad regime are also walking free in the Netherlands, according to previous research by NRC to three Syrian men who were respectively employed within the security service, a pro-Assad militia and at a checkpoint.

The Public Prosecution Service does not want to say anything about these three cases. “We do not go into individual cases,” said a spokesman. “But we emphasize that war crimes with a Dutch link have our full attention, including war crimes committed by persons associated with the Assad regime.”

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