Branch 251/
S1E7: Syrian Witnesses Speak


Last week in court was special: Syrian survivors spoke as witnesses for the first time. One of them, Feras Fayyad tells us about his experience testifying in court and opening up about being sexually violated at Branch 251. We talk to two experts who tell us more about sexual violence in international cases and how the Syrian regime has used it as a weapon of war against its own people. Also on the episode: Anwar al Bunni's moment in court that he has been waiting for for so long. He testified as an expert witness and had a lot to say to the judges.

Follow us on Twitter and @KaramShoumali and @Fritz_Streiff.

Some additional sources on this episode and the trial here:

More on our guest Feras Fayyad:

Our guest Alexandra Lily Kather shared these resources with us for further reading:

The announcement we mentioned on the podcast:

Our guest Anne Bernard of the New York Times shared these articles with us for further reading:

More on the 'Cesar' Photos:

Logo design by -- Photo by James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images.

Episode Transcript


Fritz Streiff: Welcome back listeners to Branch 251. The podcast about the world's first criminal trial dealing with accusations of crimes against humanity allegedly perpetrated by Syrian officials. I am Fritz Streiff.

Karam Shoumali: I'm Karam Shoumali.

Fritz Streiff: On today's episode we will look back at the court sessions that took place last week. The court in Koblenz was in session for three days, from Wednesday until Friday.

Today on the podcast, we have some comments from witnesses that testified last week in court, and from commentators who followed last week's court session with special interest because it was a significant week for the trial in a number of ways, specifically for Syrians.

Karam Shoumali: Last week, was the first time during this trial that we have Syrian witnesses testifying. Until last week, it had mostly been German police investigators, experts, officials, and representatives from the migration and refugee authority. Last week, the 10th day of the trial, we had, for the first time, a witness with a first-hand account of what the allegations are all about.

Fritz Streiff: That also meant that last week in court, a lot of Arabic was spoken for the first time in the courtroom. That was a big moment for the many Syrian activists and survivors that regularly come to Koblenz and attend to trial with great interest, but often can't understand what is being talked about because the court language is German.

Of course, the fact that so much Arabic was spoken also meant that the defendants, the two accused, Anwar R and Eyad A, had to listen to Syrian survivor witnesses talk about their experiences in their own language, having to listen to what they went through in connection to the accusations against them.

Karam Shoumali: The court sessions were also important because the two witnesses who testified are very well-known Syrians. The first witness who testified last week is the same filmmaker, his name is Feras Fayyad. I talked to him this week to ask him about his experience testifying in Koblenz.

Fritz Streiff: We'll listen to you guys' conversation here on the podcast in a bit.

Karam Shoumali: His testimony was quite special last week in Koblenz. It is also quite important from a legal perspective because it is central to prove some of the charges in indictment that relate to sexual violence.

Fritz Streiff: More about that specific part of his testimony in a bit. First, what do we know about Feras Fayyad and his background?

Karam Shoumali: He's a 35-year-old Syrian filmmaker, and he is one of the joint plaintiffs in this case. These are civil parties joining the prosecution and the case against the accused. Now he's also a witness. He comes from a politically active family. During the '80s, the Syrian regime detained three of his uncles and killed the fourth one. During his testimony, he said he's not really politically active himself and he just wanted to be introduced as a filmmaker. For his studies, Feras moved to Lebanon, and then to France, where he studied filmmaking. When he finished, he returned to Syria in 2005.

In 2011, in the beginning of the Syrian uprising, he wanted to document the protest and how security forces attacked protesters to disperse them using violence. In April that year, he was picked up at some internet cafe in Damascus. He was tortured for a few days at the Airforce security branch and released later on. He decided to flee the country, and in August of 2011, he was detained at the airport actually trying to leave from Damascus. Here comes his first interaction experience with Branch 251, Al-Khatib Branch. In his testimony, he described the conditions of the imprisonment and torture, things he had to go through.

Eventually, after he was released, he managed to leave to Turkey. It became his base from which he would frequently travel undercover to Syria, to work in his films. His work was highly recognized. He was nominated twice for the Oscars, in the Best Documentary Feature category, for his 2018 the Last Men in Aleppo, and 2020, The Cave documentary. We will be linking his work in our show notes.

Fritz Streiff: Those who are interested should definitely check it out. Now because he was detained in Branch 251, during the timeframe of the indictment, 2011, he was called as a witness in this trial.

Karam Shoumali: It wasn't really easy. It was not an easy task at all. It's not easy for anyone who survived the gruesome things that happened at the Branch, but for Feras, there was this additional component. He was unfortunately raped while at the Branch as part of his torture. He testified that when he arrived at Branch 251, the experience, what he referred to as the ‘welcome party’. We did discuss this wicked ritual in one of our episodes, Hell on Earth.

That's also what Feras Fayyad told the judges, the ‘welcome party’. Perhaps the most significant part of his testimony was his account of how he was raped at Branch 251. He told the judges in Koblenz that, on more than one occasion and during the torture sessions, that his interrogators and tortures would insert a stick into his anus. Obviously, this was very uncomfortable for him to talk about.

Fritz Streiff: The judge actually asked him multiple times how that happened, how this act occurred. She did apologize to him, acknowledging the very sensitive and personal nature of this topic. She said she needed to know exactly whether the object that was used in this act had entered his body. It was one of those moments where technical legal elements that are necessary to prove an allegation meet the very, very personal and painful experience of a victim. She asked him, "Did you feel the stick inside of you?" Feras said, "Yes, once. They pushed it inside me." He said he needed to get surgery in Turkey due to the injuries that resulted from that experience.

Karam Shoumali: On this, we spoke to someone about this important part of his testimony, just to better understand the significance of it. We spoke to Alexandra Lily Kather, who is a legal advisor at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, or ECCHR. She works there on international crimes and universal jurisdiction cases. She has been focusing lately, a lot on crimes of sexual violence in her work. Here's the conversation that Fritz had with her.

[phone rings]

Alexandra Lily Kather: Hi, Fritz, how are you?

Fritz Streiff: Hi, Lily, good. How are you?

Alexandra Lily Kather: I'm good.

Fritz Streiff: We were just wondering if you could say something about the significance of last week's survivor testimony in court.

Alexandra Lily Kather: Particularly last week's testimony is the only one that includes incidents of sexual violence. More specifically rape with an object, which was actually a very common form of violence that occurred, in Assad's torture prisons. Sexual violence was such a powerful tool that the regime resorted to, both against women and men in their attempt to violate the oppressed, the political opposition in Syria. Though we have not only rape with object but also execution of genitals, forced abortion, forced nudity. There's a whole array of crimes of sexual violence.

Fritz Streiff: For now, the only charge or the only count of rape and sexual violence is the incident that was testified about last week in court?

Alexandra Lily Kather: Correct. Of course, to speak about grave violations against your sexual integrity, and your sense of self. Such an intimate violation is, of course, an extra challenge. I think the witness did extremely well also, in response to quite specific questions that were asked by the presiding judge. The judge asked, for example, whether the survivor could feel the invasion of his body, which is the legal requirement for rape and international criminal law.

Also, its German implementation, so that there has occurred an invasion of the body with either part of the body of someone else, or with an object. In that case, it was an object. I think the survivor did remarkably well in answering the quite detailed follow-up questions of the presiding judge.

Fritz Streiff: Would you say that this charge stands after this testimony?

Alexandra Lily Kather: That we'll have to see in the course of the trial, but as far as I can tell, it does very much stand, yes.

Fritz Streiff: I can imagine that if you have one incident hinging on the testimony of one witness that, some would say is a rather thin accusation.

Alexandra Lily Kather: Here there are two parts or two angles on this. First, right now, the court is not looking into rape as a crime against humanity. They are looking into a single incident of rape, and that's what they are trying to prove and I think that will be for sure successful based on the testimony of the survivor. What we should also bear in mind is that one single act of rape can be a crime against humanity. It doesn't need to be systematic and wise written itself, we only need to prove that it has been committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack. There are lots of other information that we can feed into the trial or into the investigation, to recognize that a single act of rape can also be part of a widespread and systematic attack and therefore crime against humanity. All the other crimes that have been committed in the very same crime side, so torture, severe body, and mental harm, deprivation of liberty, they all happen in the very same geographical crime side.

Why is a single act of rape or a single act of sexual cohesion not as much part of the widespread and systematic attack as these other occurrences? We simply don't need the widespread systematic element to it. That's the first angle. The second is certainly that sexual and gender-based violence is of course, as all mass atrocities themselves, they are often perceived as either collateral damage, something that happens because of the mass violence occurs or is isolated incidents, rather than crimes that have been committed with a certain political aim or another aim. That's why it's super important that investigation and prosecution authorities that they're also trained on trauma insensitive approaches to investigations.

Fritz Streiff: Well, thank you so much. That's already a big help in starting to try to understand the specific difficulties and issues with sexual and gender-based violence in these kinds of cases. Thanks, Lily, for being on the podcast, maybe we'll hear from you again, in one of the coming episodes.

Lily: That would be wonderful. All the best for your podcast, and hopefully we'll speak soon.

Fritz Streiff: Thank you. Bye.

Lily: Bye.

Fritz Streiff: Thanks, again, Lily, for speaking with us. Lily and her colleagues actually have a special announcement this week that wasn't public at the time of recording. She assured me that it was an important announcement for our work so we will make sure to include a link to that in the show notes. We will also include links in the show notes about some of the information she shared with us for additional reading for those of you who are interested in it.

Karam Shoumali: Thank you, Lily. Back to Feras Fayyad's testimony. What we just learned from Lily is from a legal perspective, his testimony is really crucial for the case because the evidence he gave is necessary to prove the charges against Anwar R especially in regards to sexual violence.

Fritz Streiff: That's how it seems. Of course, we don't know exactly what other evidence the prosecutor might have at this point, or it might still get and introduce in the trial at a later stage. For now, Feras Fayyad's testimony in this regard is definitely crucial and central. Also, he ended his testimony in a really surprising way. He told the court, he would be ready to forgive Anwar R, if only he, Anwar R would acknowledge that there was torture that his experience, Feras Fayyad's experience, and the experience of so many others was real. That is, I think, unlikely to happen after what we heard from Anwar r, a few weeks ago in his statement that his lawyers' readout where he just flat out denied all charges and rejected all accusations.

Karam Shoumali: About that, I talked to Feras Fayyad just to ask him how he looks back at his testimony, his experience at court. I started by asking him how it was for him to be face-to-face with the accused in court, with Anwar R.

Feras: I'm not the person coming to revenge, because I'm not the person of revenge, and that person was going to the street for a reason. When I handled my camera and went to film in front of me everything that was fighting for a goal for a reason, not just for me just for the next generation, fighting for freedom of expression and for our dignity.

It's not about him exactly. He's a small fish in a bigger system. He should live with that and he have to understand it how much is it painful for every single person because we're not number. For them, this is why they are all the time just cursing over us because for them, we are just a number. We're coming to them as a number. I told him to tell the truth that today there is millions of Syrians know this story. It's not just a personal story for me as Feras Fayyad.

Karam Shoumali: I couldn't help but tell him how brave it is just to step forward and tell the story about the sexual violence. He, unfortunately, had to experience at Branch 251.

Feras: It lived with me for a long time. I didn't even talk to this for my family about the sexual violence assault that happened with me; the rape and the harassment. I've been keeping that for myself. The thing here is also that I want to tell from my personal experience. I came with that after, after a long time living with this pain inside me and inside my mind, that feel to release this pain and to free myself, I have to talk about it. All of this is a shameful things that you used against-- was survival and somehow to silence them, and I didn't want let anyone silence me.

Fritz Streiff: Thank you, Feras for speaking on the podcast. We really appreciate it. Looking at his testimony in court last week, and in connection with what our guests mentioned just now earlier, this really is a complicated and complex issue; sexual violence in conflict generally. Now here's specifically also in the Syrian context.

Karam Shoumali: Our earlier guest Alexandra Lily Kather told us about the legal aspects of it and to understand better, specifically Syrian angle to this. I talked to a former colleague of mine at the New York Times; Anne Barnard who worked as Beirut Bureau chief for six years until 2018. She talked to many survivors, dozens of them about their experiences. She told me about sexual abuse in Syrian torture prisons, both against men and woman has been really common. I asked her why victims do not speak often of it. Although they speak about all other types of torture. This is what she told me.

Anne: For women, particularly, there's a stigma associated with being the victim of a sexual assault. In fact, there's even a physical danger. In traditionally conservative religious societies in Syria, it's considered a dishonor on the family if any woman is raped or sexually assaulted in the family and sometimes male relatives have even killed such women in so-called honor killings. This had a chilling effect on the participation of women in the peaceful protest movement because sometimes even the fact of having been in prison led to an assumption that someone had been sexually assaulted.

Even if she hadn't been there are documented cases of women enduring sexual assault as part of their torture and then being killed by their own family. This doesn't apply to all families. There were some families that later changed their view about the stigma because they saw that the government was weaponizing it against the people but that remain relatively rare. Women have been through all kinds of sexual assault ranging from being routinely groped or grabbed or touched when they're being taken into a security branch, invasive searches, forced sexual intercourse with security officers or their friends.

Karam Shoumali: During our talk, Anne made the distinction between the experiences of men and women who she talked to about the experiences of sexual abuse as detainees in different prisons and Syrian security services.

Anne: When it comes to men, it's a bit more complicated. I think Syrian society has somehow been more willing to pretend that men in prison are not being sexually assaulted. I'm not sure why maybe it has to do with a fear among the survivors themselves that they would somehow be labeled as gay or weak. Although again, it's not very logical, because they do describe all kinds of really humiliating experiences, from being forced to eat their own excrement to being forced to take part in sadistic role plays and all kinds of things. In any case, the government was very expertly able to weaponize the particular fear and stigma around sexual assault.

Fritz Streiff: She had some hopeful words to leave us with towards the end of your guys' conversation, which I found interesting also, in terms of the historical comparison and perspective that she offers,

Anne: I think that the trial you're covering may have an effect on how these stories are documented and told. The fact that years later, people are starting to speak about these experiences and people are seeing that this can have some kind of an effect and bring some kind of modicum of accountability and public attention to these crimes, it may encourage others in the future to speak out, especially as people reach a safer place in their life they may also become more willing to talk about things that happened to them just as we've seen with decades-old atrocities like the Bosnian War, or Rwanda or even, let's say the Holocaust.

These types of stories continue to come out as society changes. I think there are some cases where in Syria, families have changed their view about the stigma around sexual assault. It's relatively unusual, but even conservative families there are at least two that I've interviewed that chose to see women and their families who had been raped in prison similarly to the war wounded, or those killed in war, just to say that this is something you went through as part of the course and we don't want to let the government turn that into a weapon against you or against our family.

Karam Shoumali: Thank you so much, Anne. Okay, the second witness is a prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni. We talked to him in the third episode of our podcast, the episode called The Two Anwars, perhaps you should listen to that one before continuing on with this episode. Feras Fayyad was actually his client back in Syria. Anwar al-Bunni defended him before they both left Syria and ended up in Germany and here they are again in this court in Koblenz.

Fritz Streiff: Anwar al-Bunni's testimony had three main topics and messages, I think in addition to his personal story with security services and being arrested and detained, including at Branch 251 that he talked to us about. Firstly, from the people we talked to who were in court last week, we understand that Anwar al-Bunni made a few statements during his testimony about the wider importance of this trial. He reminded the judges and everyone else present in the courtroom, that this trial for him and many other Syrians is about much more than the individual criminal responsibility of the two accused.

He pointed out again, that the Assad family and its close circle of trust have used detention and torture as principal tools to oppress and stay in power. The presiding judge actually told them a few times that he should make less general statements and give more concrete answers to the questions being asked.

Karam Shoumali: I remember when he told us that passionately he's been waiting for this moment all of his life. The guy has been working on such cases and now there is finally some justice in the making and he's part of it. He needed to say those things, he's been waiting for it.

Fritz Streiff: I think the judge just needed to make sure that the procedure of her court in this specific trial regarding these specific allegations in the indictment would be respected and the way that I experienced her presiding over this trial, the presiding judge, when I was in Koblenz, she is actually really good at that I observed. She knows how to strike the balance of giving some space and time when needed and at the same time, keeping an eye on the rules when necessary.

Karam Shoumali: Okay, and then Anwar al-Bunni moved on to testify about the so-called Caesar Photos. Many of our listeners, I believe, would have heard this term before but basically, we're talking about more than 50,000 photos that were taken and smuggled by a Syrian military police photographer. He defected and smuggled all of these files out of Syria to keep his identity hidden, he was named Caesar and this is why they are called the Caesar Photos.

His job at his former post was to document the bodies of 1000s of persons who died in detention, or at a military hospital after detention. He smuggled the photos out of Syria and they were provided to law enforcement agencies including the Germans. We will link to more information on the Caesar Photos in the show notes.

Fritz Streiff: The judges in Koblenz, now asked al-Bunni as an expert witness about the particular system of numbering the corpses in these photos that Caesar smuggled out of Syria. al-Bunni explained to the judges that the numbering gives information about the amount of corpses and their locations within the various detention facilities of the security services in Syria, including Branch 251. So al-Bunni helped the court understand this system a little bit better to interpret this system of numbering to be able to use it as concrete evidence of the killings that are described in the indictment in this trial in this case.

Karam Shoumali: Then al-Bunni also debunked some of the information that Anwar R gave in his statement, the one that was read by his lawyers. He told the judges that torture absolutely existed as a systematic tool, prior to 2011. He said before 2011 it was used to extract information from suspects and after 2011, during the uprising, torture became a tool for revenge. In his testimony, al-Bunni contradicted Anwar R's claim on the point that Hafez Makhlouf's notorious Subsection 40 took control of Branch 251. Anwar R is saying that he was not the one running the show and he was not responsible for whatever happened at the Branch when he was there.

Fritz Streiff: The court now has an expert witness in Anwar al-Bunni, saying that Anwar R's statement and the main elements of Anwar R's statement are factually incorrect, based on his decade long experience as a Syrian human rights lawyer and activist and expert and also his personal experience of having been detained in the Syrian security service prisons multiple times. The court will have to take that into consideration and we'll enter it into its wide dossier of evidence. Two very different people here, two very different witnesses Feras Fayyad and Anwar al-Bunni but they were both prosecuted and arrested and tortured for what they did and that connects them in a way.

One Feras Fayyad for making his films and the other Anwar al-Bunni for defending human rights. After Anwar al-Bunni's testimony on Friday last week, the court went into recess until June 24th. Before we close off this week's episode, I just want to go back to something we talked about at the start of the episode about the fact that last week was the first time that Arabic was spoken in the courtroom and that those in the public gallery the many Syrians that come and attend the trial, were able to follow the proceedings because so much of their own language was spoken and that is usually not the case because the court language is German.

For some procedural reason, they don't get any of the headsets with simultaneous translations that the court parties get to use, the judges and the prosecutors et cetera. That is strange I find and I still don't really understand why those are not given to the public gallery as well. When I was there, I saw there was plenty of additional headsets lying around but there are some procedural reasons for this that people in the public gallery cannot use those. Some victims organizations are now pushing for changing that and I think that would be really great for the Syrians that come to the courtroom to follow the proceedings.

Karam Shoumali: That brings us to the end of today's episode of today's court update. Fritz, what are we doing next week?

Fritz Streiff: Next week, we will use the time without court to dedicate a whole episode to survivors. We're speaking to two of them to find out more about their stories of surviving serious torture apparatus, and how they managed to cope with their traumas and painful memories now in their daily lives. What they expect of this trial of justice and what their personal messages are for the two accused.

Female Interviewee: As a former political prisoner, I can say that the prison experience is unforgettable. Yes, I have been released from the prison but often I fear that the prison lives inside me.

Karam Shoumali: We'll be talking to a third Syrian, she's the daughter of someone who until today is still in detention in Syria. She'll be telling us about her story and the story of her missing father.

Fritz Streiff: Until then, thank you for listening to this week's episode. If you like this podcast, and you would like to support us and push awareness for this podcast, you can subscribe to it. You can tell your friends and colleagues. You can share this episode and the podcast via all kinds of your channels and your networks.

Karam Shoumali: If you feel supporting us further, you can hit the "support this podcast" button on our website.

Fritz Streiff: Thank you again for those who've done that in the past week. We really appreciate it. Branch 251 is exclusively listener-supported. It is produced created and hosted by the two of us. I'm Fritz Streiff.

Karam Shoumali: I'm Karam Shoumali. See you next time in Branch 251

Fritz Streiff: See you then