Fritz Streiff: On the 13th of June 2015, a diplomatic car left France. It travelled out of the country and into Germany, before making its way to Austria via the Walserberg crossing. The vehicle arrived inside Salzburg, a city not too far from the Austrian border with Germany, where hotel rooms had been booked for the group travelling in the car as well as some additional guests. The group included members of the Austrian intelligence service, known at that time as the BVT, and a man known only as White Milk. So who was this mysterious White Milk? White Wilk was the cover name for a Syrian Brigadier General. Back in Syria, the man known as White Milk had been the Head of a State Security Branch. This was one of the highest ranking positions within the Syrian intelligence services, a brutal system of oppression used by the Syrian regime to control its population.
Steve Kostas: Overall, we think of an intelligence or security branch that was involved in detention as a place of significant criminality. There's lots of detention and torture of civilians.
Thaer Dandoush VO: Life was heavily influenced by the presence of the intelligence services. If you wanted to do anything in life like getting married or opening a falafel restaurant, you had to consult the intelligence and get their approval.
Fritz Streiff: White Milk's real name? Khaled Muhsen al-Halabi. So what was Austria doing, smuggling a man known to have played a central role within the Syrian intelligence into its own country.
Welcome to Season Two of The Syria Trials. My name is Fritz Streiff, and I'll be your host for this new season of the podcast. I'm a human rights lawyer and I first came across the case of Khaled al-Halabi in 2018. I was working for an NGO called the Open Society Justice Initiative, in their New York office. There were a number of Syria cases I was investigating, including the Halabi case, and I've been following it ever since. It is an absolutely fascinating case. In a lot of ways, it is the Syria case that embodies so much of why chasing justice for Syria has been and continues to be such a frustrating struggle.
Episode One: Who is Halabi? Please be aware that this episode contains descriptions of torture.
Muhammad VO: I was born in the 1980s, during Hafez al-Assad's rule, so I was aware of the world around me. I was against the idea that only Assad and his regime could govern us. I questioned why, out of 22 million people, there couldn't be anyone else to lead us.
My name is MUhammed. I was born in 1981, so I am 42 years old.
Rashid Satouf VO: I’m Rashid Satouf, and I was born in 1958 in Ar-Raqqa. I have been a member of the Communist Labour Party since 1975 or 1976. In the 1970s, the destruction and dismantling of unions, political parties and state institutions happened incredibly quickly and the security services became the main force of power in Syria. Within three, four years, there was a strong security grip over the country. The role of the state institutions regressed in all of their legislative, legal and executive affairs.
Muhammad VO: When I graduated, I tried to find employment and I realised that corruption was deeply rooted within the system. You had to pay bribes to those who had been placed in positions of power by the regime. The system itself was corrupt, and I knew I was not alone experiencing this. Millions of people in Syria were suffering from the same circumstances.
Rouba Choufi: My name is Rouba Choufi. I'm an activist. I would like to introduce myself like that. It was also very difficult for being a woman living in Syria, because living in a country of dictatorship, women are subjected to two kinds of violations - by the regime and by the patriarchal society.
Diana Khayyata: The older generation has this belief that, and this saying in Arabic that the walls has ears. So you really need to be careful not to say anything against the government because you will be arrested or kidnapped. Hello, my name is Diana Khayyata. I am from Syria, from Aleppo and I live in Netherlands since 2015. And one other fact I remember from my childhood is that my mother and father used to make sure that at an early age I wear hijab and cover myself, not to attract the eye of a military man. Because if a military man is walking, for example, with his car in the street and saw a beautiful girl, they get to kidnap her without anyone can reclaim or do anything.
Abdallah: My name is Abdallah. I am a Syrian activist from Raqqa City.
Fritz Streiff: Did you have any direct interaction yourself with intelligence or security before the revolution started?
Abdallah: No, actually, I all the time. I scared about them. Even I don't go close to their centres at all. I never.
Fritz Streiff: Before, even?
Abdallah: Before. I really scared about them.
Fritz Streiff: Because of what your parents told you?
Abdallah: Yes. And also friend of my father. I remember I was a kid when he, this nice man, he came and visit my father and, you know, bring me some gifts. And I had a good memory for this uncle. And they arrested him for, I don't know, 20 years. So I scared about them. They will come and arrested me.
Fritz Streiff: The Syrian revolution began in 2011, part of a wave of protests calling for freedom and democratic reform that swept through the Middle East and North Africa. These protests came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Abdallah: At that time, we were like young, too young. We didn't think a lot about it. And we just start and join the revolution, the peaceful, you know, and stuff like this. The old people, our parents or uncles and stuff like this, they scared about the Assad regime. They know the Assad regime. My parents they told me they will destroy the country. We didn't listen. And, you know, as a youth and we start and we join.
Fritz Streiff: How old were you then
Thaer Dandoush VO: I’m Thaer Dandoush, a civil activist and a schoolteacher from Raqqa governorate. There was a sense of frustration among the Syrian society and the Arab society in general. It was a state of anger, a feeling that as individuals and citizens, we were unable to express ourselves freely. We lacked any kind of liberties. In 2007, when the Arab Spring began, all those feelings that we had been hiding came to light.
Leila al-Shami: My name is Leila al-Shami. I'm a British-Syrian human rights activist, solidarity activist. When the Syrian revolution began, I remember a lot of people still believed that Bashar would implement reforms, that he would listen to some of the demands from the protesters on the streets. I was not under any such illusions. I had a complete fear of the regime's response. I knew that the way that it dealt with dissent was by absolute brutal repression.
Fritz Streiff: Leila was right. This was how Bashar al-Assad's regime reacted when the protests began in 2011. The regime swiftly engaged its intelligence networks, its security branches and its intelligence officers known as the Mukhabarat, as well as the Syrian army, nondescript militias, and a group called the Shabiha, who can be described as a band of thugs connected to the Assad family. These groups were all used to violently attack, detain and kill peaceful demonstrators.
Steve Kostas: So my name is Steve Kostas. I'm a lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative. By 2012, demonstrators were being shot in the street. Anyone who was known to communicate with international media would be arrested. There might be a raid on their house. Demonstrators, peaceful demonstrators, ran the significant risk that they would be arrested, brought to one of the branches, including the State Security Branch, and tortured.
Fritz Streiff: State Security is also sometimes called General Intelligence. The two mean the same thing. These branches are places where detainees are kept, interrogated and frequently tortured. Lab technician and activist Muhammad was one of those arrested and tortured.
Muhammad VO: Pliers were used to remove layers of flesh from my back, creating excruciating pain. They accused us of supporting terrorist groups. I still have scars on my back from the torture.
Fritz Streiff: Activist Abdallah was arrested in his hometown of Raqqa.
Abdallah: They put me in the middle, naked, and about ten officers, they just beating with electricity, with their wood sticks till I you know… I sometimes I couldn't remember. They took me to the solitary room, and blood everywhere. I spent like a week on the situation. It's really hard, you know, sometimes they, you know, they…
Fritz Streiff: Crucify.
Abdallah: Crucify. 2 hours. 3 hours, sometimes a day. Naked. And they put air condition on you. Cold. With the electricity, sometimes they put the electricity on sensitive places on your body.
Fritz Streiff: Sorry to hear that.
Abdallah: It’s okay.
Fritz Streiff: Well, it's not okay, but it's..
Abdallah: Yeah, it is. At least we tried. You know, we tried to change for a better future of our country.
Leila al-Shami: The regime's response was so brutal to that protest movement. So many people involved in the protests were rounded up and detained. There was gunfire applied very quickly from the security forces to protesters. So I suppose from that sense, it was inevitable that people took up arms to protect themselves.
Fritz Streiff: As the violence worsened, partly to defend themselves. Some peaceful protesters began to form armed opposition groups. Soldiers, who were unwilling to shoot at their fellow Syrians, began to defect from the army and form opposition factions, too.
Leila al-Shami: And I think that's how the armed struggle began. It didn't start as any kind of collective decision or unified army. It was like young men in their villages, in their communities, taking up arms, really, to protect the protesters and their communities from assault by the security forces. And, of course, violence has its own inevitable momentum. And that did end up resulting in a major armed conflict between forces of the opposition and the Syrian regime.
Fritz Streiff: By June of 2015, as General al-Halabi was being driven across European borders, Syria was in the grip of a catastrophic war.
Archive: Look at the sniper on the roof, says the man filming this footage. He's shooting. This was reportedly happening in the western city of Homs… 2015 was the year the skies above Syria became much busier. More military jets than ever before were dropping bombs, and the most significant intervention was from Russia... The war without apparent end in Syria. President Bashar al Assad's forces continue to try and assert their authority over a bitterly divided country, leaving people cowering for shelter and buildings reduced to rubble.
Steve Kostas: In 2013, 2014, as the conflict in Syria significantly intensified. Everyone was sort of grappling with how do you address the level of criminality, level of violence and humanitarian crisis.
Fritz Streiff: There was a resounding call amongst Syrians, both still inside Syria and those who had fled, as well as human rights lawyers and organisations in the West - something needed to be done.
Steve Kostas: So OSJI, along with many organisations, were trying to understand what could be the shape of accountability work with respect to all of this criminality.
Fritz Streiff: OSJI is the Open Society Justice Initiative. The NGO I used to work at. Steve leads the work on Syria Accountability at OSJI.
Steve Kostas: In 2016, we started a collaboration with a group called CIJA.
Fritz Streiff: CIJA stands for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. It's a group that collects information about and carries out legal investigations into international crimes.
Steve Kostas: We supported them to establish a track and trace team and to identify who are the highest ranking people in Europe. Ex-Syrian government officials in Europe against whom a strong criminal case can be built. And Halabi’s case was in a way like the test case for whether this process could work. So he was for CIJA, case zero, or the proof of concept.
Fritz Streiff: Do you want to start by introducing yourself? Who you are, what your position at CIJA is?
Nerma Jelacic: Sure. My name is Nerma Jelacic. I'm one of the directors here at CIJA and I've been working with this organisation for the last eight years.
Fritz Streiff: The case that we were particularly interested in, the Halabi case, do you personally remember the moment that you first heard about him?
Nerma Jelacic: Wow. I think it was quite early on actually, 2014 probably. Not in the context that he was in Vienna because he wasn't in Austria at that time. But from the beginning, from 2011 and 12, we were running teams in places like Raqqa and Homs and Aleppo. So Raqqa was a very strong team in the early years, getting a lot of documentary evidence from security, intelligence architecture.
Fritz Streiff: A key part of how CIJA works are the teams of evidence gatherers that they have on the ground. In Syria, as places fell to opposition forces, CIJA’s evidence gatherers would swoop in and collect any files they could - anything at all that was left behind as the regime officials left, often in a hurry. Some of the documentation they gathered came from former intelligence branches.
Nerma Jelacic: By 2014, we were already building a case, a legal brief, and of course, his name even came out at that time because Halabi had such a high ranking position as the head of the General Intelligence Department branch in Raqqa. That legal brief, I think we finished in 2014 or early 2015, and his name would have been on the list of the individuals identified. I wouldn't call him a small or medium fish in general, even if all of the pool of potential accused of the Syrian regime was open to us, he wouldn't be a low level person and in terms of individuals who we managed to find in Europe, he was the highest ranking and remains so to this day.
Fritz Streiff: Thaer Dandoush was detained at State Security Branch 335 in Raqqa. The branch Halabi was in charge of.
Thaer Dandoush VO: I think someone must have informed on me. Maybe they were forced to. I don't know for sure. They put me in the car and started beating me with their batons until we reached the branch. At the branch, they took me into solitary confinement.
There were punishments and torture every day. They would interrogate me, demanding to know who participated in the protest? Who were you coordinating with? It was always like this. One guard used the car wheel and the flying carpet torture devices on me.
Fritz Streiff: These are two torture devices known to be used in Syrian regime detention facilities. Detainees are forced to cram their body into a car wheel and the flying carpet, called bsat al-reeh in Arabic, is a type of wooden board that folds in the middle, causing excruciating pain to the person strapped to it.
Thaer Dandoush VO: They would take me, put me under the shower and pour cold water on me. There was an electric baton too. They would electrocute my soaked body with it, especially my chest, causing me to jerk back a metre or two and fall to the ground.
Fritz Streiff: Our editor and researcher Mais Katt spoke to Thaer. Our producer Sasha is voicing her words here.
Mais VO: What do you consider Halabi’s responsibility is for these torture operations, since you do not seem to have seen him and he was perhaps not present during your torture?
Thaer Dandoush VO: He has every responsibility for it. First of all, he's responsible for the State Security Branch and he is part of the Joint Security Committee. If I, Thaer, am to be transferred to the Joint Security Committee, his approval is required. So even if he wasn't present during my torture at the State Security Branch, he would have been at my torture at the Joint Security Committee.
Steve Kostas: So Raqqa, in addition to the security committee, had a Joint Investigations Committee, which was set up after the beginning of the conflict. And the general function of it was set out by an order from the CCMC, the Central Crisis Management Cell, which is based in Damascus in response to the uprising. And this was made up of members of officials from each of the intelligence directorates, plus the Criminal Security Branch, and they would actually sit in or conduct interrogations of detainees. So any higher value detainee would be interrogated by the Joint Investigations Committee, and those tended to be quite brutal interrogations. And then reports of those were disseminated to the heads of the intelligence directorate. So Halabi would be receiving reports from his subordinate who attended those interrogations. I guess that is another way in which Halabi was involved in the sort of control over the treatment of detainees.
Fritz Streiff: Why would you say does the Halabi case matter specifically?
Nerma Jelacic: Because his role was very important. I think, first of all, if we go from his influence in Raqqa in 2011, 12, 2013, beginning when he left, was enormous. So he did have an influence on what happened to a lot of individuals. So for these individuals, it's important. As the Head of General Intelligence in Raqqa and as head of the Security Committee, he had one of the leading roles in terms of what happened to people between the arrest and ending up, if you will, in the auspices of his department, which included interrogations and torture and death. And these you know, Raqqa is one of the darker stories of the torture that people had gone through and the descriptions of the cries and noises coming out from the branch in which his office was, it's incredible. But the point in this case is that there is enough documentary evidence that he cannot say, well, I didn't know, you know, I was just like the top guy. And no one really told me what was happening. So this is documented beyond reasonable doubt that he was in charge.
Fritz Streiff: In his specific case. What makes him a criminal?
Abdallah: Just if he… in his position. That's I think enough. For his position as the Head of the State Security Branch in Raqqa. This make you scared a little, shaking at that time. You know, And he give orders. He's leading the worst place and he give orders. And there was a guy, officers under his lead, called Abu Jafar. Abu Jafar, he’s like I don't consider him as a human. And he was under Khaled al-Halabi and he get orders by Khaled al-Halabi. So that's, I think, enough.
Fritz Streiff: So why was Halabi, fi he is guilty of all that is alleged here, being effectively smuggled between European countries by the Austrian intelligence. Did he have a secret importance? Had he perhaps defected from the regime and fled Syria, switching sides to help bring down Assad?
In this new season of The Syria Trials podcast, we'll be following Halabi’s story. Going back to the early days of his career and the outbreak of the revolution in Syria in 2011. We'll be tracing his escape from Syria and his journey through Europe, right up until where he is now.
Steve Kostas: So it's a shockingly long time to have a head of an intelligence branch located in your country, a dossier of evidence showing their alleged responsibility for horrific crimes and to take what is it now, like more than six years to investigate the case? It's shocking.
Fritz Streiff: We'll be pursuing the cat and mouse game of justice being played between Halabi and European and Syrian legal investigators. Asking who really is General Halabi? And why has he not been arrested yet?
Nerma Jelacic: We were really… I wouldn't say kept in the dark by the Austrians, we never demand to be constantly informed by our law enforcement partners, but with this one there was just such a level of deafening silence that there was something odd about it, and we couldn't understand why nothing was happening. So when the actual leak of that whole Operation White Milk came out, then it became obviously more clear, even though very confusing! Right. It's, just still is as a story, it's just quite fantastical in certain elements of it, it really doesn't make sense.
Fritz Streiff: But as well as following his story with all its surreal and fantastical elements, as Nerma calls them, we'll be following the stories of the victims and survivors, the stories of the Syrian activists who, in the most challenging of circumstances rose up to demand their freedom and faced devastating consequences in the process.
Diana Khayyata: I love Aleppo. I love a lot of things about it, and I dream to walk in its streets someday. But I also am trying to prepare myself one way or another that when I left Aleppo, what is in my head is not there anymore.
Fritz Streiff: Our podcast is all about trying to make sense of the complicated landscape of justice for Syria, a country that has endured unimaginable suffering over the last 12 to 13 years. In many ways, the Halabi investigation is exemplary of how complicated the pursuit of justice for Syria can be, especially when justice has to be pursued in countries outside of where the crimes happened. The law, in the end, is often a limited tool in this pursuit.
For the moment, we'll leave General Halabi in his hotel room in Salzburg and rewind back to the beginning of the story. Back to Syria and the start of Halabi’s career in the intelligence services. That's all to come next time, in Episode Two of the Syria Trials.
The Syria Trials: The disappearing general is a 75 podcast production hosted by me, Fritz Streiff. If you've enjoyed listening, please do read and review our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you listen. It really helps other listeners find the show. We also have a series in Arabic, focusing on similar issues within the justice for Syria landscape. Head to our website to find out more about both series, 75 podcasts.org Thank you for listening.