Branch 251/
S1E16: A Long Trip, Long Road


Koblenz is a small step on the long road to what, exactly?

In this episode, Fritz talks to Syrian lawyer and human rights defender Mazen Darwish about justice for Syria and Syrians, its forms and challenges, and what the trial in Koblenz means to him.

For regular updates, you can follow us on Twitter @Branch_251, @Fritz_Streiff , @KaramShoumali and @Paulinepeek

Additional information on the topics discussed in the episode:

Mazen Darwish on twitter: @mazenadarwish3

His organization SCM:;

SCM's press release:

SJAC press release:

ECCHR press release:

Constitutional Court press release (in German):

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

Episode Transcript

Pauline Peek: Hi everyone, Pauline here. Before we start this week's episode, we'd like to ask you to consider supporting our podcast. Our production is fully listener-supported and we want to continue bringing you updates from the Koblenz trial and related in depth stories. If you want to contribute to our efforts you can do so in a number of ways. You can become a patron of the show via Patreon and you can find the link in the show notes and on our Twitter accounts.

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Fritz Streiff: Hi listeners, welcome back to Branch 251 and welcome back from vacation, Karam.

Karam Shoumali: Thanks, Fritz, it's good to be back. The court was also back this week and we'll hear from our court reporter Hannah El-Hitami later on in this episode. First, we want to get into a topic that has been hovering over the podcast all this time really.

Fritz: Yes, it's one of those topics that we almost take for granted as in we think we know what we mean when we say it but the question is do we actually? The topic that we're talking about on the episode is justice. For example, "Koblenz, a small but important step towards justice for Syria." We've heard this a lot on the podcast and seen it in the papers, on TV and we said it ourselves. A lot has been said about justice from ancient philosophers to modern day politicians. Justice as a word, as a concept, is used all the time especially in the context of a trial like this.

Karam: What does it actually mean? What does justice mean or what does it look like? What forms forms of justice do we know, what are its challenges and how does the Koblenz trial fit into this. These are all questions we'll discuss in this episode.


Fritz: Did you know that one of my hobbies is etymology?

Karam: I don't know that but that doesn't really surprise me, Fritz.

Fritz: I love looking after origin of and stories behind words. What I find interesting is in the etymology of the word justice especially in the older meanings. The concept of equity comes back a lot. Which again comes from the old Latin aequus which meant equal. Is justice that what is equal? An equal solution to a conflict between two parties that have a dispute, for example?

Karam: This is all great and thanks for the quick lesson in etymology first. Let's keep the focus on what this podcast is about. A trial that is supposed to deliver justice for Syria. In a context like that, justice can mean a lot of things for different people. It is very subjective and that also applies to Syria. For some, it might be a revolution, overthrowing existing structures. For others, it might be using existing structures to hold people accountable. For others, it might be a reconciliation with perpetrators and living together in peace with the opposing side.

Fritz: Right and for yet others, it might be a mix of all of the above. When you look at the serie of all this you see all these types of justice. There's procedural justice, distributive justice, retributive justice, restorative, transitional justice. This seems confusing, doesn't it?

We agree. We went down a rabbit hole ourselves when we started researching this episode but don't worry, we'll break it down for you. What's clear is justice is not one thing like one objective template that fits every individual context. It's not a box checking exercise. In a way, it's by definition confusing when somebody says this or that specifically is justice. That's always is subjective experience. To break this whole topic down and consider the Syrian context in more detail we spoke to someone who has thought about these questions for decades.

Mazen Darwish wish is one of the most prominent Syrian human rights defenders and freedom of speech activists. He's the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression or SCM. He has received many international awards for his work even during the time that he was imprisoned. For disclosure here, I have worked and collaborated as a lawyer with Mazen and this group. I already knew him from another capacity before I met him to talk on the podcast.

I visited him in his Paris office to discuss the topic of this episode. Small spoiler, for him justice is sustainable peace. Period. That is absence of conflict, focus on dialogue incorporation but not momentarily lasting. Everything else, criminal accountability, transitional mechanisms, restorative and distributive acts and so on, all those concepts are or maybe necessary elements and contribute to justice.

According to Mazen, eventually, there's no justice without sustainable peace. Let's listen to what we learned from him about his view on justice as sustainable peace or sustainable peace as justice. Well, he'll explain. I started out by asking what justice means, not for Syria specifically, but for him as a person. For Mazen Darwish.

Mazen Darwish: I believe justice it's maybe more a romantic word. There's no equal justice for any crime in the end. Especially in Syria, believe justice it's important for any country. I think justice it's mean the sustainable peace. This is the most important point in justice for Syria. Justice means the satisfaction of the victim, it's mean the guarantee that this kind of crime will never ever happen again. Justice it's mean also that those who's responsible about the big crimes they will not be faces the impunity.

Fritz: We talked about the justice in general for a bit but our conversation quickly drifted towards Syria. Justice for Syria, the topic that Mazen has worked on day and night for decades. Mazen himself was detained and tortured for more than three years after he and his colleagues were arrested doing a raid at his office by agents of the notorious Air Force Intelligent Services. He was released in August 2015 and now lives and works in exile first in Berlin and now in Paris.

I asked him to explain what his idea of justice as sustainable peace means within the Syrian context. He confirmed something all of us who are interested in Syria have thought time and again that this context is a very complex and complicated one.

Mazen: Especially in such a war like Syria which is very complicated. There's many parties involved, interiorly, regionally, and internationally. There's a kind of civil war in what happened in Syria. There's terrorist and there's also the [unintelligible] from the beginning where we are civilian demonstration and dictatorship regime. All of this together, but also there's religion conflict in Syria. There's ethnic conflict in Syria today also.

This also mean the possibility for all the Syrian to rebuild the country and rebuild the society. The most dangerous and the most important point I think that without this mentality of justice we will go to the revenge. We will go to use justice as a political card for this party or that party. We need to be sure that all victim whatever their political stand, whatever their ethnic, whatever their religious, they will reach the same level and the mechanism for justice and they will feel satisfied.

I don't believe that there's equal anything if you lose your lover, your children, your wife, your brother, nothing will bring him back again. We are not talking about justice and equality, we are talking about feeling of justice. Feeling of satisfied. This is I think very important.

Fritz: What Mazen is saying here about the complexity of applying any concept of justice to Syria I think is that the concept of what he calls equal justice where the original status from before the crime was committed is restored is impossible, especially with so many additional factors like religion and ethnicity, so many different injured parties and in any case, when considering that a loved one was killed and will never return, that's an unattainable goal.

Maybe think of one of the original meanings I talked about earlier of the word justice as equity. For Mazen, that's nothing more than a romantic notion. If that is an impossible goal to work towards then how can a sustainable peace be achieved? If nothing brings back your murdered loved ones but victims should still feel satisfied. According to Mazen, that should mean victims from all sides of the spectrum no matter the perpetrator. I asked him, how can that be done? What would be the conditions for that?

Mazen: The people who's responsible about this crime. We are talking about the president, when we are talking about the leader of the security service. When we are talking about the leader of ISIS. When we are talking about the leader of Al-Qaeda. When we are talking about even the leader of some of the opposition group. Those should not be on the same position. A lot of them should be faces fair accountability, also not to have revenge against them. We need to guarantee that they will have fair trial.

Some of the other maybe they should not be sent to the court but yes, they should leave their work. Some of them we'll need to retrain them. Some of them maybe they should continue with their work. Again, it's not black and white but some of them should be sent to fair trial. Some of them should not be contribute to any public service. Some of them maybe can leave their work, transfer them to another work without this kind of therapy. Some of them maybe need training and work in another system even.

Fritz: Is this realistic in the coming years?

Mazen: Maybe today no, to be honest with you, but I believe yes, this is realistic. Maybe after 3 years, 5 years, 10 years maybe more even. I believe that there's no way to reach any kind of sustainable peace in Syria if we don't make this realistic. Without this kind of justice, I believe that whatever the political agreement was, it will be ceasefire, not peace. My worry that this ceasefire will just give break for the society, for the lord of the war to recharge themself and them tools to start a new totally civil war, build and revenge.

Fritz: Time and again during our conversation, Mazen pointed out the many shades of gray that make up the situation in Syria. Like he said before, equal justice can never really be reached when you look at the massive scale of the crimes committed in Syria. No, you won't even get close according to him but to work towards a satisfaction of the victims, yes, Syria needs to see accountability of the most responsible but Mazen stressed this very much, no selective justice.

Everyone responsible whatever side of the conflict they're on needs to answer for what they did especially the most responsible but in fair trial and due process. To work towards victim satisfaction, the less responsible may need to be retrained, transferred to make society work again which seems like a huge endeavor. What Mazen also made clear, he does not believe in a purely political solution. A solution that would silence the weapons and stop the fighting for a period of time because he sees the risk of revenge.

Revenge after the opposing sides will have taken a break, regrouped, refinanced, rearmed and then the cycle of violence and tragedy would just start over again. For him, political solutions are only part of the movement towards sustainable peace. Holding the most responsible individuals accountable through criminal prosecutions and fair trials is another of many parts. That made me curious to get his reaction on the trial in Koblenz. The first, the only for now. What does he think about this trial and the bigger picture of what he's describing.

Mazen: Koblenz or all the other cases and all the European country, it's more advocacy tools. It's more to show that we need justice and it's our tools to say that it's not a law for the international community, for the UN, for the world crime themself to have a political agreement whatever it is and ignore all what happened. Koblenz or any other cases, this is not only justice. This is not what we prefer for justice even as tools or mechanism but it's what we can do. It's alternative choices.

While we can't forget that to reach this kind of justice we need for the future of Syria, we need a Syrian mechanism. We need more like Marshall plan for Syria based on justice. This should be more strategic looking for everything not to punish this one or that one or to go to some kind of selective justice. It's need more strategic things. As I said, it's need like Marshall plan. More than now what we do in using universal jurisdiction in this country or that country, on this person or that, it's need a plan. Accountability, one side from it but also how we can guarantee that this will not happen again. I think this is the most important.

Fritz: A Marshall plan for Syria. There Mazen is really talking about a larger holistic plan, not just criminal accountability like in Koblenz but a more strategic underlying plan to help guarantee that refugees like him can return to Syria without fear. He used the Marshall plan that helped Western European countries recover economically after the Second World War as an example. In short, no economic recovery, no jobs and opportunities. No sustainable peace, no justice.

Mazen: Even for us as a refugee, not only the victim. For me, I will be happy, dreams the day that I can go back to my country and to my house and to my work and to my office in Damascus. I think also the European country will be happy of the refugee, maximum back from the refugee if they go back but how I can go back, there's no guarantee that I will not face the same reason which pushed me to leave my country. The guarantee that this will not happen again, people will return safe. We will not go to find the same people who tortured us, who killed the people, who make all this crime in the same position and the same security service and do it again.

Fritz: From your side, does justice include forgiveness?

Mazen: Yes, I always said and this is what I said even when I'm in the prison. When I'm in the prison I sent two letter to outside and publish. I said, I still remember exactly that I will forgive all people who tortured me, who do all this crime for me, who take my freedom for years. When I receive my rights, I will leave it but not before, you can't ask me to forgive anyone before it's clear the truth what happened, before he know that what he do crime, before he faces if there's need a fair trial again. Yes, when I have my rights, I will feel free to forgive anyone but you can't ask me to forgive someone before all of this. Yes, I will support the forgiveness, but not before having the rights.

Fritz: Thank you very much, Mazen. We appreciate it.

Mazen: Thank you. Sorry for my bad English.

Fritz: It's very good. Thank you so much.


Karam: After talking to Mazen, we have a clearer picture of what justice for Syria is and what it is not, at least to him. Let's start with what it is not. It's not a purely political agreement like a ceasefire, Justice is also not one-sided. All sides of the conflict should be held accountable. Importantly, with these kinds of crimes, justice is never equal. What has been taken from you cannot be returned. What has been done, cannot be undone. Lastly, justice is not Koblenz. In the end, real justice would have to happen in Syria by Syrians and for Syrians.

As long as that's impossible, and for the time being we have something tangible in Koblenz. Koblenz is an advocacy tool, a signal for the need for justice, a part of a movement. According to Mazen, this is what justice is. First of all, it's incredibly difficult to achieve in Syria because of conflict and religious and ethnic groups. Secondly, justice can only be reached in the context of sustainable peace. Then justice would be the safe return of refugees after comprehensive economic reform. For Mazen, two other crucial components of justice are the feeling of satisfaction in victims and forgiveness.

Fritz: Yes, forgiveness. Even though it would have to be on the condition of its perpetrators facing some sort of accountability, facing the truth about what they did, what Mazen describes as his rights. I have to say I was amazed by Mazen's readiness to forgive at all, after all he's been through. Not just himself, but his family, his friends, his colleagues, many of them have been murdered, and others are still missing. Still, he's ready to forgive to enable justice for Syria in the form of sustainable peace. Mazen told me that he would be so happy if his children and the children of his torturers would be friends in the future and play with each other. Just imagine that.

Karam: This is just one illustration, one example of what justice means for Syria, but it comes from someone who knows what he's talking about. What I find so interesting is that he really sees a trial like the one in Koblenz as a mere signal, as a symbol for the Syrian need for justice and nothing more. For Syrians, we are really only at the beginning of a long process.

Now it's time for a court update. We want to give you an update on the topic of last week's episode. You'll remember that the Koblenz court rejected the motion to allow translation to Arabic. In reaction to that, two Syrian groups have now filed petitions with the German Constitutional Court, the Syrian Justice & Accountability Center or SJAC, together with a Syrian journalist, Mansour al-Omari, Mazen Darwish's organization SCM together with Caesar Families Association, CFA, and Freedom Support Group. They are appealing to the Constitutional Court arguing that the freedom of press should guarantee their access to Arabic translation.

Fritz: We understand that the petitioners do not expect a final decision from the Constitutional Court anytime soon. That might actually take more than a year, but they applied for interim measures. Just a few days ago, this week, the court actually ordered that accredited Arabic-speaking journalists will have access to simultaneous German-Arabic interpretation. This is pending the final decision. We just heard about this ourselves, so we don't know the details. It looks like Arabic speakers in the public gallery that are not accredited journalists still won't have access to translation.

Some commentators have labeled this only a partial success. We will keep an eye out for any developments on this and will include links to the organization's press releases, and to the press release by the Constitutional Court with more info in the show notes. Now let's zoom into the court sessions of this week. Last week, our court reporter Hannah El-Hitami has this report on the recent hearings in Koblenz.

Hannah El-Hitami: Last week in court, we heard the first anonymous witness, not only did he not give his name and address, but he also appeared in disguise. He was wearing a fake beard, a wig, and thick glasses. He claimed that he had worked 21 years in the Secret Service Administration, but he couldn't share any details as to where he had worked exactly, what his job was exactly. He talked quite a lot about the prison conditions, the way that interrogations were conducted, and a little bit also about the hierarchies in the Secret Service.

In the last weeks, there were several witnesses that were worried about the safety of their families outside of Germany, and I kept thinking, oh, it would be so much better if they could testify anonymously. The case of this anonymous witness actually showed that such anonymous testimony is quite difficult. It has some disadvantages because the defense kept asking him, "How do you know that? Were you there or did someone tell you?" He couldn't answer that question because obviously, that would maybe reveal something about his identity and position.

I guess that's going to affect the evidential value of his testimony. One of the important pieces of information that he gave was that he said it was impossible that an officer or a colonel would be kept in his position or even promoted if he was not completely loyal to the regime. In this way, he contradicted the statement of Anwar R, that he gave back in May. This week, Wednesday started with an announcement from judge Dr. Anne Kerber that the Federal Constitutional Court had issued an instruction that there had to be a translation into Arabic for Arabic-speaking journalists.

It led to the defense lawyer, Böcker, requesting that day 1 until day 23 of the trial should be repeated because it had taken place without translation into Arabic. I guess an attempt to delay the progress of the trial, but he probably won't have any success with this request. After that, we heard the second of the plaintiffs, Wassim Mukdad give his testimony, he was imprisoned in al-Khatib branch for five days in September 2011.

He gave the usual accounts of beatings and beatings on the soles of his feet during interrogation. He even suffered from a broken rib after his arrest and had to endure that during his whole stay in prison. His statement altogether was quite short. He gave it in German. There weren't too many questions after that. On Thursday, we heard the third of the plaintiffs testify, Hussein Ghrer. He's a blogger and political activist from Damascus. He was arrested in October 2011 and stayed in Branch 251 for 10 to 15 days.

He confirmed what other witnesses had told the court until now about the beating on the soles of his feet, about the lack of nutrition in the cells, and the overcrowding. One emotional moment was when he talked about a protest that he had joined in Qaboun where a 70-year-old man was walking next to him who was later shot dead. Before he was shot, that man told him that he wasn't scared to die because he only cared that his children and grandchildren would have a free country to live in.

When he told this incident, Ghrer actually had to take a break. He seemed close to tears and his sisters who were seated in the audience also were on the verge of tears and everyone had to take a moment to calm down and continue the testimony. At the end of the session on Thursday, plaintiff lawyer Sharma made an interesting observation. Wednesday's witness, Wassim Mukdad had said that from the voice, he recognized that in each interrogation, the person who interrogated him was the same person.

Anwar R had said in his statement that he actually did interrogate Mukdad at one point even though he didn't use any violence. Wassim Mukdad claims that during his interrogations violence was also used. Yes, that was an interesting observation made today. Let's see how the defense will react to that, perhaps in the future

Fritz: Thank you very much, Hannah. We'll dedicate the entire next episode to the latest from Koblenz. Stay tuned for more news and analysis from the courtroom. That's the end of today's episode. We'll see you next time.

Karam: See you then.


Pauline: Branch 251 is created, produced, and hosted by Karam Shoumali and Fritz Streiff. Production feedback by Maarten van Doornmalen. Production assistance by me, Pauline Peek. Hannah El-Hitami is our course reporter. This podcast is listener-supported, you can help keeping it going by subscribing, rating, reviewing, by sharing it with your friends, and by becoming a patron of the show via Patreon. We'll put a link to our Patreon page in the show notes. Thank you for your support.