The Syria Trials/
S1E11: Justice


In this, the 11th and final episode of The Syria Trials, Fritz is joined once more by Kristina Kaghdo, presenter of the Arabic Series of our podcast, to discuss where we are now on the road to justice for Syria. What does the future hold? And what does justice really mean to Syrians, on a individual level?

With the voices of:

Rime Allaf.

A Syrian woman living in Syria.

A Syrian man living in Syria.

Ismail Alabdullah.

A Syrian man living in Turkey.

Leila Sibai.

Ibrahim Olabi.

Ugur Ungor.

Ammar Daba.

Joumana Seif.

Mariana Karkoutly.

Thank you for listening to the first season of The Syria Trials. Stay tuned for Season 2, coming in the fall of 2023.

The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff and Kristina Kaghdo, and produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with editorial support from Mais Katt. The voiceovers were provided by Nama'a Qudah, Saleem Salameh and Maksim Abdul Latif. It was mixed by Tobias Withers.

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA’s Zivik Funding Programme.

If you can't get enough of our podcast, head to our website Here you'll find an archive of all our episodes with their transcripts, as well as our other productions. 


Episode Transcript

Rime Allaf: I think Syrians have different answers when they're asked, what does justice mean for you? I think most Syrians, even though they do not dare to say it anymore, the Syrians who live in Syria know that there can be no justice as long as the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, remain in power and remain free. Even if we were to turn a blind eye to that, I think it just teaches everybody else that, you know, you take the expression in the literal form that you can get away with murder. 

Fritz Streiff: Welcome to The Syria Trials. Episode 11. Justice. In this episode, the 11th and final episode of this season of The Syria Trials, I'm joined by the presenter of the Arabic series of our podcast, Kristina Kaghdo. 

Kristina Kaghdo: Hi, Fritz. 

Fritz: Hi, Kristina.

Kristina: How are you doing? 

Fritz: I'm good. We are approaching the end of the season. 

Kristina: Yeah, indeed. How do you feel about that? 

Fritz: Oof! That's a good question. I feel like we've worked through a lot, and yet there's still so much more to say. So it's, you know, good to know that we have a second season. 

Kristina: Yeah. Yeah, I think so, too. The subject that we are addressing in both the Arabic and the English series are so complex and so multifaceted and multilayered that no matter how much we talk about them, there is still so much left and so much to say. 

Fritz: How has this season been for you, has it's shown you any new ways of thinking or…? 

Kristina: Actually plenty. I've been thinking a lot about the fact that before the work on these series, I would think of justice as something that's not very tangible, that’s very big. And that because it's not very tangible, seeking it or achieving it is an impossible matter, especially in the Syrian context. And as we mentioned in the first episode, I think we spoke a little bit about the concept of justice for people who lived under a dictatorship for 50 years. But listening to the witnesses, to the stories, to the testimonies, hearing about the cases that are being worked on at the moment and for the past years, about the efforts of different people who are in different parts of the world, still there, still present, still working hard, connecting also with each other to get the best possible results in the current geopolitical context. All of that has made me not only more informed, but also much more hopeful, actually. Not necessarily hopeful in the sense that I am more confident that I will see Syria the way I would like to see it in ten years. But confident about the fact that the Syrian people have been through so much, but they still have the willpower, the strength, the knowledge, the networks and this desire to get justice for themselves and the people who are still in the country or in exile. 

Fritz: You know, I'm happy to hear that from you as a Syrian yourself, and having grown up in Syria and looking at this from a different perspective than me, as you know, as a lawyer working on these issues. Obviously, like personally, I have to be hopeful. Otherwise, there's no sense in the work that I do. But it's great to hear this from you, especially because I think one thing that we did learn in this season is that, what you just said, you know, it doesn't go for everybody. There's definitely some, like you, that the more that they learn about the justice and accountability efforts that have been undertaken, the more they maybe regain a certain hope and a certain strength. But I think we've also definitely heard that there is a sizeable group that is frustrated and that doesn't or that isn't able to gain any new hope from these efforts going on. 

Vox Pop, Syrian woman living in Syria: These trials are very important for sure. They help in reaching justice inside and outside Syria and holding the war criminals and those who committed violations against the Syrian people accountable. I believe the trials are beneficial in terms of reaching justice, even for me, someone who lives inside Syria. They help in exposing real criminals or criminals who participated in displacing, killing, kidnapping, detaining or forcibly disappearing Syrians. 

Vox Pop, Syrian man living in Syria: The trials in Europe of the criminals who committed massacres against the defenceless Syrian people are not enough. There must be other and more effective ways and methods to affect the regime and the criminals in general. There's no life without justice. But in real life, justice is absent because some criminals are being punished and others remain free. And so, justice is rarely served. The effect of the trials is minor on the Syrian regime and those who committed massacres against the Syrian people. But we cannot deny that they have some kind of an effect on the Syrian context. 

Fritz: In 2023, between this season and next season, we'll probably see a regime related case going to trial in The Netherlands against a former member of the Liwa Al-Quds Brigade, that did a lot of the dirty work for Assad's regime. We will likely see a really significant case going to trial in France against Jamil Hassan and Ali Mamlouk. And that will be, if it happens in 2023, before season two, which is possible, it will be a trial in absentia without the accused being there. Which will open a whole new kind of discussion. This will be the first time that very high, significant individuals from the regime will stand trial. Without being there in person, but being on trial with all the evidence being presented in public. In Paris, I assume, you know, it's going to be a big one. 

Ismail Alabudllah: The most important thing, I think, for me and for everyone in Syria, in northwest Syria and all Syria, that all parties that were involved in the killing, bloodshed, you know, displacement, destructions of Syrian lives will be in the future held accountable for their crimes. All the parties who ruined even one life of the Syrian people. Without any accountability, there is no possibility for future in Syria. If there will not be justice in Syria, as you see now in Ukraine, history is repeating itself. 

Vox pop, Syrian man living in Turkey: The deliberate killing of civilians, of besieging them and cutting off supplies such as food, and preventing the entry of medicine, as well as preventing people from expressing their opinion, and imprisoning them if they do, are all crimes. But equally, the existence of Bashar al-Assad and not prosecuting him in the international courts is a crime in itself. 

Leila Sibai: The countries in which these cases are currently taking place are countries that, you know, may have wanted maybe Bashar al Assad to leave, but like they're not acting to enable that form of political transition that would actually enable a form of… a broader form and more meaningful form of justice for people. And so, it's a bit of, you know, like you give a little bit so that people feel like there's something that's happening, something that's going the right direction. But in practise, does it actually change anything? And that's very personal. But in terms of enabling justice and accountability at a larger sense, we're very, very, very far from it. And we're talking about countries who are somehow normalising relationships with Syria on the side or discussing refugee return. You're discussing these horrendous crimes in courts, you have a structural investigation into all of the torture facilities of the Syrian regime, and yet you believe that you can safely send refugees back. I mean, I'm amazed. I have no word for that. 

Kristina: This made me think now of a question, like all these efforts of criminal justice, do you think they directly affect the regime somehow from a legal perspective? And if yes, how? Because this aspect is hard to see sometimes. People say, yeah, cool, it gives me a sense of justice, maybe on a personal level, but the regime is still there and that's where the frustration comes in. So can you maybe comment on that a little bit? 

Fritz: I mean, you know, of course, they do realise in Damascus that these trials are going on and that more of those will happen. I don't know, but I assume that they are well-informed about it. Assad himself has commented on the Koblenz trial, I think one or two times, you know, in interviews and kind of, you know, shoved it to the side as unimportant and just repeating that there is no such thing as torture in Syria. And from a legal perspective, I guess they know that this is, you know, building a legal record against them, against the regime. And then, the court decisions that are coming out now are also all looking at each other, in the Frankfurt court and in the Berlin court, what they will be doing in the court in The Netherlands next year and in Paris, and in other places where cases will go to trial. Of course, they will look back at Koblenz and the other decisions that have already been handed down. They may not be direct legal precedents, as in that they can’t, you know, legally rely on those as additional evidence for a conviction. But it is absolutely contextual information that they will be aware of and look at and eventually, you know, 100%... when Assad and his top officials will stand trial and I say when, because I believe that will happen in the next ten years, whatever court or tribunal will see that trial, they will look back at these judgements in Koblenz in ‘21 and ‘22 and see those and recognise those as the first ones that officially determined that this regime, when they violently suppressed the peaceful revolution, committed crimes against humanity. Absolutely. 

Kristina: You sound very confident when you say that Assad will go to trial. And for a lot of people, this sounds very unrealistic, because they would say that he and his family and the people around him are still in power. Syria is destroyed economically, politically, socially. The sense of justice is very absent, the prospects are very dark. And you say he's going to go to court. Do we have any historical cases or examples in which a dictator, for example, or war criminal, in certain stages was maybe even part of international negotiations, and then we saw them put on trial? Do you have something to base your hope on? 

Fritz: Yeah, I think that is that is why I say it so confidently. The historical comparison that I like to sort of study is the one with the former leaders in the former Yugoslavian republics, especially in Serbia, the Bosnian Serbian leader Karadzic, and the Serbian leader Milosevic at the time in the nineties. I mean, they were basically taking part in political negotiations as the war was still raging, when the massacre, for example, in Srebrenica was happening, when the peace agreement in Dayton was signed and the years after. They were participating in these political processes, they were attending international summits. People were talking to them, accepting them for the time being as their equals. Which gave them a certain confidence in thinking, Oh, we're back. But history teaches us, that political transitions can happen in funny ways, can happen in in sudden ways. And all of a sudden, Milosevic was arrested, basically by his own people, and extradited to The Hague. Right. And stood trial. And unfortunately he died before the judgement came out. But same goes for Karadzic. I mean that guy had to basically go into hiding for what is it, like more than ten years. Only to be eventually arrested and also extradited to stand trial. Now, that was, what, 25 years after the massacre in Srebrenica. I think the fact that we are seeing this political process going into a direction where Assad is successfully, to a certain extent, normalising this regime and participating again in international affairs does not mean that the justice efforts will be muted and won't continue to pursue the goal of eventually holding this guy accountable. That can happen, and I think it will happen before the end of the year 2032. 

Kristina: Wow. What you're saying makes me think of the importance, actually, of taking a deep, deep breath when it comes to justice, especially transitional justice for societies that have suffered so much and so many atrocities. And to not expect that singular cases by themselves will do much, but that if there is a strategy and if there is collective efforts, and if there is a logic in that strategy and collective effort, things can go somewhere. 

Ibrahim Olabi: What I would like to see is a lot of the actors that were there from very early on take a step back now and strategize. Because for the last ten years, what we've been doing is really reacting. Killing of protesters, bombing of hospitals, the use of chemical weapons, forced displacement, Security Council resolution this, General Assembly resolution that. We couldn't breathe. We couldn't strategize properly. It felt wrong to sit and draw a strategy of what you want to do in the next five years, because you were always on the back foot, trying to kind of an emergency human rights response, if you like. Now that things have calmed down, for better or worse, it allows us now to really think and reflect, okay, where am I going? We need new blood. We need people to sit back and say, okay, where should we go in order for things to be now on the long term? 

Kristina: But I also see how that can be very difficult from a survivor's perspective or from the perspective of families who are still looking for missing people whom they haven't seen for, I don't know, ten years, and who have no idea if their loved ones are still alive. So I think that it's only natural that if we speak to such people about taking a deep breath and being hopeful and strategizing and seeing how all of those efforts that are happening now can lead somewhere, it's only natural that their reaction would be dismissive. Because at the end, what they need is very, very immediate. So telling them that, look, maybe in ten, 20 years something is going to happen, a big shift is going to happen. I think it sounds like a joke to many people and righteously so. It does make sense to me that they would have such a harsh reaction to it. And I think from there comes this idea that Syria is just a lost case. We will never get our lives back. We will never see the country the way we would like it to be. That Assad is going to be there forever. 

Ugur Ungor: What I see, I see a widespread acceptance of the continued injustice and lack of any form of transitional justice for the regime's crimes. And that's kind of dangerous, because these low expectations also means that people become cynical or they become lazy or they don't want to pursue it anymore. Or, for example, when pro-regime militiaman is arrested, for example, in Europe, then also a lot of potential witnesses are thinking, you know, what good would it do if I go and give my testimony? Nothing good is going to come out of this anyway. He's still sitting in his palace in Damascus. And what is my tiny little experience going to contribute to justice? And that cynicism is very difficult. And I think that is a profound long-term impact that the regime's violence has made in Syrian society. And that's going to be very difficult to break through, I think. Also because, you know, really large, lofty ambitions of tribunals in The Hague and the ICC have of course, fallen flat. So, for a lot of Syrians, they basically have accepted this well, of course, grudgingly, and they've moved on and they've forgotten about any form of justice. 

Leila Sibai: How effective is what we're actually doing? And I don't know that we have an answer to that. It's an important question to ask yourself when this is what you're doing, in part because, you know, criminal proceedings target only individuals, does the political system at the national or international level actually allow you to pursue the cases that you would like to see being pursued. Does this actually entail any form of social change? And at least on my side, I have doubts, you know, about all of these. It's not like I have an answer. 

Ibrahim Olabi: I wouldn't put a time frame on things. You know, when you speak with a lot of countries and they're like, oh how long will this take, how long will that take? And it's like, depends what you want to get out of it. If convictions is what you're after, yes they take a little time. But the moment you're issuing a statement that you're starting a case, or holding X to account, you're already achieving it. So some of the initiatives I'm working on and they’re like, what's your timeframe for this? This this takes 10 to 15 years. It's like, no, it takes tomorrow. 

Fritz: If the eventual goal is to hold Assad and his top officials accountable and that still takes 10 or 20 years, that is unacceptable. That should have been the case already. But I do believe that that is realistic. And what happens between now and then, there's a whole space that can and will be filled with small steps and efforts that hopefully will satisfy some of these survivors and families. If we look at what the opportunities in that are or might be, then I think that if states and international organisations start talking again with Assad and in a different way, there might be space to ensure that the justice file, with this whole dossier of court decisions that are coming out now, will have a place on that table. And that these states will be able to say, okay, we're hearing that you want to rebuild your country and you want to rebuild your relationships. Let's talk about it. But here is the justice file. And that's not going anywhere because the courts have spoken. Now, if you want A, B or C, you're going to have to be straight with the families. You're going to have to release political prisoners, and you're going to have to make real steps that show that it's not one dimensional. We're not going to just do whatever you want. You're going to have to do something back if you want to have a seat at this table. 

Ammar Daba: We have to understand how cruel this world is. And by understanding that we know that, we will not get everyone. A lot of those guys will get away with what they've done. I believe that true justice is in prevention. We create a system that prevents this from happening again. How do we do that? By practising justice, practising the pursuit of justice. We do this and then we understand. How do you understand silence? By not talking for a good, fair amount of time. Where you think and look at the sky and just listen, and then you understand the importance of silence. I believe that we did not practise justice for a very, very, very long time. We lived in a country that had no institutions whatsoever, including the judicial system. It was a joke. It was a big joke. So we lost faith in those institutions. Now it's time to understand that there are systems that might help us get justice. But also, we need to understand that those systems and that it's an integral part of them, that they have flaws and they have limitations and they will not get us everything we want. It's not a magic wand. 

Fritz: This concept that comes back time and again, also in my work, in international criminal justice, which is so-called transitional justice. And everybody always uses that concept, that term. But, you know, my question is, what does it actually mean, right? If you had to even define it for yourself, what does it actually mean to you? 

Kristina: I think it's a process in which a society that has been witnessing war crimes, crimes against humanity and different kinds of atrocities, find its way to again live together and heal collectively, while building their society in the way that they wish it is. And I think in this definition, there are so many complex aspects, what kind of society Syrians want. Do we have this vision or idea? Do we agree on this vision? How can such a process happen while the regime is in power? Do we wait for it to stand trial in 10 years, as you said, and then we sit and talk about how we want to move on? If we do not wait, is it possible for a large part of this society to move on with it? Like sort of start a parallel process, where there is the legal system doing its work and the court cases happening, the trials, and then in parallel a process of healing and rebuilding happens. I have no idea really. And I think these are very big questions. 

Joumana Seif: To be very honest, what we have achieved, it's very important, but it's very limited. We know it's not justice. It's like, you know, maybe the first step on this way. You know, I think the real justice for the Syrian, it's at least to see a real political will, international, to push for a real political solution, a real change to democracy. And then from there, maybe justice will be achieved, step by step in our country, in Syria, when we are all there.

Leila Sibai: I only have doubts that criminal justice alone, and especially under universal jurisdiction, is a complete form of justice. Because it isn't. It's a partial, incomplete form of justice that it is the justice that we have access to today. And it's the one through which we're trying to facilitate very, very small changes in the legal space and in the social space. 

Mariana Karkoutly: Another point is that there is no particular solution to what's happening in Syria. It's been happening since more than ten years now and there is no one solution. So if I would say how I would perceive the matter, it's just the different efforts that people are doing in their different places. All of them collectively can actually come up with something that at this particular moment, because, again, we're working on cases that have, atrocities that have happened seven years, eight years ago. But there are current injustices that are happening against people. There are people who are trying to provide humanitarian aid. There are people who are trying to support refugees in the countries of residence where they are. There are people trying to support families. There are people trying to work on education. That all matters, and that's all a part of the solution. So if legal remedies is a part of it as well, but it's not the only answer. It's not that solution. It's one of many. 

Kristina: What I think first, when I think of transitional justice now in the context of Syria is that, we have probably actually hundreds of thousands of people who are hungry every day in Syria, who do not have gas, electricity, whose kids are not safe to go to school. Who are very worried about their day-to-day income, let alone all the other political and societal aspects. So when we talk about not being safe, when your basic needs are not met, you don't have space to think about how to heal or how to come to terms with the recent or more distant past, how to look into the future. And I think for Syria, it's very important that we have that in mind. The rebuilding starts with feeding myself, with being able to feed my children, with knowing that I'm safe, I'm warm, I'm full, and I'm not thirsty. And I think this is a very big priority. And I cannot imagine any transitional justice without this component. 

Ismail Alabdullah: Justice… justice in Syria would mean being able to return back to my home, my life, to get my life back. Every family, every person need to get his rights and get back to their home, their home safely. My home, for me to get back to Aleppo, to see my neighbourhood, to see my neighbours, you know… to get my life back without any threat, without fearing the police, without fearing anyone, any official from the government, you know, to get those who are disappeared in the prisons, to see them again alive. And then all those who were killed to know their destiny. This is home for me. This is a home for me. 

Kristina: I hear a lot of people say that I want my life back, be it my life in Syria or the way I lived in Syria, my land, my house. And I think… although it's a very painful thought to have, but I think that as long as we cling to how our lives were back in Syria years ago and we say that unless I get them back, I will not be able to live my life fully and be able to be fulfilled in my life or get a sense of justice. I think it's important to understand and realise that a lot has changed in the past ten years and things keep changing every day, which means that we probably most likely none of us will get anything back in the sense that… even if, let's say, Assad stands trial, people get to come back to the country, they will find their country different. Its streets, the way people are, the social interactions, the political climate, everything. Because the history of these years cannot just be erased. And we say, okay, now we start from where we left things. And I think that once we let go of the idea of “I want things back”, it will be easier maybe to look into the future. I can see how that is very difficult. Especially when people have lost maybe, as I said, their sense of self and sense of identity, sense of belonging. So obviously you want to go back to what made you feel you, to what made you belong somewhere. But I think we just need to reimagine our sense of self and the ways we belong in different places, including Syria. 

We hope that you enjoyed the first season and that you found in those episodes what fuelled your curiosity, gave you information and context about Syria, justice for Syria and Syrians and the trials that are happening. And we invite you to stay tuned for a season two. 

I'm Kristina Kaghdo. Thank you for listening. If you're also an Arabic speaker, do check out the Arabic series of The Syria Trials, presented by myself. 

Fritz: I'm Fritz Streiff. Thank you for listening to The Syria Trials. We'll be back in the fall of next year 2023, with season two. In the meantime, you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter @75 podcasts or email us at 75, with any thoughts, comments or questions.