Kholoud Helmi: I believe that the things that we have been through as Syrian people should not happen to anyone, not even in hell. Because it's so bad. To lose your home, to have no connection, and to lose family members and loved ones. I don't wish this happens to anyone on earth, not even to my enemy.
Fritz Streiff: For over 11 years, war has torn through Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed. Homes, schools, even entire cities have been reduced to rubble. The war has changed the landscape of every single Syrian’s life. But even before the Syrian regime brutally cracked down on a peaceful revolution, even before oil barrels loaded with TNT and shrapnel were thrown out of helicopters and dropped on hospitals and even before 13 million Syrians were displaced from their homes, Syria was already suffering.
Mazen Darwish: The type of crime we have before - enforced disappearance, torture. We have illegal arrests [of] people. And we have the security service.
Kholoud: I discovered that the way that I used to take from home to university, I was stepping over the bodies of the detained people. The dungeons or the cellars were under the main road, in a place that we used to call Security Square in Damascus.
Joumana Seif: At any moment, security branches, they can come to you and take you from your bed and no one dare to ask where are you? Unfortunately, the rights of the Syrian are not protected.
Fritz: When the Arab Spring revolutions began at the end of 2010 and then spread across the Middle East and North Africa region, the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, led an authoritarian regime that his father, Hafez al-Assad, had established after seizing power in a coup in 1971. It was a regime built on violence, terror and fear. The security or intelligence services in Syria, the mukhabarat were everywhere, there to spy and inform on civilians. Generations of Syrians grew up believing “the walls have ears”, fearing that voicing any dissenting political views, any anti-regime or anti-Assad beliefs out loud, could have you sent “behind the sun”, meaning to prison. and you'd never be seen again.
Kholoud: I grew up to see in every gathering, like whether it's a big wedding or something, an old lady. She’s blind. And when I became 14, my mum started to trust me as someone that is not going to say anything to anyone outside the closed doors. And she told me that she lost her sight because she cried [for] her son day and night. He was detained by the Syrian regime and he remained in prison for 23 years. He was released by the Assad regime in 2000, but his mum passed away two or three years before.
Fritz: Violence was always the preferred tool of the Assad regime. Before 2011, the Assads had waged military campaigns against entire towns and cities. Hafez and his brother Rifat, did this in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, a massacre which killed tens of thousands of people, under the guise of combating terrorism. Yet still, from the moment the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations began in Syria in early 2011, the scale of horrors committed by the regime against its own people shocked everyone. Bashar al-Assad has maintained throughout the war that he's defeating a terrorist threat, just like his father did in Hama in 1982.
Joumana: From the first day we saw the cruelty of this regime and the way that they dealt with the demonstrators. They were arrested, they were kidnapped and they were killed under torture.
Mazen: Early they start shooting people, killing them. They go to a village and attack the village, and destroy houses. Cutting internet, surrounded villages, cities, all this type of crime is new.
Joumana: Later, with the ground operations, we started to hear and see more crimes, more violations.
Archive clip 1: More than 500,000 people have been killed in the last ten years, more than 14,000 by torture.
Archive clip 2: The conflict in Syria is on the verge of a dangerous escalation, according to a senior UN official who warned that the cost to civilians could be instant and huge.
Archive clip 3: Bashar, you pig, he shouts at Syria's President Assad. You enemy of God. These were civilians.
Joumana: It's awful. I believe the Syrian regime, the Assad regime, committed all kinds of international crimes without any respect for the human dignities.
Fritz: The suffering has been enormous. But last year, in 2021 and earlier this year in 2022, there were perhaps the first early signs of justice. In the small German city of Koblenz, two former Syrian regime officials were found guilty and sentenced in the first case of Syrian war crimes and crimes against humanity being tried in a criminal court. And there are other cases, currently being built in Europe and the United States, led by Syrian civil society organisations who've set up new homes in these countries. Witness testimonies are being recorded and evidence is being collected, all with the aim of holding accountable those responsible for the otherworldly criminality that has taken place in Syria over the last ten plus years.
But can justice for Syria really be achieved in the courts of other countries? Does focusing on catching perpetrators neglect to take into account what victims and survivors actually need and want? What can the law do, and what can’t it do, to bring about justice and accountability for Syria?
Justice, and especially international criminal justice, should have the reputation of being a powerful, indomitable tiger, able to stalk and capture and sink its teeth into the guilty and not let go. But in reality, that tiger seems to be a very slow-moving beast, many of whose hunts end in failure. It's often a toothless tiger, unable to bite. This is The Syria Trials. Episode One: The Toothless Tiger.
Kristina Kaghdo: Hi, Fritz.
Fritz: So, should we first introduce ourselves?
Kristina: Yeah, go ahead. You start first.
Fritz: So I'm Fritz. I'm a human rights lawyer, currently based in Paris. A lot of my work is focusing on international criminal justice. And in recent years, many of the cases and the case building efforts that I've been part of were about international crimes, atrocity crimes that have been committed and are being committed in Syria.
Kristina: I’m Kristina. I am currently based in Amman. I'm a translator and podcast producer. And in this season, I will be presenting the Arabic series of ‘The Syria Trials’, and will occasionally also jump on board in the English series. And it's a pleasure to talk to you today in our first discussion Fritz!
Fritz: And I'm specifically happy to have you on board, Kristina, because you are from Syria. And there's a lot of things that are really difficult to understand, but also to talk about and to present in a podcast for someone that doesn't have that context of coming from the country itself. So it’s really great to have you.
Kristina: Thank you. And I appreciate also this idea, while talking about these issues, you bring people on board who are directly impacted or who are in the middle of that storm, and can present their perspective on things and share maybe some of their experiences, that can improve the understanding of the context in which things happen.
Fritz: Yeah, and a couple of things happened I think recently, which is, you know, obviously the ten year anniversary of the revolution last year, 2021. And then the judgements in the first criminal trial against former Syrian regime officials in the German city of Koblenz. One point you know, that is so important here as well is that all of this is happening in a time where, something that makes a lot of people very pessimistic, is the Assad regime being fully in power and definitely not going anywhere any time soon, it seems. And what is more, the so-called normalisation that is also happening between certain states and certain international organisations even, with that criminal regime, is a really hard pill to swallow.
Kristina: Like a lot of people ask me, so where does Syria stand now? I'm like, I don't know! This is a very big question to ask and I have no idea how to answer it. But in the context of this normalisation, in the context where we see some countries organising tourism experiences in Syria. Which my mind just literally cannot even imagine. I mean where exactly, in destroyed Aleppo or where? Like for us, Syrians who are everywhere and who feel that maybe they will never… or entertain this idea that we might never be able to go back. It doesn't feel like it's back to where it was before. It just feels like it's in a much worse place than that.
Fritz: It's an interesting time, I think, to pause, take a step back, reflect, you know, the challenges and the frustrations that people have felt in the space - and there have been many. But also to look ahead. If we know what the last ten years have looked like, you know, what could the next ten plus years look like? And that'll be an interesting exercise, I think, together with our guests.
Kristina: I totally agree. And, you know, I think especially in the Syrian context and in the context of the revolution, it took me a very long time to say that, okay, now we need to look at the consequences of what happened and at the current situation as it is, even if that means leaving a big chunk of that hope for a big change in the country behind, for the time being at least. And to look at how we can share the stories that we're hurting from so much. In a context that could maybe, possibly, potentially bring us a little bit of justice.
Kholoud: My name is Kholoud Helmi and I am a Syrian journalist and human rights activist. In 2010, I was doing my masters degree at Damascus University. I graduated that year and I was leading a very normal life, I’ve never been involved in politics before. And then when the revolution started, I found myself one of the people who were organising peaceful demonstrations in my city Darayya. My city went to the streets on the 15th of March 2011. The next Friday, 25,000 people took up the streets. So you can see, like people flooding the streets.
Kholoud: Literally one month later, my city was blocked by tanks, so the regime blocked all the entrances to my city and they used to be three or four entrances. So I couldn't go to Damascus without being searched. And that takes people one or two hours. But then my colleagues denied this and they said that it's impossible that we have tanks in the streets and I'm making up stories because I don't want to be on time. The media for the local people in Syria was state owned media and the things that you can watch on TV is the things that the Syrian regime wants you to see. So everything was controlled by the state.
Fritz: Determined to report the truth of what was really happening, Kholoud along with 20 or so others, mainly women, founded a newspaper. They called it Enab Baladi, which translates from the Arabic to something like the local grapes. Darayya, Kholoud’s hometown where the newspaper started, is well known for its delicious grapes.
Kholoud: We used to take cameras and record things and then upload them to YouTube and then everyone watched them. We covered the daily news, how the regime is breaking into houses, how they are arresting people. So we were insisting that people were not numbers only. So behind every detained person or killed person, the martyrs, there's a family and people who loves them, who are suffering.
Most of the people at the beginning were very willing to tell the stories, but moving forward, they started to fear telling their stories.
Fritz: Fear is a familiar feeling for many Syrians. The fear of being arrested without warning. The fear of being tortured, the fear of being killed or disappeared. And with a justice system used by the criminal regime as another tool to oppress anyone who dares oppose them, the rights of ordinary Syrian civilians were not protected.
Kristina: I think when I started contemplating a little bit about how justice could look like, the immediate image that I had is through these international courts, maybe. And at the same time, it felt like a very distant notion. Somewhere very far away from Syria. And it felt like, what's the point? And I think that question of what's the point was coming from a very deeply rooted misconception, a distortion of the notion of justice that I've been living with as a result of my upbringing in Syria. Because I grew up thinking that courts will never give justice to ordinary people like me who are not backed up by some very important guys in the government.
Joumana: It's totally corrupt law system. It's no law, so it's corrupt, non-independent, dishonest.
Fritz: Joumana Seif is a Syrian lawyer and human rights activist. She left Syria in 2012 and has been based in Berlin since 2013. But before that she lived and worked in Damascus, defending political prisoners and their families.
Joumana: No Syrian trust the Syrian legal system. And here it's important to say, I never had the chance to act as a lawyer officially because I was kicked from the Bar Association because of my political background, and because of my activism.
Fritz: Joumana now works as a legal adviser for ECCHR, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, where her work focuses on Syria and sexual and gender based violence.
Joumana: We want to restore the dignity of the people, the horrible experience that they lived to be recognised internationally. We have no other way to access justice.
Fritz: As it stands, the only way justice can be pursued is outside of Syria. The International Criminal Court, or ICC, is where the crimes committed in Syria should be tried. But that option is not currently available, and that's because Russia and China have blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have given the ICC a mandate to investigate and put on trial the horrific crimes committed during the war in Syria. And so individual countries have had to find other legal paths.
Countries whose legal system includes the principle of universal jurisdiction like Germany, can try Syrian crimes in their own courts of law. Universal jurisdiction or UJ means that a state can claim jurisdiction over crimes against international law, even when the crimes did not occur on that state's territory, and neither the victim nor the perpetrator is a national of that state. It was this principle that brought about the Koblenz trial.
Mazen: There is many things happened through universal jurisdiction, good and needed, and we’re happy and glad, proud about it. But we need to keep remember that this is not the justice.
Fritz: Like Joumana, Mazen Darwish was also a lawyer and human rights activist in the Syrian capital, Damascus. He founded the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, also known as SCM in Syria in 2004. And Mazen is now a refugee living in Paris from where he runs SCM. He's also my colleague. I've worked with him and his organisation for some years now.
Mazen: This is our alternative of choice because we can reach justice, because we don't have transitional justice in Syria. We don't have political transition, we don't have international justice. So we use universal jurisdiction, we use the extraterritorial action to keep the file on the table. This is not the justice.
Fritz: Tragically, right, in the past ten plus years, we have seen that the theoretical best option for justice in this context would, you know, would be a just and fair process in Syria. And that that's not possible. But the options outside of Syria, the international courts, but also the national courts that we have seen take up some of these cases now. Those options have been far from ideal as well. The frustrations of people trying to bring these crimes to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they belong, and you know, that not being possible, but also trying to bring these cases to national courts and that really taking years and years.
Kristina: I'm learning with you and with other professionals in the field that, you know, it can be a system that gives you something, a little bit to be happy about, or that gives you a certain sense maybe of justice. But that also has its limitations and that it's important to be realistic about that and look at those limitations and see what other options we have to claim justice.
Fritz: In a way, these trials aren't just about achieving prosecutions and sending perpetrators to prison. They're also about establishing the truth of what really happened in Syria. Kholoud Helmi.
Kholoud: The documenting idea came in August 2012, after the regime broke into my home city and they killed over a thousand people over three nights. So we were besieged, bombarded, and then they went into houses and they literally slaughtered people in front of their families. So after that, it took us one month to resume producing the newspaper because first of all, we felt helpless and hopeless. I mean, why we are writing up the stories, why I am telling you my story, and then you are not giving a damn. Sorry for cursing, but I mean, no one cares. Not the United Nations, not the international community. And we've been killed. And the people who were slaughtered in the streets were family members, relatives, friends.
We gave up. And then in the end, we decided that if we give up, then it's the end. We have... I call it a burden. That we survived. We were not killed back then. So I have the burden to tell the story of those who were slaughtered in the streets and their families.
That was end of August 2012, when we started to see ourselves not only a medium for disseminating news, if I may say so, but also a medium for preserving the collective memory of the people who suffered from the atrocities committed by the regime.
Joumana: It's important now because with the time, you know, the evidence will be destroyed with, you know, the memory of the survivors. Also, it will be not as strong as now. So it's important to activate this to work on this now. And also to prove our narrative, to prove what happened in Syria, and to prove that it was a revolution for dignity, for freedom, for human rights. And it was faced with the cruelty of the Assad regime.
Kholoud: We had high aspirations back then. That was 2012. We were young amateurs and naive, and we believed in international justice and the international community. So we thought that part of our great job is that we need to document things and describe everything because that might be used as an evidence in one of the courts that now I believe that it will never happen.
Fritz: If too many expectations are put on, on what the law can do in the face of these unbelievable injustices, then disappointment is probably just around the corner, and we've definitely seen that as well in the last few years.
Kristina: I remember after Koblenz… I was one of the cynics about Koblenz actually, but after the ruling was announced, there was a part of me that felt relieved because I felt like there are at least two guys, who maybe will have the chance to understand the very negative and painful impact that they had on the lives of so many people. And that the world is watching. And this idea that the world is watching, I think, can be quite healing, especially when you have the chance to say out loud your story that might be very, very painful, be heard, have it documented, and know that the regime, with all its systems, cannot reach out to every place and delete it from everywhere.
Fritz: Joumana Seif worked on the Koblenz trial. A key part of her job was supporting the Syrian survivors who testified.
Joumana: I'm really, I feel very happy and I felt happy and I cried after the verdict in Koblenz because I felt I felt satisfied when I saw the survivor themselves that they were happy with this achievement in the level of just recognition of the rights of the Syrian people.
Fritz: I mean, if we want to stay with looking at this case and this ruling, the Koblenz one, look at that as one of the milestones on the side of, you know, of the road towards justice then yes, you know, it took a long time to get there. And yes, it is only one small case with two arguably pretty unimportant figures on the accused bench. But the signal that it sent is powerful and gives a certain hope that maybe we're only at the beginning of at least the next phase, of at least the next stretch on that road between that milestone and the next milestone. Maybe this is the beginning of a phase where more people that have suffered, survivors, family members will find their speech. After so many years of also processing all that pain and all that suffering. I believe so. However, I'm a little bit of a bad advisor in this regard because I'm an eternal optimist.
Kristina: Yeah, I've been thinking that I'd like somehow to find some way to be realistic, but also not lose hope and not… not just sit back and say we cannot do anything anymore. Because I feel like in a very personal way, I owe it to all those friends and people I don't know, who are still detained, who are missing or who left this world already, that I owe it to the memory of the revolution.
And I think the legal processes that are happening, the shift that's happening in people's perception of justice and of what can be done in this world, to tell your story, all the different possible ways to do that. Be it in courts, on podcasts, in written form, whatever. It makes me feel closer to this community, to those millions of strangers that I don't know, but with whom we are together, hurting for the same things.
Fritz: Kholoud Helmi lost many of her co-founding members of Enab Baladi, the newspaper they founded at the beginning of the revolution.
Kholoud: One day we're going to meet them, whether they are dead or detained. I don't know why I have the feeling that if I meet them one day and they ask me, what you have done for us? And then I will tell them that I was doing nothing. It won’t look good. So. So I am doing all the work for at least those who are detained to be released, but also for every Syrian one who suffered the same. Because it's not only myself and my group and my friends, it's almost every single Syrian.
When you have the ability to speak up, when you have the ability to speak another language, when you have the ability to collapse, but then gather yourself and collect yourself and stand up. I think this is a privilege.
Fritz: I think it is really important to zoom out sometimes. And we are at this moment now where we want to take stock, where we want to ask ourselves the question, where do we stand? And one of the things that is absolutely clear remains absolutely clear since the very beginning, is that the people are saying – the people that I am listening to and working with - that the ultimate goal is to hold accountable Assad and his inner circle. That that hasn't happened yet is a huge failure of international justice, of course. However, it's not without precedent that it takes a long time to get to the most responsible. You're dealing with immunities. You're dealing with international political obstacles.
Kholoud: What really freaks me out is that if they let Assad go, as if he did nothing, a million Assad is going to appear. Especially with the with the big wave of the far-right wing moving like really steadily and heavily in Europe and the UK and in the United States. Which means that we are going to see other replicas of Assad very soon. And I, I don't doubt this. It's because if you have the power, how evil you can be.
Mazen: This is a key I believe, for that sustainable peace in Syria. Because if we find a solution. I'm not talking about revenge. A solution. If we succeed to make the victim satisfied. And guarantee there is accountability. Yeah, for sure. I'm not a romantic to think that we will hold accountable 23 million Syrian. Each one. But minimum, some of those responsible. Especially the regime, they are responsible about more than 80% from the country. And they are the state. They have double responsibility. They have a responsibility to protect the citizens.
Fritz: It's happened, you know, more than a handful of times that the most responsible did end up on trial, even in situations where people would have said ten or twenty years before, that will never happen. I think that, again, it does give hope that that might happen to Assad and his inner circle, hopefully sooner than later, but that it will happen at some point.
Kristina: What helps me a lot zoom out is this idea that, you know, the people who started a revolution in a country that was suppressed by a dictatorship such as Assad’s, they will have the energy and the power to see this through. Although they have every right to get tired. We're human beings also with our limitations, just like our legal systems. But I think it's very important that we sometimes be able to remember how it all started, where it all started. It started in the streets with big, big numbers of people in the streets. And those images and the feelings I had back then is what really helps me now to be like, okay, if that happened, then other beautiful things can happen.
Fritz: Through the efforts of Syrian civil society organisations, lawyers, witnesses and many others, a week after the former Syrian regime official Anwar Raslan was sentenced in Koblenz to life imprisonment, proceedings against another alleged Syrian war criminal began in Frankfurt in Germany in January 2022. The defendant is a former Syrian doctor called Alaa M, who allegedly tortured, killed and sexually abused people in military hospitals in Syria.
There are so many factors to consider when thinking about and discussing Syria, when trying to make sense of what's happened in the country since 2011, and even before, that it sometimes feels like you're trying to put together a puzzle with thousands of different pieces. Not everything makes sense immediately, and certain stories only start to make sense when you have other pieces.
Next time, in Episode Two of ‘The Syria Trials’, we examine another piece of the puzzle and look at how the Syrian regime has systematically used medical violence against its own civilians.
I'm Fritz Streiff. Thank you for listening.