Branch 251/
S1E11: Duty vs Fear


This week's episode is a deep dive into the recent testimonies of key witnesses whose statements might incriminate both defendants. However, the lines between truth and exaggeration, threats and self-preservation were blurred as three men spoke and the court listened.

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Episode Transcript


Pauline Peek: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Pauline Peek.

Karam Shoumali: I'm Karam Shoumali. As we shared with you in the last episode, we are happy to have Pauline as our production assistant. Today, since my co-host Fitz Streiff is on vacation, I'm happy to be co-hosting this episode with her. Pauline, what do we have today on the podcast?

Pauline: Well, last week and the week before, the court was in session. Seven witnesses were called to testify and it turned out to be an atypical week with some surprising developments. We'll take a closer look at a few witness testimonies to get a better understanding of what's going on.

Karam: We called our court reporter Hannah El-Hitami. Hi, Hannah.

Pauline: Hi, Hannah.

Hannah El-Hitami: Hi, Karam. Hi, Pauline.

Karam: Hannah, what can you tell us about the first witness and what happened in court?

Hannah: The first witness was actually the first insider witness, so the first person who himself had worked for the Secret Service in Syria. I'll call him M.A. He's 30 years old. He worked at Branch 295 in Syria. In order to understand what was so interesting about his testimony, we have to start much earlier before the court hearing. About a year ago, he testified with the federal police, the BKA, and he said that during his work for Branch 295, he saw several transports of dead bodies to the cemetery, which was right next to the branch. It's called Najha. He said that there were like waste trucks or cooling trucks that dumped a lot of dead bodies into mass graves and that there was even one section of mass graves that was only for the dead bodies delivered by the Secret Services and that this part of the area was strictly forbidden to enter.

He also said, and this is interesting for the trial that he saw Eyad A. It's not clear how many times he saw him. He might've met him several times during training because Branch 295 was a training branch so Eyad A and his colleagues sometimes came there for training, but he also saw him on one very important occasion, which was at night. Eyad A was accompanying one of the trucks that delivered dead bodies to the mass graves.

The witness's job was to receive a list that's recorded all the dead bodies that were being delivered, not with names, but with numbers. The witness also told the police last year that he wrote a report about all the dead bodies delivered in the time span from April 2011 until January 2012 and that that list added up to 8,400 dead bodies all together.

Pauline: A witness, M.A., gives his testimony to police officers, incriminates Eyad A, and then a year later when he appears in court, the prosecutors expect him to repeat his account, which could then potentially be used as evidence against Eyad A but that's not what happened at all, was it?

Hannah: That's not what happened at all. Actually, it's hard for me to tell you what happened and what the witness said because everything he said was extremely vague. All the questions that he was asked, he answered very vaguely like trying to avoid the question. He retracted some of his earlier statement and all together, the people in the courtroom were growing more and more nervous and even annoyed because it was so hard to understand what he was saying and why he wasn't really getting to any point and not really answering any question specifically.

Karam: Do we know why he gave a statement different from the one he gave to the federal police?

Hannah: After a while, we found out that in January, the wanted to meet this witness for the third time for a hearing together with the French police who was also interested in his account. At that point, the witness said, no, he does not want to testify any further because his family living in Turkey is being threatened by the family of Eyad A. At this point, maybe it's interesting to mention that they're both from the same town from Muhasan. Apparently, that happened, but even this account of his family being threatened, the witness did not want to repeat in court. He pretended that it was all a misunderstanding and that he actually hadn't meant that Eyad A's family members were threatening his family members, but that was someone completely different not related to the defendant. It seemed that he was really nervous and just scared and worried about his family.

Pauline: Did the prosecution know about this? If they did, why did they let him testify?

Hannah: I'm pretty sure that the prosecution must have known that the family of the witness was being threatened because that's what he told thejust a few months ago. Why they invited him anyway to testify, that is a question I can't answer. I was actually asking myself the same question. What happens to a witness who suddenly gets scared because he gets threatened? I asked the federal prosecution that question, I actually emailed them, but they only answered that they're not able to comment on ongoing trial.

Karam: What did his lawyer do?

Hannah: It's actually interesting that you mentioned his lawyer. He had a lawyer, not every witness comes with a lawyer, but he had a lawyer who, in my personal opinion, seemed quite useless because while his client was telling perhaps a false statement, he didn't intervene. He didn't stop him. Only the judge finally interrupted him and told him, "Your memory seems really bad today. Maybe you should take a break and really reconsider what you're going to tell us." The federal prosecutor actually got kind of angry at him and he told him, "Hey, you're running head-on into a false testimony and this is a crime." He said, "You came to a constitutional state and it is your duty to support the state."

Karam: It sounds like a stressful couple of days for this witness.

Hannah: He was actually shaking during some of the questions that he had to answer.

Pauline: What about the other witnesses that testified after M.A.?

Hannah: There were three more days in court. One of these days was dedicated to a witness who himself had been imprisoned in Branch 251 and the other two days, to a witness who had been working at Branch 251. It was an interesting way to find out more about the Branch from two very different perspectives.

The first witness was arbitrarily arrested from what he told us. He told some really horrible details about children being killed, pregnant women being killed in the Branch. As I briefly mentioned last week, he said that he was just in a cell with so many people that everyone was piled on top of each other. You didn't know who was dead, who was alive. It was really horrible what he said.

The only problem was that I think the judge and the prosecutor and the defense lawyers maybe didn't believe him 100%. They made some comments about some of the numbers that he mentioned. He gave very specific, but a little bit exaggerated numbers. For example, that he saw 500,000 dead people in Syria or that he was in a cell with more than 400 people on just 25 square meters. It wasn't clear if everything that he said was 100% reliable.

Karam: The next witness was another insider witness, someone who actually worked at Branch 251, yes?

Hannah: Yes, he was the first witness to testify who himself had worked not only for the Secret Service but even for Branch 251. He did his military service there. His job was to guard the building and he gave some more details about what exactly the place looked like. He talked a lot about the courtyard between the two buildings and that courtyard, that's where the prisoners arrived. That's where he saw them being beaten and then being taken into the prison which was underground. He also said that this underground prison did have some small, tiny windows facing that courtyard and that when you were passing through the courtyard, you very, very often heard the screams of those imprisoned.

He said that those screams were really horrible and you knew that those people were being tortured. He also said that Anwar R was the only officer who was friendly to low-ranking employees such as himself. That once when the prisoners were delivered to the courtyard and were beaten in the courtyard, Anwar R arrived, and he said, "Stop beating them. Why are you beating them? Take them inside and we're going to interrogate them and we're going to see who's guilty." This almost sounds like Anwar R at least stopped the arbitrary beating of prisoners, but at the same time, it's a problem because Anwar R in his statement said that at the time in 2011 and '12, he had lost all his authority in the Branch. This is why he can't be made responsible for all the crimes against humanity that happened there. The fact that even though he stopped the beating by an order, but he gave an order and people listened to his order, that contradicts his own statement. This could actually be used against him, I suppose.

Pauline: As in if Anwar R had the power to stop the beating, that would mean that he had the power to order it, and that is what might actually incriminate him.

Hannah: It means he was still in charge at the time. He wasn't just there but didn't have any more authority. Here we had another insider witness who had some potentially incriminating evidence against one of the defendants. There's another parallel between them because the other witness M.A. mentioned that his family was being threatened by members of Eyad A's family in Turkey. This witness was not in such a bad situation, but he was worried about his family. He actually told the judge, "Hey, I just want to say that I'm very worried about my mother and brother who are still living in Syria."

Karam: Did the judge address his concerns?

Hannah: Well, the reaction of the judge seemed actually a little bit cold to me even though she probably doesn't have any other option to help this guy. She just said, "Well, this does not absolve you from your duty to tell the truth here." That's how the topic was concluded.

Pauline: What about the rest of the testimonies?

Hannah: I would say that the three witnesses that we talked about are the really important witnesses, and the others are just accompanying them because they are, for example, the asylum officers or the police officers who interrogated those people, those witnesses at some point last year, what they do is just they confirm that they interrogated them. They confirm some of the details. They give their impression of how these witnesses behaved during those interrogations. They confirm that there were or were no problems with the translation, so they don't really bring that much new information.

Pauline: Thank you, Hannah.

Karam: Thank you, Hannah.

Pauline: The question that is on my mind after hearing all of this is the witnesses whose families are allegedly being threatened, they gave their initial testimony not in the context of this trial, but in the context of their asylum process. I wonder if they were aware that these initial statements could lead to them being called as a witness in a case like this. I'd like to hear what you think about this, Karam. It seemed that both of them would really rather stay at home and keep their families out of trouble than show up in court.

Karam: Yes, it raises this question of informed consent, that they know what they were agreeing to when the federal police started transcribing their statements. One of the witnesses was not even aware that he wouldn't be anonymous during his testimony. He was shocked and confused when he heard his name announced in the courtroom. We heard about this from a source who spoke to the witness right after the court session.

This question of informed consent seems to be a theme running through this trial. It's an interesting one and we will have to check in with our legal expert, Fritz, to discuss this further. That's not even considering the fact that it might not be true that the witnesses' families are being threatened. It might be that there is a completely different reason they don't want to be a witness, and they are citing threats to get out of testifying.

I am, of course, speculating here, but I have talked to some defectors from the Syrian security apparatus, including Eyad A's former colleague who we had on the podcast before, and this is actually exactly what they think is going on. We don't know the truth here, but we have to consider that this might be the reason why M.A. changed his statement. To get a clearer picture, we will need to talk to the witnesses themselves.

All right, this leaves us with more questions than answers. That's also part of the reason we are here. These are questions that should be asked and we can only try to find the answers to them. Even though we will have to leave it at this, we'll be sure to revisit these things later.

Pauline: Before we leave you, dear listeners, we also have an announcement to make. We are on Patreon. For those of you who don't know what Patreon is, basically, it's a great way for you to support us. You can set up a recurring donation, a pledge, which greatly helps us make this podcast for you. It means that we can invest in a better microphone, in travel to and from Koblenz's, et cetera. We've put a link to our Patreon page in our show notes.

Karam: We are grateful for those of you who have already donated. Now, we have a question from one of our listeners. Her name is Haneen and she wrote to us because she was wondering if Germany is taking any steps towards communicating information about this trial to Syrians to Arabic-speaking audience. We reached out to the press officer for this trial and there don't seem to be any. This is actually one of the reasons that we decided to produce a series of episodes in Arabic. The first one will be released next week. Now I'll be speaking in Arabic for a bit. [Arabic language]

Pauline: This brings us to the end of this week's episode. Thank you very much for listening.

Karam: Normally, this is where I would remind all of you to join in next week, but this time, this reminder only goes out to our Arabic-speaking listeners. We'll be back with an episode in English in two weeks. Meanwhile, please subscribe to our podcast and rate and review our episodes and share them with your friends and colleagues.

Pauline: Branch 251 is created produced and hosted by Fritz Streiff and Karam Shoumali. Pauline Peek is the production assistant. Hannah El-Hitami is our court reporter, production feedback by Maarten van Doornmalen