Fritz Streiff: Hi, and welcome to Episode 11, the final in this new season of The Syria Trials. This episode is a little different to the others. I'll be in conversation with two of the key legal investigators who have worked on the Halabi case for a number of years. Abdallah, the activist turned investigator from Raqqa. Abdallah's knowledge of the city and his wide reaching network of contacts was absolutely essential and gathering fundamental witnesses in the Halabi case. And Steve Kostas, who has worked on the case since 2016 and has led the legal NGO, the Open Society Justice Initiative's Syria work since 2014.
Yalla. So I think everybody that's been listening to this season of the podcast probably knows who you are because you've featured on a lot of episodes and you're an integral part of the story and of the case. But maybe we can just start Abdallah with you. Introduce yourself once more. You know, who you are and what your involvement in the case has been.
Abdallah: My name is Abdallah. I am a Syrian activist from Raqqa City investigating war crimes committed by the Assad regime and terrorist groups. My mission is to uncover the truth, looking for evidence, for witnesses, and just working for bringing justice for Syrian people.
Fritz Streiff: On to you, Steve.
Steve Kostas: So I'm Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Strategic Litigation Program of the Open Society Foundations. And we run a Syria accountability project. A big part of it is working with Abdallah and other Syrian partners to build cases, bring them to prosecutors in Europe, and support survivors to participate in criminal prosecutions.
Fritz Streiff: Today’s, as we recording this, the 8th of December 2023. This morning, I got a sort of alert note on my phone that there was an arrest made in The Netherlands of a Syrian man that allegedly committed crimes against humanity in the forms of torture and sexual violence. And when I first saw the alert come in, I thought maybe maybe this is the arrest in Austria that we've all been waiting for. It's been such a long timeline. It's been such a long process. I mean, that dossier was handed to the Austrian authorities in early 2016. What's that? Seven, almost eight years ago. Can you two try to explain what's been happening since then and how come we are where we are, where we're waiting for this arrest, but it's still not happened and Halabi remains free?
Steve Kostas: Yeah, well, you're absolutely right. It's been a very long time that we have been working on this case and that the prosecutor has been investigating it. As you said, the initial information on Halabi was submitted in 2016. We actually started bringing survivors forward as witnesses in late 2019, and we have been since 2019. So we continue to do that throughout the pandemic and up through this year. There's additional evidence that's being collected and submitted in the case. But I think it's fair to say that it's taking so much longer than we anticipated and much longer than we think is appropriate for a case of this kind. So obviously, it's frustrating for me as a lawyer in the case, but the impact on survivors and on Syrians calling for accountability, not just in this case, but for all of the crimes, it's a well known case and it really undermines the momentum that Syrians are trying to achieve and in seeking accountability.
Abdallah: I agree what Steve say. I believe in justice in Austria and in Europe in general. But the problem with the procedures are just like very slow, very slow. It's like take a long time. So that's affect us and affect the witness and their families. And, you know, it's like waiting a long time and nothing happened.
Fritz Streiff: You know, in the meantime, he's still free. For all we know, he is in Austria living a life. Do we know anything about that life?
Steve Kostas: As you say, he is in Austria. He doesn't have a passport. His asylum status was revoked and he's not able to travel from Austria, at least not with papers. He has participated in the investigation. He gave an interview to the prosecutor. He's represented by counsel that was disclosed in the media. But I don't know more about what his life is.
Fritz Streiff: If you had to imagine his status… from what we know and what you just described, Steve, he is being represented. He has a lawyer that on his behalf and with his approval, I suppose, has been talking to the media. Where's he at right now? What's he thinking and feeling?
Steve Kostas: I think I find that question like quite a difficult one. We support and represent a large number of survivors who were detained in his detention site and suffered horrendous abuses there. It has overturned their lives. I mean, it has caused tremendous pain and suffering to them, that carries on, you know, to this day. And so, you know, one hopes that he understands that and feels tremendous remorse for it. And that will come out in the trial.
Abdallah: I think he’s very lucky because he will have lawyers and he will have a right to defend himself and a fair trial in a safe place. And no torture, no electric shock torture, no nail extraction. So I think he is lucky that he will have this trial in a good place, comparing in Syria and what they did for us and for the other victims.
Fritz Streiff: And we assume based on also what the lawyer has been saying, that he's been cooperating, he appeared as a witness in the BVT trial. Can we conclude from that that he's preparing for his own trial and that he's expecting that to happen sooner or later?
Steve Kostas: His lawyer is, you know, will have access to the investigation file and will be aware of sort of the status of the investigation. So it's our belief that there is more than enough evidence for a trial and that the prosecutor should be moving to a trial. And I assume that the defence would see that as well.
Fritz Streiff: As we were just talking and as I was asking these questions, I was also thinking the witnesses’ and the victims’ experience overshadow by far the type of experience that an accused like Halabi will be going through. Can you tell what this long waiting game and also the relatively comfortable situation of Halabi, what that's done to the witnesses and the victims in this case?
Abdallah: Yes, I can give you example on this. Month ago I met with two or three witnesses participating in this case. I observed their deep frustration and they talking about what they can do, what they can do to push things forward. And they ask themselves, should we go to Vienna and, you know, stage a sit in front of the court or Ministry of Justice and like do the demonstration or something like this. And, you know, one of them just remarked, nothing will happen. Nothing will change. It is just a waste of time because we are waiting since 2019 till now, and nothing happened. So they start to feel like, no one will do anything on this case. Maybe he will run away. Maybe they not accept the case. I don't know. It was like tough time for them.
Fritz Streiff: You mentioned the word frustrations, huge frustrations. And I'm also hearing a possible sort of loss of motivation to participate and energy to continue pushing right, which which is, of course, bad for the case as such and bad for the prosecutor's case, which, you know, from my perspective, would or should mean that it's also in the interest of the prosecutor to finally move ahead with this case in order to motivate the witnesses and the victims participating.
Abdallah: Yes, absolutely, indeed. This what happened to them, you know, just feels like it's like waste of time, We think a lot. And especially now, you know, what going on in the world and Ukraine and Gaza and other places. And they don't see themselves as important. But I think this will change if the prosecutor take action and they arrested him. So I think this is will change.
Fritz Streiff: Re-spark and energy and motivation…
Abdallah: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Fritz Streiff: The other news that's happening at the same time, in the past two months, we have seen so many positive developments in the Syria justice and accountability space, at the International Court of Justice, in various other national jurisdictions, trials in The Netherlands, another arrest in The Netherlands today. And of course the biggest of all of them, the arrest warrants for the President, Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher and two chemical weapons program officials in Syria. Does that at least like make up a little bit for the frustrations in this case?
Steve Kostas: I think this sort of relationship between the concrete achievements of Syrian investigators and Syrian activists, their sort of allies and international groups, etc., to achieve prosecutions, arrest warrants, etc., that creates the feeling that there is accountability, even when it's an arrest warrant and not a prosecution, for example. And the inverse of that is that the publicly known, long, drawn out investigation of Halabi, in which there are very few indications of progress, has the opposite effect. It sort of gives the survivors who, you know, given up their time and made a significant sacrifice to testify, it gives them the feeling of futility or it can add to that. And it gives the wider community a sense that there are states in Europe that aren't doing all that they should be doing to prosecute high level or at least high to mid-level officials who are responsible for significant abuses. We shouldn't overstate the complexity of this case. It's not, it's not an enormously complex case. There is a person in Austria who numerous witnesses have said is responsible for terrible abuses committed against them. There's a lot of evidence that shows what the system was, that these abuses were committed in. So lots of documents from CIJA, lots of witness testimony, cases brought in other countries, etc.. It's not an impossible case to make. It shouldn't take anywhere near seven years to build this case. And so it's our expectation that it will definitely be going ahead.
Fritz Streiff: Another question that I think we've been trying to understand is, in terms of expectations, we now understand the challenges and the complications that the Austrian legal system faced in trying to build this case. In terms of the applicable law to this very case and the limitations of that, is there any indication - it can be, you know, a ballpark number - of what kind of sentence, if Halabi were to be tried, and successfully tried, and the prosecutor would make a successful case. What kind of length of sentence we may expect?
Steve Kostas: I can only say, I guess, what we're advocating for and whether the prosecutor accepts that or the court accepts that, I don't know. I can't say that. So we're advocating that the crimes against the survivors be considered torture, for which Austria has extraterritorial jurisdiction at the time that they were committed, and that the torture against each survivor be considered a separate charge or a separate count. So we're hoping for a lengthy sentence.
Fritz Streiff: We already went into the larger picture of what's been going on in the justice and accountability for Syria landscape, with a lot of positive news coming in. But obviously the Halabi frustration remains. Can we just situate an imagination of the day of the arrest, Abdallah? If and when that day comes, you know, what would that mean for you personally?
Abdallah: I can't express my my feelings if that day happen. I think it's a it's a big win for justice in Syria. And for the victims and for the people who lost their lives in the Syrian revolution. This will be a big day, a big victory for us. I don't know what will I will do, in fact, that day. Yeah, it is I dreaming on that day. Not just me, all our witnesses.
Steve Kostas: If you can permit me, I would say I can imagine that Abdallah both feels the emotions of, you know, of being a survivor himself, but also the part he often doesn't speak as much about is the weight that he carries in bringing so many survivors into this case and the trust that they must place in him to be willing to participate. And this sort of feeling of an obligation that he has to them to make it a successful case, to make it not an additional burden on their lives which are already so impacted. So it will be, you know, a great achievement for Abdallah and a great day for all of the survivors, but also a huge weight, I imagine, lifted from him.
Fritz Streiff: To round things off. This is a question that I have actually asked myself a number of times in the past few weeks, with so many things happening. You've already pointed to it as well, Abdallah, with the wars going on in Ukraine and in Gaza. And there's I feel like more than enough reason to, you know, be somehow hopeless, especially when your business is justice and accountability. So it's a personal question, really, and that's why I'm so interested in hearing your answers to this. But maybe I can start with you, Steve. What is it that keeps you going? I mean, just focusing on the Syria work, right? We've discussed now in two seasons how incredibly frustrating this work can be and has been to a large degree, right? Yes, we are seeing some pretty positive developments lately. But the Halabi case, of course, symbolises that. So, yeah, if we reflect on that, if you look back on all these years, I mean, you've been involved, you know, for a long time, what is it that keeps you going?
Steve Kostas: What keeps me personally going, I have to say, is relationships with people like Abdallah, with Syrian partners. It has helped that there is a really clear vision of what we're trying to achieve. And, you know, it's definitely only going to be partly achieved, like, you know, have to be realistic, like there isn't going to be perfect justice or anything like that. But there are aspects of it that seem achievable. And the solidarity with partners is sort of the key part that motivates.
Fritz Streiff: How about you, Abdallah?
Abdallah: Ah yes. It is our hope that by exposing the truth and raising awareness about this case or other cases, we can pave the way for more justice and peaceful future for Syria and its people. I think the only thing that we remain. Justice.
Fritz Streiff: Thanks to my guests Abdallah and Steve Kostas. And this was the final episode of The Syria Trials, The Disappearing General. As we just reflected with Steve and Abdallah, what a ride Season Two has been. And I know it's a little disappointing that we haven't been able to end the series as we all wanted and perhaps expected - with the news that Halabi has been arrested. But I think from the conversation with Steve and Abdallah just now, we can conclude that there's plenty of reason to stay hopeful. And of course, if there are any developments in the case, such as an indictment, an arrest and a trial, we will, of course, let you know. If you've enjoyed Season Two, please do rate the podcast and leave us a glowing review. Thank you so much.
I'm Fritz Streiff. The producer is Sasha Edye-Lindner, and the editor and fact checker is Mais Katt. And as this is the very last episode of the final season of this podcast, let me in my other capacity as founder and director of 75 podcasts, take the opportunity to thank the entire production team from the bottom of my heart. It's been a real pleasure working with each one of you. I also want to thank everybody who has lent their voice to the podcast, has appeared on it as a guest, has worked with us on background research. Thank you so much. This entire thing would have not been possible without you. And last but not least, thank you very much to our supporters at IFA and the German Foreign Office. See you on the next podcast.