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Syrian torture survivors finally came face to face with their tormentor. But the reckoning took place far from home

Syrian torture survivors finally came face to face with their tormentor. But the reckoning took place far from home
Written by publishing team

The Koblenz court made this landmark ruling Thursday morning. Dozens of Syrian activists – mostly relatives of people who were forcibly disappeared or killed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – flocked to this small German city to witness it.

Outside the court, on Thursday, a group of women held a vigil for their disappeared relatives while awaiting the sentencing of Raslan. News of the verdict then reached through a German activist who read a text message from inside the court: The panel of judges found that Raslan was complicit in at least 4,000 cases of torture, 27 murders and two cases of sexual violence.

A pregnant pause hung in the air as the news arrived. Some activists started crying softly.

“I cry because of my relationship with the survivors,” said Jumana Seif, a Syrian lawyer, human rights activist and member of the legal team that represented 17 plaintiffs at the trial. “Syrians deserve justice. We deserve so much more than what we are in.”

The courtroom is located on the banks of the junction where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet. It’s a world away from the notorious Damascus detention center at the trial center, where Raslan headed the intelligence department from 2011 to 2012.

Former prisoners in Branch 251, as it is known, recounted how they were in overcrowded cells and took turns sleeping due to lack of space. They were deprived of adequate food and medicine, and were subjected to torture. Some of them were raped and sexually assaulted. Many died.

It was part of the labyrinth of the Assad regime’s prison systems where more than 100,000 are believed to have disappeared and tens of thousands killed. Since 2011.

“I am happy that this is a victory for justice,” Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights lawyer and former political prisoner, said outside the court.

“I’m glad it’s a victory for the victims sitting inside,” Benny added. “I am happy because it is a victory for the Syrians back home who were unable to come here. It is also a victory for the Syrians who did not survive.”

At this bitter gathering in Germany, many Syrians have repeatedly admitted that, for the time being, accountability can only be achieved far from their homeland, where the justice system has been completely undermined by the authoritarian regime.

Even the International Criminal Court in The Hague could not prosecute the Assad regime for the countless war crimes and crimes against humanity of which it is widely accused, because Syria is not a party to that court. The ICC could investigate Syria if referred by the United Nations Security Council, but Assad’s allies – Russia and China – have rescinded previous proposals to do so.

Closer to home, justice seems more distant than ever. Assad’s regional opponents – namely the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – have reformed diplomatic relations with the regime, steps believed to mark the beginning of the end of the Syrian president’s isolation.

But in Koblenz, the executioner and the survivors swapped places. Raslan arrived at the court in handcuffs. His victims were free and are now leading action against their executioners and – by extension – against the Assad regime. The court heard that survivors rely on their personal testimonies and the copious amounts of incriminating evidence that activists and advocates have collected since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

In addition to personally condemning Raslan, the court also ruled that the Assad regime “systematically” committed crimes against humanity.

However, it was one legal mechanism that made this possible. The principle of universal jurisdiction gives courts jurisdiction over serious violations of international law even if they occur outside the country to which the court belongs, and regardless of the nationalities of the parties involved.

As a result, survivors took what they said was the first step on a “long road to justice”. More trials are underway against Assad’s officers who sought refuge in Europe to escape the Syrian war. Some activists call it “tactical warfare,” with the ultimate goal of bringing the Assad government to its knees.

Even if that ambitious goal is not achieved, Thursday’s ruling, they said, will at least allow them to sleep a little easier.

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni stands outside a courtroom in Koblenz.

Branch 251

Wassim Miqdad’s apartment reflects the way he describes his life in exile. Arabic ouds – commonly known as ouds – line the walls of an office overlooking a quiet street in Berlin. His library is a mixture of Arabic and German books.

“One of the good things about living abroad is that you can pick and choose what you want to take away from Arab culture and from Western culture,” he quipped, his hands wrapped in a classic three-piece suit.

Against the backdrop of his new life lies Miqdad’s dark history in Syria, where he says he was imprisoned for his anti-regime activism three times, and imprisoned for the fourth time by al-Qaeda-linked fighters. His second period of detention was in Branch 251, where it is believed that Raslan was in the room directing interrogation sessions. Like all of his fellow prisoners, Miqdad was blindfolded throughout the torture period.

Miqdad said, “He (Ruslan) ordered directly to a man next to me… He made him lie on his stomach and raise his feet in the air.” “As soon as my (Ruslan) answers don’t fit, the other guy in charge starts beating until he says stop.”

Wassim Miqdad (left) speaks to reporters after his executioner was convicted.

Miqdad said he told his interrogator that he was a doctor, fearing that his torturer would break his fingers if he admitted he was a musician. Al-Miqdad said that Syrian cartoonist and dissident Ali Farzat came to my mind. Farzat’s torturers broke his fingers. Ferzat later said that they said he forbade him from drawing political cartoons.

Al-Miqdad says of his imprisonment in Branch 251: “It was like hell. How did humanity create this?”

Throughout the trial in Koblenz, Ruslan rarely spoke. The defense team read out his statements – in which he attempted to present himself as a conscientious objector to the regime’s practices. He only spoke when the judges asked him a question that rarely happens. When that happened, his answers were one-syllable.

Miqdad, a Berlin musician, was an outspoken plaintiff in Anwar Raslan's trial.

Some Syrian lawyers and prosecutors have speculated that he does not want his victims to recognize his voice from interrogation sessions while in detention. Several prosecutors said they had seen his face before, but with the exception of one survivor who said they only saw him in his office. Raslan and his defense team did not explain why the former colonel refused to speak at the trial and Raslan’s defense team has repeatedly refused CNN requests for comment.

“Each of us was blindfolded,” Mikdad said. “They didn’t want us to see, but they couldn’t stop us from hearing (the investigator).” But now he prevented us from hearing him.”

Unlike fellow defendant Gharib, Ruslan appeared to make no effort to hide his face during the hearings. “He stood tall and looked arrogant,” Seif recalls. “He was looking into the eyes of each of the plaintiffs, one by one, as if to say: Who do you think you are?”

“For the past two years in court, Ruslan has been sitting in his chair doing nothing to his face and writing nothing,” said Whitney Martina Nosachar, associate counsel for Human Rights Watch, who attended all court hearings. “When the judge read out the verdict, he had no reaction in the face.”

“This is a difficult moment,” Nozakari added. “The life sentence is a huge deal. It’s not something you lightly ignore.” “But he made us believe it was something he didn’t care about.”

Yasmin Al-Mashan says that Raslan's trial was the least that activists could do for their disappeared loved ones.

‘Convicted on behalf of the Syrian regime’

Raslan’s lawyers said they will appeal his sentence, and experts expect his case to remain in the courts for years to come. After reading the verdict, defense attorney York Vratsky continued to deny that Ruslan was personally guilty of the charges.

“The defense does not hide its dissatisfaction with the verdict,” Vratsky told a news briefing after the trial. “We see that Raslan was convicted instead of the Syrian regime,” he added.

This claim, that Raslan was a scapegoat, resonates with some Syrians, even those opposed to the Assad regime. Some compare the Koblenz trial to the crumbs provided by the international community in the absence of political change in Syria.

Berlin-based activist Wafa Mustafa, who says her father – Ali Mustafa – was forcibly disappeared by the regime in 2013.

However, Wafa still supported the trial, and went to Koblenz several times holding her father’s framed picture. “I take him to places I know he’d like to go to,” she said, flashing a broad smile of bold optimism.

But I fear they are using this trial as a proxy for their failure to deal with the fact that a war criminal like Assad is still in power ten years later.

Wafa Mustafa carried her father's picture to the court in Koblenz.  She says she felt he would have liked to be there.

Similar concerns appear to have dampened celebrations in the wake of the ruling.

When asked how she felt about the ruling, Jasmine Al-Machan pointed to a collage of five of her six siblings. She says they have all disappeared or been killed. “Wasn’t that the least we could do for them?” She asked.

One of the plaintiffs, Rouham Hawash, looked visibly shaken after emerging from the hours-long sentencing hearing. The court had read the testimonies of both plaintiffs. Hawash doesn’t want to remember her experience at Branch 251, she said, let alone recite it out loud.

“I don’t want to talk about my torture, I just want to talk about the trial,” she said.

“In the past, I used to say that I was imprisoned, tortured and deprived of my freedom, and the story had a sad ending,” Hawash said. “Today I can say that I was imprisoned, tortured and deprived of my liberty but I helped bring these officials to this trial.

“There is a big difference between these two stories. It’s no longer a sad story. There was an epilogue.”

When asked what she plans to do now that the trial is over, she shrugs, her feet swinging as she speaks. “I don’t know what’s next,” she said. “Maybe a new stage in my life.” “I’m ready to move on.”


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