Mariana Karkoutly: Unfortunately, narrating the story of what happened to Syrians is not enough. You need to have a court case that proves that what you're saying was true and it actually happened. At the moment, if any government that is investigating these crimes would come and say, ah, but Syria is safe and Syrians can now be deported to Syria. I do not think that this would be possible with these cases being opened up.
Fritz Streiff: The importance of having your case heard in a court of law goes beyond just locking up individuals for X number of years. These cases create a documentary record, perhaps the most accurate of them all, that commits to history the truth of what happened. The evidence was fairly and thoroughly assessed. The witnesses were interviewed, the perpetrator was heard. And independent parties, judges and juries made a decision and delivered justice.
It's integral to hold onto the truth of what really happened. Especially when it comes to a country like Syria, where so many truly horrific atrocity crimes have happened, and continue to until today. And where official authorities deny and keep denying these truths, aided by a powerful Russian partner that specialises in mis- and disinformation campaigns. If all efforts at bringing about justice are abandoned, there will never be any hope of peace for the victims, survivors and their families, and definitely no chance of creating a fair and just country and a future for all Syrians. Which is why, despite countless setbacks and obstacles, pursuing justice for Syria is still and will always matter.
This is The Syria Trials, The Disappearing General. I'm Fritz Streiff, and this is Episode Ten - Better Late than Never.
Let's travel back to Raqqa, the city in the northwest of Syria where we started this story. This city and its citizens are central to the al-Halabi case.
Abdullah al-Khalaf: Raqqa has changed. The four years under ISIS had a significant impact on the city.
Fritz Streiff: The terrorist group ISIS, or Islamic State, made Raqqa the capital of its so-called caliphate in 2014. And its crimes have left profound marks on the city and its population.
Abdullah al-Khalaf is a journalist, who still lives in Raqqa today.
Abdullah al-Khalaf: I remember the last days of ISIS in early 2017. I took a taxi with an ISIS driver and he said, we have won. I asked him, how is that possible? How have you won? He said, We have planted our ideology and it will remain. I thought this person is delusional. But what I have observed today, after about six years since the departure of ISIS, is that there is some truth in what he said. ISIS has left an impact on our communities, especially in Raqqa. There are many veiled women and many people who strongly support ISIS's ideas. Today music is considered haram, which means forbidden. This was not the case in Raqqa before. The area used to be more open minded.
Fritz Streiff: As well as changes to the society of Raqqa, the city has suffered huge physical damage too. In 2016, the United States backed a coalition of militias called the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces, who waged a campaign to take control of Raqqa. They succeeded in October 2017.
Abdullah al-Khalaf: Of course, the war had a profound impact and completely transformed the city. Most of the city was destroyed due to bombing operations, especially when America entered and carried out airstrikes. Reconstruction efforts have taken place, with some residents returning and rebuilding their homes. However, the efforts of local authorities have been modest and there are many aspects where they fall short.
Fritz Streiff: Today, Raqqa is still run by the SDF. The city might be free of the punishing control of both the Syrian regime and ISIS, but life is unstable and very difficult. For the citizens of Raqqa, daily survival is often at the top of their concerns rather than the pursuit of justice in other countries for the crimes that they have suffered. During our interview, Abdullah al-Khalaf expressed a lack of interest in the Halabi case itself. Yet the pursuit of justice more widely for Syria remains important to him.
Abdullah al-Khalaf: When I said I was not very interested, it was more of an expression of the despair we have reached. But no, it's necessary. It's crucial to have all criminals prosecuted. Perhaps I said I was not very interested because there are other criminals apart from the Syrian regime. Currently we have replicas of Khaled al-Halabi and others among us. However, if these criminals are held accountable, they will be deterred. They will know that one day there will be justice, that they will be prosecuted, and they won't continue to prey on people indefinitely.
Fritz Streiff: And there are a number of cases pertaining to Raqqa that are currently being pursued. Including, perhaps surprisingly, in the field of antiquities.
Anas al-Khabour: My name is Anas al-Khabour. I am an Associate Professor in Archaeology. I am from Syria, from Raqqa, northern part of Syria. I live in Sweden and work in Sweden.
Fritz Streiff: Raqqa has been inhabited since antiquity and was one of the most important cities during the Islamic period in the Middle Ages, lying on the crossroads between Syria and Iraq. Archaeologically speaking, Raqqa is rich in priceless objects and centuries old ruins. And so the city is important when we think of the cultural heritage of Syria.
Anas al-Khabour: After the outbreak of the war in Syria, the government lost control over cultural heritage sites. It was then followed by illegal excavations in archaeological sites and looting of museums. That increased largely after the arrival of a new ideology and new people. I mean here the Islamic State, or ISIS, who settled in the northern part of Syria.
Fritz Streiff: One of the ways that ISIS funded its terrorist activities was through the looting of these antiquities that Raqqa was rich in. Anya Neistat is the legal director of The Docket, an initiative of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, the foundation set up by Amal and George Clooney.
Anya Neistat: So one of our largest projects over the last couple of years has been focussed on looting and illegal trade in antiquities as a source of conflict financing. So we were looking into different sources of funding for all players, but particularly armed groups that don't have government resources at their disposal. And of course, Islamic State, so called ISIS, was one of the first groups that we focussed on. And very quickly we realised that antiquities looted in Iraq and in Syria were one of the main sources of financing for ISIS. And while nobody knows the exact figures, we're talking about potentially tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that were generated through this trade.
Fritz Streiff: Anya and her team at The Docket began looking into the trafficking routes, how these items were making it out of Syria and being brought to the European and American markets, often through Turkey or Lebanon.
Anya Neistat: It was all fairly well documented by ISIS. They were very bureaucratic, like the Nazis at their time. So we've got access to lots of receipts and paperwork that they generated around this trade. But ultimately, our focus was really on the market. So the way we built our legal cases were really going after the market end of the trade to essentially try to stop it once and for all.
Fritz Streiff: The looting of antiquities might not seem as important a crime to focus on as, say, chemical weapons attacks or the torture of individuals. But of course, these kinds of cultural crimes can have a major impact on a society's very basic fabric, its roots. And in addition, The Docket’s team found that the money involved in this trade has a direct impact on the activities of the groups in question.
Anya Neistat: So we looked at major galleries and auction houses in Europe and to a certain extent, museums that ended up buying these items through these intermediaries, and trying to convince the prosecutors that these should be qualified as financing of terrorism, as complicity in war crimes committed by these armed groups. Because the revenue generated by this trade, in essentially blood antiquities, was really something that allowed groups like ISIS, and not only them, to purchase weapons, to recruit new members, to maintain detention facilities.
Fritz Streiff: There are challenges in pursuing cases like this though. Professor Anas al-Khabour.
Anas al-Khabour: The problem here, the challenge here, is objects stolen through illegal excavations and therefore the leaked documentation of information. This category of objects is meaningfully vulnerable and it's not so easy to recover and restitute these objects if they appear on the black market.
Anya Neistat: All of the characters that we focussed on have been on the radar of law enforcement agencies for selling questionable antiquities for years, sometimes decades. And interestingly enough, some of them were previously caught red handed with items of questionable provenance. But every time they pretty much got away. Either they had to restitute the items, or they were fined sometimes for forging of the provenance documents or violating some customs rules. But obviously for businesses of that size, that was just barely a slap on the wrist. And that's why we trying to completely kind of change the narrative and the understanding of what this trade means, and how it actually contributes to horrendous crimes committed in the Middle East and North Africa, but frankly, in other regions as well.
Fritz Streiff: So where does The Docket’s case currently stand?
Anya Neistat: We filed our dossiers with several European prosecutors. We expect one big trial to start in France against Pierre Bergé auction house. It should start early next year. We are also hoping to see some movement in criminal cases in Belgium and Switzerland potentially. And kind of almost separate track is several cases in the United States, including the case involving a Syrian mosaic that was looted and sold there. So there is a little bit of a movement. I'm hopeful that something that was really not talked about much before will become more like, you know, the trade in diamonds or wildlife, which also was not an issue until it was.
Fritz Streiff: There's another case concerning the financing of terrorism. This time the financing came through building materials. Anna Kiefer works at the French legal NGO Sherpa and has been working on a case against the French cement company Lafarge, which is now part of the Holcim Group.
Anna Kiefer: Shortly before the start of the conflict in Syria and the civil war, it was the biggest foreign investment in the country. Around €680 million. And after the start of the conflict, there was a lot of international sanctions that were aimed at suffocating the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And many of the multinational companies who were in the country packed up and left, such as Shell or Total. But Lafarge made the decision to stay. They evacuated in 2012 the foreign employees they had. But they kept all the Syrian staff to run the plant.
Fritz Streiff: In 2014, ISIS took over parts of the northeast of Syria, including the area that the Lafarge Cement plant was located in. But Lafarge continued to operate the plant.
Anna Kiefer: So there were less employees on the plant, but there were still asked to run it almost at full capacity. There was different arrangements then made with the armed groups around the factory, which were changing quite rapidly as the conflict escalated. But it was necessary for Lafarge to make arrangements with these different armed groups, to maintain its business because these armed groups were setting up checkpoints. And so in order to have employees and goods pass through these checkpoints, they negotiated. They also traded with them to buy the raw materials that were necessary for the operation of the plant and also sold them cement.
The judicial inquiry so far has established that the arrangement amounted to the transfer of at least 15 million USD, which included several armed groups, including ISIS.
Fritz Streiff: In negotiating with ISIS, who, as if it needs reiterating, is an extreme terrorist organisation, Lafarge put its Syrian workers at great risk.
Anna Kiefer: There were several attacks against employees. Several were kidnapped or held by groups for several hours. Later, they were asked to stay at the company and live at the factory so that they wouldn't have to face the risk on the roads. But even at the factory, they faced security risk and there was a lack of safety for employees who were forced to stay there. Lafarge did threaten employees with being dismissed if they didn't show up to work, despite the risk they were facing. So there was really an atmosphere of constant insecurity for employees.
Fritz Streiff: In November 2016, 11 former Syrian employees together with ECCHR, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, and Sherpa, filed a criminal complaint against Lafarge and its subsidiary, Lafarge Cement Syria.
Anna Kiefer: The company, Lafarge, is accused of financing terrorism through the arrangement they made with terror groups and through this financing of terror group, as well of being complicit in the atrocities committed by these groups as they were aware of the crimes against humanity happening in the region at the time, but continued to to support these groups through finance. The complaint was based on the ground of complicity in crimes against humanity, complicity in war crimes, financing of terrorism, endangering the lives of the Syrian employees. And then that started an investigation and judicial investigation in 2017 against several Lafarge executives, as well as the parent company, Lafarge in France.
Fritz Streiff: The company was officially indicted in France in 2018.
Anna Kiefer: Since then, an investigation has been ongoing.
Fritz Streiff: Following several legal challenges by the company, the highest French court upheld the charges against Lafarge for financing terrorism. This also paved the way for the company to be indicted for complicity in crimes against humanity.
Anna Kiefer: To our knowledge, this is the first time that a company is charged for complicity in crimes against humanity. There is a historic impunity of economic actors when it comes to participating or fuelling international crimes. So this was really groundbreaking.
Fritz Streiff: The significance of this case is also clear to the company, which has mounted yet another appeal against the indictment for complicity in crimes against humanity. A decision on this latest and probably last challenge on the legality of the indictment is expected from the highest court in France on the 16th of January 2024. If the indictment is upheld, there seem to be no more obstacles for the case to go to trial.
It is really encouraging to see such cases being brought against ISIS. But we can't forget that the Syrian regime bears far more responsibility for crimes against humanity and war crimes than this and other terrorist organisations involved in the Syrian conflict. Statistically speaking, ISIS has been responsible for about 2 to 3% of civilian casualties. Around 90% have been caused by the regime.
And when it comes to regime cases, there have been developments too. Also in France, there was a big decision in the Dabbagh family case, a case we covered in Season One, Episode Seven of The Syria Trials. In November 2013, dual national French-Syrian father and son Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader were taken to a detention centre at Mezzeh military airport on the outskirts of Damascus. Mezzeh was run by the notoriously brutal Syrian Air Force intelligence. Neither Mazzen nor Patrick Abdelkader were seen again. The family received news in 2018 that both had died. His lawyer, Clémence Bectarte, who helped the Debbagh family bring the case to the French authorities.
Clémence Bectarte: So in the Dabbagh case, we had since 2018, in the ongoing criminal investigation that was opened in France, international arrest warrants against three Syrian top officials, Ali Mamluk, Jamil Hassan and Abdul Salam Mahmud, for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Fritz Streiff: Ali Mamluk is the former head of the National Security Bureau, the office that coordinates the Syrian intelligence services, and he’s one of the most trusted advisers of President Bashar al-Assad. Jamil Hassan was the Head of Air Force Intelligence, one of the most brutal agencies within the Syrian intelligence services. And Abdul Salam Mahmoud oversaw the Mezzeh detention centre, where both Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader were taken.
Clémence Bectarte: And so we were waiting for this final decision of the judges. And we learned on 4th of April of this year, 2023, that there was an order from the investigative judge to send the three of them to trial. So this is really a major breakthrough in the case.
Fritz Streiff: Of course, these three men are still in Syria and unlikely to leave anytime soon. So the trial would happen in absentia, without them being present.
Clémence Bectarte: The defendants will not be arrested any time soon. There's very little if no chance for that. But we still think that a public trial, happening in France against Syrian top officials, we think that there is more than a symbolic aspect to this case. You know, that it is important that these trials are able to happen alongside other trials, such as the ones held in Germany, where the defendants are actually in court and are sentenced to prison sentences that they can effectively accomplish.
Fritz Streiff: In another huge gain in the fight for justice for Syria, it was confirmed that the trial will take place between the 21st and 24th of May 2024 at the Paris Criminal Court. So what will this trial mean?
Clémence Bectarte: It will mean, I would say two things on two different levels. The first thing is that there will be a sentencing from a criminal court, an independent justice system. Having analysed the evidence gathered and considered that there was enough evidence to hold them accountable for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes. This has more weight than a simple arrest warrant issued at the stage of an investigation. There would be sentencing and new arrest warrants issued on the basis of this sentencing. So I would say that, again, the legal weight of these arrest warrants will be much more superior. And then on another level, it is also a very important step in the search for accountability, especially in a context now where a lot of states, especially the Arab League members, are normalising their relationships with the Assad regime, where we just learned that Assad was invited to the next COP 28. I mean, these are signs that are very dangerous for the Syrian population, for the Syrian victims, because this is a message to say you have now to forget about these crimes and you have now to live under the same regime as if nothing had happened.
Fritz Streiff: The normalisation of the Assad regime is currently one of the biggest sources for concern in the fight for justice for Syria. In May 2023, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, after its membership was suspended 12 years ago due to the regime's brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. President Assad has since appeared at various diplomatic occasions and regional meetings. He was also invited by the UAE to the COP 28 climate summit held in Dubai in December 2023.
Leila al-Shami, a British Syrian human rights activist, is very concerned about this increasing normalisation with Assad.
Leila al-Shami: It seems that the world is ready to kind of forgive and forget what the regime has done. We've seen various U.N. agencies make moves to re-establish contact with the regime. For example, last year, the regime was appointed to the executive board of the World Health Organisation. This is a regime which has deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals, used the destruction of healthcare facilities as a weapon of war. So there have been a number of efforts by the regime to kind of whitewash its image and give the impression that the country is now safe and stable. Also, we've seen lots of travel vloggers going to Syria, visiting regime areas and saying, you know, it's safe, it's stable here. There's nice cafés, you can eat nice Syrian sweets. People are friendly, people are happy. And these are often state-facilitated by the regime. So there are these moves to kind of re-engage with the Syrian regime, which is such a massive betrayal for Syrians and what they've been through, and is sending a message to the world that war criminals can act with impunity, that there isn't accountability for these mass human rights violations.
Fritz Streiff: There are certain reasons that some states would want to reopen relations with the Assad regime.
Leila al-Shami: The reason why the Arab countries or the countries in the region like Turkey and are willing to cooperate with the regime is because they want its support on issues which are important for them, for example, getting rid of the huge refugee population. They want to say that Syria is now stable, that the war is over, and that Syrians can go home. And we've seen the Lebanese and the Turkish government have been deporting Syrian refugees en masse back to Syria. But it's not safe for Syrians to return home. Many people that have returned have been arrested and imprisoned.
Fritz Streiff: Indeed, Syria today is miles away from being a safe and stable country.
Leila al-Shami: The situation is pretty desperate inside. The economic situation is absolutely desperate. There's no job opportunities. High levels of poverty. Unemployment. People are struggling just for the basic necessities to get by. And also, most importantly, there's a lack of hope now, people are watching the Assad regime be rehabilitated. They don't see much hope for the future.
It's great to see that there are cases being held in Europe, such as the cases in Germany holding Syrian regime people to account. But of course, these are not the top level people of the regime. And without political will, we will never get to the people who have really presided over and directed these mass human rights violations that we've seen occur.
Fritz Streiff: As we've heard before, time and again, many Syrians want to see high ranking officials held accountable. And none more so than the highest ranking of them all. For there to be true justice delivered, they need to see one man on trial. The President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Legal investigator Mariana Karkoutly heard this from the Syrian activists she interviewed for her master's thesis.
Mariana Karkoutly: I did hear a lot of comments of we need to hold Assad accountable. This is one of the biggest, biggest disappointments that Syrians who are a bit sceptical about the whole justice processes that are happening in European countries and witnesses who feel sceptical and do not want to give their testimonies because they feel like we can do all of these processes. But this particular war criminal is not being held accountable. If we gave our testimonies, we gave all the documentation and evidence possible to show what was committed, why isn’t this individual being held accountable?
Fritz Streiff: But we might actually be closer to seeing Assad on trial than some people think. It's usually taken as a given that a sitting head of state cannot be investigated, prosecuted and put on trial, except by special international courts and tribunals, like the International Criminal Court.
But in November 2023, an arrest warrant was issued for Assad, along with three of his associates, including his brother Maher. The arrest warrants issued by French investigating judges follow a criminal investigation in France into two chemical weapons attacks that occurred in Douma and Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, where more than a thousand civilians died. In issuing the arrest warrants, the investigating judges apparently considered that none of the alleged perpetrators could claim any form of immunity from prosecution, including Bashar al-Assad, as a head of state. They found that the information provided to them by a coalition of Syrian and Western civil society organisations, included evidence that Assad and the three others participated in the commission of these chemical weapons attacks.
This is the first time a sitting head of state has been the subject of an arrest warrant in another country for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It's a historic moment.
Kenan Khadaj vox pop: We have long awaited to hear of such a news. Assad, he's a mass murderer. He's a criminal. And his regime is nothing more than a terrorist organisation. Hundreds of thousands have been killed by his orders. Millions were displaced. He's responsible for the destruction of a beautiful, ancient country and turning it into a failed state. Any real court would find him guilty.
Mariana Karkoutly vox pop: The news on the arrest warrant was very uplifting in these difficult times. It's wonderful to bring forward the chemical attacks case to light. And I think this is one of the most helpful things that these arrest warrants managed to do. And it's also kind of showing a very clear political positioning towards the regime, saying that there will be no normalisation when we have such cases being taken.
Syrian women vox pop: After 12 years of waiting, we were shocked to wake up to the news that an arrest warrant had been issued by the Ministry of Justice in France in the name of Bashar al-Assad. There were mixed emotions of hope and disbelief among us. As this was the first step toward achieving international justice for the victims in Syria. It was a long time coming. But finally, the wheels of justice were starting to turn.
Ammar Daba vox pop: When I first heard about the arrest warrant that has been issued by the Ministry of Justice in France in the name of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, I felt this sense of justice despite knowing that the route to justice is long and difficult. It gave you this sense of victory, a small victory, but very, very lovely because it comes to shatter the narrative that the regime and his head, Bashar al Assad, are promoting. They are promoting that they're invincible. They are victorious. They prevailed despite the conspiracy. But now he sits there with his tail between his legs. It's an amazing, in-your-face.
Fritz Streiff: The arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad is definitely reason for optimism. And it seems to be having political impact already. Potentially because of this arrest warrant, President Assad didn't attend the COP 28 summit in Dubai in December 2023. Of course, despite the arrest warrant, it is still up in the air whether President Bashar al-Assad will ever actually stand trial. The huge efforts of Syrian and Western lawyers and activists are hugely motivating, though, and the long standing and tireless investments are starting to really pay off now. There is still energy to carry on along the long and winding road that is pursuing justice for Syria.
As we continue to wait to see if Assad will ever appear in a courtroom, other cases continue to be pushed forward. To name just a few others that are currently ongoing, a Syrian man accused of leading a pro-government militia in Tadamon, a Damascus neighbourhood that was the site of a massacre of civilians in 2013, has been arrested in northern Germany. He was allegedly one of the perpetrators.
Switzerland has issued an arrest warrant for Rifaat al-Assad, President Bashar's uncle, for his alleged role in the war crimes committed in the city of Hama in February 1982, when an uprising was brutally crushed by the regime. Another example of just how very, very slow the wheels of justice can move.
The first Syrian regime related case in the Netherlands has just finished, against an alleged militia member who fought for the regime. A decision is expected on the 22nd of January 2024. and the trial against Syrian doctor Alaa M accused of participating in the sexual violence, torture and killing of Syrian civilians in a military hospital, continues in Frankfurt in Germany.
As for Khaled al-Halabi, he might still be living in freedom in Vienna, but there's a strong case against him that, despite all appearances, is absolutely still ongoing. Next time, in Episode 11, the final episode of this season, we catch up with Abdallah and Steve Kostas, two of the key legal investigators in the case, to find out why Brigadier General al-Halabi, the highest ranking former Syrian regime official available for arrest in Europe, is still free.
Thank you for listening to this episode of The Syria Trials. I'm your host, Fritz Streiff. The producer is Sasha Edye-Lindner. The editor and fact checker is Mais Katt. The Syria Trials is a 75podcasts production. You can help us reach more people if you've enjoyed our podcast. Tell others about it and do give us a rate and review. Apparently podcast app algorithms really like that! Thank you very much.