Germany: What lies behind the conviction for torture in Syria

Higher regional court in Koblenz
Higher regional court in Koblenz

Anwar R. was declared guilty of torture by the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz. This decision means a lot for the victims and their relatives but also for Syria, Germany and for justice worldwide. I have done research on this issue and talked to Syrians to understand the background. In this article, I would like to present this matter so that it becomes clear even for those who are not specialist of Syria.

Why were people tortured in Syria?

Syria massacre Muslim Brotherhood in Hama
Hama massacre in 1982

Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had already used torture against the opposition. He had established an organized torture system in 1982 after the bloody suppression of a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. The system had two goals: To gather information about the opposition and to intimidate people so that the uprising would not reoccur.

As the Arab Spring spread through Syria, Bashar al-Assad used his father’s strategy again. In the city of Dara’a, teenagers had made graffiti critical of the government and were arrested and tortured as a result. Like his father once did, Bashar al-Assad wanted to deter the opposition. He wanted to take direct action against it at the first sign of the slightest criticism, so that the Arab Spring in Syria would not develop further. On the contrary, the opposition organized protests against the torture of teenagers. This was the beginning of an escalation of violence and torture in Syria.

Since then, the torture system has been hardened, the institutions and secret prisons expanded and better organized. Such methods have also spread among the various fronts. More than 14,000 people died because of torture, perpetrated by the Syrian state. Around 30 people were killed in torture by the Islamic State as well as the jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al Sham.

Who is involved in torture in Syria?

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham

Syrian civil servants and military personnel are primarily responsible for these crimes. However, it cannot be ruled out that foreign actors are also involved.

In 2019, a Syrian man was detained and tortured by mercenaries from the Wagner Group. He was suspected of trying to desert from the Syrian army. There is a video of the torture: in the end he was beheaded and his body was burnt.

Likewise, there are countless reports of Syrians who have tried to flee the violence by emigrating to Turkey. There, they were arrested, tortured and sent back to Syria after several days.

Why are Turkey and Russia torturing people in Syria?

Wagner mercenaries in Syria
Wagner mercenaries in Syria

The fact that Wagner filmed the torture is no coincidence. Russia wants the various groups fighting in Syria to understand that it is prepared to do anything to support the Syrian regime. It is about Russia becoming more influential by supporting the Syrian state.

In a similar way, Turkey is showing that it will stop at nothing to send back Syrian immigrants. Turkey also wants to make it clear to the Syrian government that immigrants are not a weapon that it can use against Turkey.

Why do people revolt against the regime despite these atrocities?

Opposition to the Syrian government existed before 2011, when many people, especially youth, were hopeless. They saw no option, plagued by poverty and unemployment. Corruption in Syria was also a major source of criticism.

While torture deters many people, it also increases hatred of the government, a sentiment that existed much earlier.

People are unlikely to stop fighting the government, especially groups that have already been exposed to state violence and cannot go back anymore as a result.

There is also a radicalization phenomenon within the opposition. There are peaceful protesters who want democracy, but equally there are Islamist fighters who are trying to replace the Syrian state with an Islamic state. ISIS fighters certainly have a different approach to torture, since they torture people themselves.

Is there evidence of torture?

A hearing with Caesar at the US congress

There is a lot of evidence: Photos, documents and many independent reports. The most important person is goes by the nickname “Caesar.” He is a Syrian who was responsible for photographing the bodies of the torture victims who died. When Caesar fled Syria, he took with him a large number of pictures where the bodies were recognizable and the victims identifiable. In this way, it was possible to determine that many opposition members were tortured in Syria.

What does this verdict mean?

This is the first time that the principle of universal jurisdiction has been applied to a Syrian case. According to this principle, investigations can be conducted into certain serious crimes and the criminals can be prosecuted. This happens regardless of the place where they were committed and the nationality of the suspects as well as the victims.

Universal jurisdiction also means that the perpetrators can be prosecuted abroad and therefore cannot hope for asylum status. This entails that a perpetrator in Syria knows that he cannot flee abroad because the arm of justice can reach him there. This fact can contribute to reducing human rights violations, because the perpetrators know that they can be investigated.

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