A German court has convicted a former Syrian secret police officer of crimes against humanity for overseeing the abuse of detainees at a jail near Damascus a decade ago. The verdict Thursday in the landmark trial has been keenly anticipated by Syrians who suffered abuse or lost relatives at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the country’s long-running conflict. The Koblenz state court concluded that Anwar Raslan was the senior officer in charge of a facility in the Syrian city of Douma known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, where suspected opposition protesters were detained, the AP reports. A key part of the evidence against Raslan was photographs of alleged torture victims smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer.
The court sentenced Raslan to life in prison. His lawyers asked judges last week to acquit their client, claiming that he never personally tortured anybody and that he defected in late 2012. German prosecutors alleged that Raslan supervised the "systematic and brutal torture" of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people. A junior officer, Eyad al-Gharib, was convicted last year of accessory to crimes against humanity and sentenced by the Koblenz court to 4.5 years in prison. Both men were arrested in Germany in 2019, years after seeking asylum in the country.
Victims and human rights groups have said they hope the verdict will be a first step toward justice for countless people who have been unable to file criminal complaints against officials in Syria or before the International Criminal Court. Since Russia and China have blocked efforts for the UN Security Council to refer cases to The Hague-based tribunal, countries such as Germany that apply the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes will increasingly become the venue for such trials, experts say. Conservative estimates put the number of those detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria at 149,000, more than 85% of them at the hands of the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. (Read more Syria stories.)