A former Syrian secret police officer has been convicted by a German court of crimes against humanity for overseeing the abuse of detainees at a jail near the Syrian capital, Damascus, a decade ago.
Anwar Raslan was the senior officer in charge of a facility in the city of Douma, known as Al Khatib or Branch 251, where suspected opposition protesters were detained, the court concluded.
The court in Koblenz state jailed Raslan for life on Thursday.
Prosecutors said 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 four-and-a-half years in prison.
Both men, who sought asylum in Germany years ago, were arrested in the country in 2019.
Human rights groups hope the verdict will be a first step toward justice for countless Syrians who suffered abuse or lost relatives at the hands of President Bashar Assad’s government in the ongoing civil war.
Many have been unable to file criminal complaints against officials in Syria before the International Criminal Court as Russia and China have blocked efforts for the UN Security Council to refer cases to the court.
Experts say countries such as Germany, which apply the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes, will increasingly become the venue for such trials.
Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said: “We are starting to see the fruits of a determined push by courageous survivors, activists and others to achieve justice for horrific atrocities in Syria’s network of prisons.
“The verdict is a breakthrough for Syrian victims and the German justice system in cracking the wall of impunity,” she added. "Other countries should follow Germany’s lead and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”
The trial is the first of its kind worldwide and other courts may cite the verdict and evidence heard in Koblenz, said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. The group represented several victims who under German law were able to take part in the proceedings as co-plaintiffs.
About 149,000 people were detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria, according to conservative estimates.
And more than 85% of them were detained or disappeared at the hands of the Syrian government, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Assad’s government led a brutal crack down on peaceful protests that erupted in March 2011.
The Syrian government denies it is holding any political prisoners, labeling its opposition terrorists. It has negotiated limited prisoner exchanges with various armed groups, which families say offer partial solutions for a very small number of people.