The trials, which began April 23 in Koblenz, Germany, examined a case against two former alleged Syrian intelligence officers, identified as Anwar R. and Eyad A., who allegedly tortured political prisoners held in Syria’s underground prisons.
“As torture survivors, we saw a glimpse of hope because we thought that these people will never be held accountable for what they did to us,” Asmaa Saad-Aldin, a U.K.-based Syrian activist and torture survivor, told VOA. “We hope that this is only the first step to bring to justice the heads of security branches who supervised the torture of thousands of people.”
Arrested by Syrian forces
In January 2012, Saad-Aldin, 39, was traveling with two of her friends from the Syrian capital Damascus when the Syrian government forces arrested them for smuggling food and medicine into the rebel-held areas of besieged Daraa governorate, in southwestern Syria.
She was held for the next several months, until April 2013, in regime prisons, where she reportedly faced intimidation and torture.
“When they found the medical supplies, they started beating us till a military vehicle came and took us to the military intelligence service (Branch) 251 under the command of officer Wafiq al-Naser. There, they put me in the interrogation room and brought one of my friends and tortured him brutally. I was beaten and electrocuted while I was blindfolded,” Saad-Aldin said.
“We were 15 women crammed in a very small cell and we had to take turns standing, sitting and sleeping. The interrogation room was next to the girls’ cell, and we used to hear the sounds of agony and screams of people tortured every night,” she said.
During the period Saad-Aldin was being held for interrogation at Branch 251, Anwar R. was allegedly the head of the military intelligence investigation branch, where at least 4,000 prisoners reportedly faced torture, and Eyad A. was an alleged member of the Syrian military intelligence service.
“They (prisoners) were subjected to brutal violence from beatings, kicks and electric shocks. At least in one case, there was also rape and severe sexual assault,” the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz said in a statement published on its official page.
In 2012, months into the Syrian civil war, Anwar R. and Eyad A. defected from the Syrian government and applied for asylum in Germany, where they were arrested in 2019. The German officials, in line with the country’s national privacy law, have concealed the full identity of the two accused.
An investigation into their cases came after a series of complaints by victims of both officials, filed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which will be assisting the 16 torture survivors during the proceedings.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, thousands of Syrians have reportedly died while being tortured in the notorious Syrian government security agencies, known in Syria as mukhabarat. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said there are approximately 130,000 detainees in Syrian government prisons.
Harassment and detention
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), an organization that monitors Syrian war casualties, published in a report in late 2019 identified at least 72 torture methods used by the Syrian government in its detention centers. It found that more than 14,298 detainees have been tortured to death by different parties in Syria.
In 2014, the U.N. Security Council moved to take crimes committed during the Syrian war to the International Criminal Court (ICC), but the measure failed after Russia and China vetoed it. Syrian torture survivors, especially those taking refuge in Europe, have since tried to file cases in the court systems of the countries in which they currently reside.
“With other avenues for justice currently blocked, criminal cases in Europe are a beacon of hope for victims of crimes in Syria who have nowhere else to turn,” Balkees Jarrah, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, said.
Jarrah told VOA that criminal justice authorities in several other countries, including Sweden, France and the Netherlands, have begun investigating serious crimes in Syria.
“Ensuring that those responsible for serious crimes are held accountable is important in its own right and fundamental to obtaining any durable and stable peace in Syria,” she said, criticizing international inaction and impunity toward crimes against humanity in Syria.
“Universal jurisdiction cases may help build some momentum for justice as well as send a strong message to Syrian victims that grave abuses committed against them won’t go unanswered,” Jarrah said.
To hold in Germany the first criminal trial from the Syrian civil, Saad-Aldin said, is a major precedent that should be capitalized upon by torture survivors who still suffer from the psychological effects of abuse.
Saad-Aldin was held in Branch 215 for two months before being transferred to Adra prison in northeastern Damascus. She was released in April 2013 following negotiations between the Syrian government and a delegate from her town.
Faced with death threats from suspected Syrian regime loyalists, Saad-Aldin soon fled to Jordan where she worked on sexual violence in conflict areas, and later moved with her husband and two daughters to the U.K.
“We will continue advocating for justice and accountability in Syria, and I hope that all detainees who know the names of the officers who tortured them would report them,” she said.