The Syria Trials/
S1E9: To Bear Witness


Witnesses are the lifeblood of criminal trials. But legal proceedings can be extremely difficult for witnesses. The retelling of experiences, which more often than not were traumatic, can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, and the possibility of becoming retraumatised is forever looming. In this episode, we hear from a witness who gave her testimony at the Koblenz trial, and from the legal practitioners who put careful consideration for witnesses at the heart of the case building work that they do.

The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff. It was produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with editorial support from Mais Katt. The episode was mixed by Tobias Withers.

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

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Episode Transcript

Ammar Al Khatib VO: The Syrian regime obliterates the facts and tampers the crime scenes, but the testimonies of witnesses brings the truth to the surface again. For instance, after the departure of the Syrian opposition and many of the residents of the Damascus suburbs, the Syrian regime removed some of the mass graves of the victims of the chemical massacre and tried to state that the chemical massacre was fabricated by the opposition. And that there were no mass graves in the first place. But the witnesses had documented data on these incidents, including videos and pictures of these graves. And so, they could both testify about what they had witnessed, but also provide actual evidence, videos, pictures to back up their testimonies. 

Joumana Seif: The survivors, the plaintiffs, the witnesses, they really play the most important role, the crucial role in this and the evidence that they provide, it’s the most important evidence, I believe. 

Toby Cadman: It is also very difficult for many of these individuals to meaningfully participate in this process when they're still suffering from the effects of the conflict. They still have family inside Syria. And so, they're putting a lot at stake in order to ensure that there is a process of justice and accountability. 

Rowaida Kanaan VO: It was one of the most difficult days I had experienced since my detention. They wanted to know the most specific of details. They would ask me what was the distance between point A and B? How big was the room? The details were so specific, I felt that for a moment I had returned to that place. I could smell it. I could hear the voices interrogating me. It was an extremely difficult day. Truly, truly difficult. 

Fritz Streiff: Witnesses are the lifeblood of any international criminal case. But human memory is not perfect, especially when the events occurred long ago and were traumatising to begin with. The emotional investment that is asked of witnesses can make the giving of testimonies and the cases being built around them a very taxing and fragile process, and one in which careful consideration for the human being is not always made the top priority. Welcome to The Syria Trials. Episode Nine. To Bear Witness. 

Rowaida VO: I am Rowaida Kanaan from Syria. I currently live in France but I am from Zabadani, a city near Damascus. I used to work in Damascus as a mathematics teacher. My interests in politics emerged in 2008 after I travelled outside of Syria. It was a shock for me to witness how people outside of Syria lived more comfortably. This is when I started reading about the history of Syria and gradually entering into politics. And then the Syrian Revolution erupted. 

Archive of 2011 protests 

Rowaida VO: I was detained three times. The first time was at the end of 2011, because I participated in a demonstration. It lasted three or four days. The second arrest was in February 2012. At the time, the regime was bombing the Khalidiya area in Homs. Our comrades in Homs told us that there are a large number of dead and wounded and that they need a lot of medicine. We collected medicine from wherever we could. I kept the medicine at my house. One night, around 1am, security forces surrounded the entire house and I was arrested along with the medicine. It's never made it to Homs. 

Fritz: Rowaida was arrested again in June 2013. This was her longest detention, lasting around ten months. 

Rowaida VO: I was arrested because of my press card. They did not know who I was working for. They just saw the word “press” on the card and automatically assumed that I worked for Al Jazeera. And so, they arrested me. 

Ammar VO: My name is Ammar Al Khatib. When I was imprisoned, I recorded the names of the detainees I met there, and the information about them. Other prisoners did the same, and we used to memorise the names of the prisoners, their phone numbers and characteristics in order to be able to deliver this information to people outside the prison, namely their families. 

Fritz: This is not Ammar’s real name or voice. An actor is voicing his words to protect his identity. Like Rowaida, Ammar was arrested because of participating in the Syrian Revolution. He was moved around a number of security branches and prisons, including the notorious Saydnaya prison, before being released. 

Ammar VO: When I got out of prison, I was totally trapped and constantly harassed by the security forces. They kept summoning me and interrogating me. I decided to move out of Damascus to the north of Syria and undertook a very dangerous trip where I was smuggled to Idlib. I subsequently moved to Turkey. When I was in Turkey, I underwent courses in the field of documenting violations and taking legal testimonies. I started working at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in 2018. 

Fritz: Ammar now works as an investigator for SCM. He searches for witnesses and documents their testimonies in a way that is suitable to be used in subsequent legal proceedings. And he does not only speak to people who are survivors of the Syrian regime's crimes. 

Ammar VO: We communicate with officers who have defected to gather as much information as possible. It's not enough for us that the officer has defected from the regime to believe his testimony and use it. We verify the authenticity of the testimonies of the defected officers in order to make sure that they did not take part in acts of violence against civilians or commit war crimes. We do that by scrutinising their testimonies and the context of events. In addition to linking this with the information related to the dates of their defections, locations, military service areas and the position or rank they held. It's worth mentioning that we have greatly benefited from the testimonies of defected officers. 

Fritz: There are different ways to build an international criminal case. Some cases emerge from the witnesses themselves, what they have seen and experienced then forming the basis of the case. Other cases begin with a particular crime. For example, an attack on a hospital. Civil society investigators like Ammar will then seek out witnesses connected with that crime. 

Ammar VO: Sometimes we have an open case and start searching for possible victims and witnesses, who can help us with proving the charges and supporting the evidence and the case we are working on. Other times, the victims ask us to help them with building a case. Some cases have started with the testimony of one person who contacted us and told us that he saw a criminal he recognises somewhere. Here, we start investigating to get acquainted with the details and then we start searching for additional witnesses and open the case. 

Fritz: After receiving a call that implied she might be ambushed and detained once again, Rowaida decided to leave Damascus. She undertook the same journey as Ammar, travelling first to Idlib in the north of Syria and then on to Turkey. 

Rowaida VO: Let me tell you something. When I was in Turkey, I was with a friend who I had also been detained with. We heard that there was an officer who had defected and that he used to work at the al-Khatib branch. 

Fritz: The al-Khatib branch also has another name. Branch 251. This was where Rowaida was detained the first time she was arrested. 

Rowaida VO: My friend and I thought that we could start collecting witnesses and their testimonies. We teamed up with an organisation that worked in justice and accountability. This was in 2016. We never imagined back then that there would be a court hearing. 

Fritz: After three years in Turkey, Rowaida sought asylum in France. 

Rowaida VO: When I got to France, my friend who worked with ECCHR called me and informed me that they were about to file a case against an officer who worked in their al-Khatib branch. It turned out to be the same officer who would hear about in Turkey. Anwar Raslan. 

Fritz: This was the case that became the Koblenz trial, the first to ever try the Syrian regime's crimes against humanity in a European criminal court. 

Rowaida VO: In my first meeting with ECCHR, they only wanted to know if the date of my detention was the same as that of his time working at the prison. I initially thought that since I was detained at the branch for only four days, maybe it wasn't worth following a case over. I was also worried about my sister still in Syria, that she might be at risk of danger from the authorities. We spoke at length about every aspect and I wasn't in any way forced to do anything. They were just putting all the options on the table. In the end, I agreed to testify. 

Ammar VO: Many witnesses fear for their own safety or the safety of their families. The witnesses’ families could be subjected to harm, danger or pressure if they live inside Syria, within the regime-controlled areas. Even the witnesses who live in Syria's neighbouring countries can feel threatened and endangered. Our policies and the way that we work focus largely on the safety of the witnesses. And so, we have procedures in place aimed at protecting the witness as much as possible. For example, we only communicate through secure channels. It's not our job to convince the witnesses. They have ultimate freedom to testify if they want to or not. But we dispel their fears and try to be realistic. We explain the dangers of testifying, as well as the methods of protection the judicial system can provide. What we really try to address is the frustrations Syrians feel, as most of them feel that their testimonies are worthless and won't change the reality. 

Rowaida VO: During my testimony, I was accompanied by a German lawyer. The session also had a German-Arabic interpreter. There were two detectives and since I was being brought in by the French judiciary, I was also accompanied by two individuals from there. I already knew the lawyer that they assigned to me. He was very engaged in the case, well aware of the situation in Syria and well aware of this case specifically. They really took care of everything, including the lawyer's payment, my accommodation and my transportation. 

It was a very long session. We started around 9am and finished around 6pm. We only had one break at lunch and we were talking the entire time. It was an exhausting day on every level. At the end of it, they gave me time to read the translated text. I made sure that everything was written accurately, and then that was it. A painful day was over. 

Fritz: Witnesses are integral to cases. But unlike crime-based evidence, like videos that can be paused and replayed at will, or even blood samples that can be taken in and out of storage, examined and re-examined repeatedly, witnesses are human beings. The physical and emotional exhaustion of retelling, in great detail, a traumatic event that happens to you takes its toll, and retraumatisation is always looming, too. It is sometimes true that in the building of these cases, witnesses are side-lined and are not treated considerately as human beings with changing wishes, needs and desires. Once they have given their testimony, it can happen that little aftercare is provided. Which is partly why Leila Sibai and Mariana Karkoutly, two Syrian legal practitioners, have put deep and careful consideration for their witnesses at the heart of the case building work that they do. 

Leila Sibai: My name is Leila Sibai. I am a legal practitioner. Mariana and I started working together a bit over two years ago in 2020, and we've been developing our own casework since then. 

Mariana Karkoutly: I’m Mariana Karkoutly, I'm Leila’s colleague. As she said, we've been working together for two and a half years in legal investigations that are related to war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. 

Leila: To Mariana and I, our work is inherently about what the people that we work with want to see come out of the case. And without them, there is no case. Obviously, we need witnesses to have a strong case. But if the witnesses are not interested in this approach to justice, then maybe this is the wrong case. We constantly discuss how to prioritise their needs and work ourselves as a medium, you know, as legal practitioners who know how to work the system - how do we enable the form of justice that they would like to seek for themselves? And that means that we're trying to aim to build long term relationships with the people that we're working with. And this is something that's called survival centred approach, and that's something that we're slowly starting to see more of and we're slowly starting to hear more discussions on the ethics of the work that we're doing. But I think that's something that should be prioritised a lot more than it is at the moment. 

Mariana: The other point is that after we reach out to people, it's a constant reminder that we tell ourselves and we talk with people about is that they don't have to give their testimony. We are working on this case. It's up to them. And it is tiring. It's very tiring to constantly look for people and to constantly talk to people who are not necessarily direct victims. But that's the way where you kind of really remind yourself that it's not about me, it's about them. And this is what builds longer partnerships, and this also what creates snowballing. So, the moment where you are actually trusted by the person, where the people understand that everything that you're talking to them is transparent and is honest and is managing their expectation. This is the moment where they would say, actually, I have a cousin who was detained there and who would actually like to speak to you. So, this is where you get to more victims and survivors who willingly want to speak to you and who trust what you're working on. 

Leila: I mean, on my side, I understand it as us working on the basis of informed consent, and that the person cannot consent unless they know what they're consenting to. And that means that we spend quite a lot of time in each interview, in each conversation that we have with the person explaining what we can and cannot do, who we are, that they have a right to stop the process and withdraw their testimony at any point. And I know that a lot of legal organisations have taken consent when you do the interview and on the basis of that consent, they have the right to share the testimony and we have that right. But we don't act on it. Which means that we will not share any information with any legal body or anybody whatsoever, unless the person has recently agreed to this specific information being shared with this specific entity for this specific case. And, you know, that does mean that if the person is not interested in justice anymore, then no matter how important their testimony is, it will not be shared because we need to be constantly keeping them up to date on what we're currently doing, the time it takes to develop a case because it takes years. So, you know, sometimes the person consents to it thinking it's going to be within six months and we get back in touch a long, long time later. 

Rowaida VO: I feel that I have a coping mechanism where my brain blocks out difficult parts of my life. I don't speak or even think of them. But in this session where I give my testimony, they removed this block. When they took me back to those details, I felt that that person and everyone associated with the system should face accountability. And now I had the chance to help that process. I even decided by the end of this session that I wanted to be a plaintiff. 

Fritz: A plaintiff or a civil party is a survivor who has given testimony saying that they have been directly harmed by the defendant. As a direct victim, many jurisdictions allow for these witnesses to take a more active role in the proceedings in comparison with other witnesses. In a way, they officially joined the prosecutor in the case against the defendant. And so, they would generally have the right to stay informed about pre-trial developments, have access to parts of the case file, and are able to file requests for adding more evidence and charges. Most importantly, though, they have the right to speak during the actual public trial, this time in a courtroom in front of judges. Rowaida travelled to the al-Khatib trial in Koblenz to testify. 

Rowaida VO: I went in thinking not about what I would say in court, but about the fact that I will see that man again. I thought about this and I thought about my friends who were with me in the prison and whether this means that justice will be served for us. Would they have been happy with this? I thought about all this until I reached the courthouse. 

When I arrived, I had a different lawyer who I had met a day earlier. His name was Sebastian. He wouldn't interfere with anything I said. It was about being in the atmosphere rather than being prepared. Because having a prepared statement might risk muddling the facts and order of events. That is why they try not to engage in details, so the brain doesn't get lost in them. 

Mariana: Another thing that we work on is we do not write word by word what the witnesses say, but we take notes of what witnesses say, and that Leila can elaborate more on. So basically, we say that the witness has mentioned this or the witness has mentioned that, because also the memory plays a role with trauma. 

Leila: Mariana said it beautifully. Basically, what we're doing is just ensuring that the notes that we have reflect what the person said. But it is written in the third person and it's written as a memorandum of our impressions of what the witness said, because it is what it is. There's no way that anyone can ever write everything that the person said in an interview. And to reflect on, you know, the impact of trauma on the person's memories, the impact of conversations with other people, the fact that, you know, I change my mind about what they eat yesterday, maybe, you know, I don't remember everything. And that was not a traumatic moment. In fact, it was probably a really great moment, you know! So, we're just trying to reflect the very delicate role of memory in those testimonies, by leaving a bit of room for ambiguity or a bit of room for change on the side of the witness, so that once they reach further stages and talk to the authorities or testify in court, if they say something that contradicts their initial statement with us, there is space for them to say, Oh, it's Mariana and Leila’s fault. 

Rowaida VO: The second day of testimony, it was difficult to enter with the Covid protocol. The judge had my testimony and she was making sure of its accuracy. She would try to ask unrelated questions to throw me off track. But I answered all of her questions. I had drawn a plan for the room where my first interrogation at the branch took place. I showed it on screen and she asked me more about the room where interrogations take place, and she asked where Anwar’s office was. After I finished my testimony, I went to the seats at the back. Anwar was literally next to me. There was just a metre and half between us. He was listening to the lawyer, the judge and me, but without any reactions. When I got closer, I realised that he just wouldn't look up. I looked at him directly and he wouldn't look back. I felt a sense of victory, knowing that I was in a place where I can hold him accountable. When he was once a person who tortured me, who hit my friends. 

In the branch I was blindfolded. I had many interrogations blindfolded, not being able to see. And now I could see. I thought, I can look at you and you don't dare to look back. It was a beautiful feeling, but I was at the same time afraid to have wronged this person, since he was a dissident, a defector. He deserved what was coming for him. But in the depth of my thoughts, there was a form of guilt. 

Fritz: Leila and Mariana's approach to their case building also takes into account how certain crimes can affect women differently, as well as the societal and cultural context in which these crimes happen. An example that Mariana gave us was of a woman living in a besieged area who’s breastfeeding her baby and how she's impacted differently by the siege than a man is. She can't get access to formula or food to nourish herself and produce breast milk. Problems a man doesn't need to face as directly. 

Leila: There are obviously a lot of examples, where this kind of dynamics are at stake. And the reason that we're talking about it is because, because it affects the crime in oh so many different ways, it's something that should constantly be in the mind of the person doing the investigation so that they also change, you know, which questions they're asking, how they are speaking to them. If you're speaking to a woman, maybe ask yourself, should you have a woman investigator? Should you have an SGBV expert? 

Fritz: SGBV here meaning sexual and gender based violence. 

Leila: Are you actually talking to women? Because one of the things that we faced, with Mariana, is that we're often referred to men and it's understandable in the context because a lot of men were more visibly politically active or had the role that's very publicly understandable to society. And so, we kept being referred to men. And it took a really conscious effort on our side. And that was not an easy one to go and reach out to people who are not as publicly present, but who were there and who were witnesses to some of the events that we are investigating. 

Mariana: We heard a lot from witnesses who got divorced by their husbands because they were detained and because there was an assumption that they were raped. Of witnesses who were raped in detention facilities, who were impregnated and who left the detention facility. None of their family wanted to have any contact with them. And of victims who until today, are asked by journalists or other people who are documenting human rights atrocities that happened to them, so were you raped? So, these kinds of questions that Leila was very well referring to, the fact that we need to be more aware of how we speak with victims of these human rights atrocities. 

Rowaida VO: On my way to the final hearing, I was really depressed. I remembered everything that happened in Syria, not only in my detention. The bombing, the beatings, the displacement and arrests. And that I was on my way to the court hearing of a person who was a second-degree criminal. The first-degree criminals like Jamil Hassan and Bashar al Assad remain in Syria, performing the same violations. 

When I arrived to the courthouse, the plaintiffs and witnesses were familiar faces. Many of us knew one another. When I saw the amount of press on the one hand, I was very happy as I was shedding light on a Syrian cause. But on the other, I was worried that our justice would be framed as achieved through this one man's punishment, when our cause is much greater. 

Anwar Raslan is a man from the middle tier of the violators in Syria. But it is very good for the world to hear this narrative. The trial was for the actions committed by this one person, but it did feel as if the trial had an element of putting the system, the regime, on trial. 

Fritz: Justice and accountability for Syria is, as we keep saying, a complex puzzle. Every trial, every case, every witness testimony is another piece of the puzzle that will hopefully help to bring about a sense of satisfying justice to as many Syrians as possible. Other tricky pieces of the puzzle also have to be taken into consideration, like the blockades on the International Criminal Court officially starting to investigate crimes committed in Syria. The fact that Bashar al-Assad is still in power and proper transitional justice cannot happen inside Syria, for the time being. The fact that other high ranking Syrian regime officials are unlikely to leave Syria and so evade capture. All of these pieces are big factors that explain the frustration many Syrians feel with the justice and accountability process. But frustration hasn't been the only response to these tricky to fit together puzzle pieces. The past 11 years have also seen incredible creative efforts, that try to circumnavigate these roadblocks and approach justice for Syria from innovative angles. Next time in Episode Ten of The Syria trials, we look at some of these innovations. I’m Fritz Streiff. Thank you for listening and thank you for leaving a review in your podcast app and spreading the word about our podcast. It really helps us to reach new listeners.