The presiding judge Anne Kerber (left) stands before the handover of the judgment to the Syrian defendant Eyad al-Gharib (right, face hidden under a folder) in Koblenz on Wednesday. The 44-year-old Gharib, a former Syrian intelligence agent, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity in the first trial for state-sponsored torture by the Syrian government. Thomas Lohnes / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption
Thomas Lohnes / AFP via Getty Images
Thomas Lohnes / AFP via Getty Images
A German court has passed its first verdict in a historic trial against two former Syrian military officials involved in crimes against humanity after nearly a decade of war in Syria.
Eyad al-Gharib, a 44-year-old former member of the Syrian intelligence service, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison “for supporting and facilitating a crime against humanity in the form of torture and imprisonment”. said Judge Anne Kerber.
Prosecutors accused Gharib of rounding up the lower rank of the two officials in the case at least 30 Anti-government protesters in the Syrian city of Douma in 2011 and took them to a notorious detention center in Damascus, where they were tortured.
“It’s right, it’s fair,” said Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer and activist, of the verdict. Bunni identified Syrian witnesses for the trial in the West German city of Koblenz and also served as a witness himself.
He says Gharib has stated in court that he supports justice for the victims. “The evidence against him was just his testimony,” says Bunni.
Gharib was arrested in Germany in 2019. He had arrived a year earlier and applied for asylum for himself and his family after fleeing Syria in 2013.
Gharib joined the secret service in mid-1990, initially as a physical education teacher. When Syria broke up in 2011 during an uprising that turned into civil war, Gharib was assigned to a group of men who tracked down protesters, arrested them, and took them to a prison called al-Khatib or Branch 251.
He did not hide his previous affiliation when he arrived in Germany, as evidenced by court certificates. He delivered a 30-page document to Branch 251 which reportedly gave the detail that as a German broadcaster he could hear the daily screams of victims of torture Deutsche Welle reported.
His testimony helped the prosecutors initiate proceedings against his former manager, Anwar Raslan, the main defendant. However, shortly after Gharib was called as a witness, his status was changed to a suspect and he was arrested by German police.
“Many Syrians are confident, even if this is a small fish, it is the beginning of justice for what has happened and what is happening,” says the journalist Mohamed Amjahid, who reports on the Syrian community in Germany.
Lawyers representing Syrian victims applaud the verdict. Steve Kostas, a senior attorney for the Open Society Justice Initiative, which is representing four victims in this case, calls this “an enormous precedent”.
Kostas urges other European prosecutors to urgently move forward, especially where alleged perpetrators of the Syrian government are known to be resident.
The trial is about more than two Syrian officers. “It is the first criminal case against regime officials,” says Fritz Streiff, a human rights attorney who moderates Branch251, a podcast about the process. “After 10 years of impunity, this is an important symbol.”
During the trial, which began in April, the brutality of the Syrian government was meticulously documented. The prosecutor described the killing and torture in a Syrian prison on an “almost industrial scale,” according to the broadcaster DW.
Statements by more than a dozen Syrian torture survivors on official government documents smuggled out of Syria and presented to the courts showed that high-ranking regime officials had ordered systematic repression, according to Streiff. “This type of documentation has contributed to a growing understanding of the horrors,” he says.
There are two main reasons why the case could be heard in Germany. It is home to more than 800,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom have witnessed. Germany has also introduced universal jurisdiction, a legal provision that allows its courts to prosecute crimes against humanity that may have taken place anywhere, even if the perpetrators and plaintiffs are not citizens.
Russia and China, allies of the Syrian government, have blocked attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria.
Syrian activists who applied for asylum in Germany have played a major role in bringing the case to justice. Their arduous struggle could have international repercussions. Most world powers have avoided and imposed economic sanctions on the Assad government. After largely defeating the insurrection and fighting militant groups, the government is pushing for re-entry into the international community. The German trial shed light on heinous war crimes that could ensure Assad remains an international pariah, say experts on human rights and foreign affairs.
On the last day of his trial last week, DW reported, Gharib wiped away tears when his lawyer argued that he had to obey orders in Damascus, a defense strategy known as “necessity rather than defense.” The lawyers argued that Gharib and his family would have been killed had he not obeyed.
Human rights activists disagree. “At some point he had a choice,” says lawyer Streiff. “He joined us years ago. Back then he had a choice.”
Gharib’s lawyer Hannes Linke said he would appeal the verdict. But he described the verdict as “largely convincing” and said it would “send a clear signal to perpetrators of war crimes worldwide”. according to The Associated Press.
The trial continues for Raslan, a former colonel responsible for the questioning at Branch 251.
“It takes a lot of little fish to commit a massive crime against humanity,” says Kostas, “and each of these people is responsible and should be prosecuted.”