Branch 251/
S1E17: A Favor For A Friend


Fritz and court reporter Hannah dissect the special testimony of leading Syrian opposition figure Riad Seif, the man who vouched for Anwar R. to get asylum in Germany. The country that is now prosecuting him for crimes against humanity. Also, two survivors of Branch 251 who are civil parties in the case testified, Wassim Mukdad and Hussein Ghrer. How did their testimonies go? And what can we say more generally about how our expectations from the beginning of the trial compare to our observations so far?

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Hannah el-Hitami on twitter: @hannahel711


Hannah’s article on the testimony by Mr. Seif:


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Episode Transcript

Fritz Streiff: Hello everyone my name is Fritz Streiff and you are listening to Branch 251. This episode is for those of you who have been wondering what exactly has been going on in the courtroom the past two weeks. Two civil parties testified as witnesses as well as a man many consider as a leading figure in the Syrian opposition. Riad Seif, a man who made his career first in business then in Syrian politics when he was voted into parliament. He's been a fixture on the political scene for decades and was one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of Bashar al-Assad.

Long before Bashar came to power though he had already been trying to bring about change in a regime that he considered to be corrupt and bad at governing. When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000 Riad Seif saw a chance. A small window of opportunity for change. Maybe he thought with generational change would come political change. In a way it did. Despite warnings from multiple regime figures that he should tread lightly Mr. Seif continued raffling feathers. He criticized and challenged the regime organizing illegal lectures and calling out shoddy deals that rigged off nepotism.

His resistance grew into a movement which today is referred to as the Damascus Spring. It cost him dearly between 2000 and 2010 Mr. Seif spent eight years in prison. In 2011 when the uprising in Syria started he attended demonstrations and tried to unite the opposition by attempting to create coalitions and even a new political party. His efforts to break Assad's hold on Syria failed. Although while members and supporters of the regime continued warning him, intimidating him, arresting him and according to Mr. Seif physically attacking him.

In June 2012 Riad Seif left Syria for Germany. In exile, his opposition continued. This is also where his connection to Koblenz comes into play. That same year he heard via an old friend his son-in-law that a former high-ranking member of the intelligent service who claimed he had defected had fled to Jordan and needed help. The Syrian opposition could potentially benefit from having defectors spill the beans on his buses and on their practices. Mr. Seif decided to help this man come to Germany. He gave all the information he had about the man to the German authorities, vouched for him and so Anwar R was offered refugee status in Germany.

Now, one interesting thing about his story as it relates to Koblenz is this. Both the prosecution and Anwar R thought Mr. Seif's testimony could potentially help their case. Let's break that down a little bit. For that, I call our court reporter Hannah El-Hitami. Hannah help me understand why Anwar R wanted to hear Mr. Seif as a witness?

Hannah: Anwar R in May gave a written statement where he talked about many things, his life. Also, he gave a list of potential witnesses that he personally suggests that he personally would like to hear because he believes that they would speak in his favor. Riad Seif is one of the most prominent opposition figures of Syria. Riad Seif was on that list. Anwar R was obviously hoping that if this guy spoke in his favor then it would be clear that he had really defected and that he had honestly joined the opposition. That s something that a lot of people have questioned.

Fritz Streiff: Right, and why would the prosecution want him?

Hannah: I guess for the prosecution, Riad Seif is just a very important witness because he's the one who helped bring Anwar R to Germany. He's the one who vouched for him, who used his connections to the German foreign office to help Anwar R and his family get asylum in Germany via a special humanitarian program for accommodation of refugees. The prosecution just needed to know what was the connection between Riad Seif and Anwar R. Why would he help him come to Germany and what else did he know about him.

Fritz Streiff: On day 26 and 27 of the trial, both the defense and the prosecution got to question him as a witness. Anwar R hoping that his connection to Riad Seif would speak in his favor. The prosecution wanted to get as much information as possible about Anwar R's resettlement in Germany. Now that we understand a little bit better the context in which Riad Seif testified, Hannah can you tell us how his testimony went?

Hannah: It was interesting that one of the first sentences that Riad Seif said was that he didn't know Anwar R. He had never heard of him before he came to Berlin. That he basically had nothing to do with him. Which was interesting because he helped this man come to Germany, so everyone was expecting that there must have been some relationship. He then continued to describe that his son-in-law had a close friend and that close friend had told him about Anwar R who had already defected and was living in Jordan at the time.

That this friend of his son-in-law had asked him to help this guy come to Germany because he was allegedly being threatened by the Syrian regime in Jordan and he was fearing for his life. Because Riad Seif trusted his son-in-law and that close friend of his and because he was interested in helping high-ranking regime member defect, he forwarded Anwar R's information to the foreign office and recommended him for a special humanitarian asylum.

Riad Seif also said that he didn't double-check Anwar R's background but that if he had known all these negative things about him like then he would never have helped him. He would never have supported him. He didn't know anything about the background.

Fritz Streiff: Wait, Mr. Seif said he wouldn't have helped Anwar R had he know how bad he was, even though Anwar R's high rank which Mr. Seif was aware of meant that Anwar R almost certainly participated in or oversaw torture in one form or another. He wasn't just aware. Anwar R's high rank was in fact one of the main reasons he volunteered to help him get to Germany. How did that come across to you during the testimony?

Hannah: I thought it was weird that he said that he wouldn't have helped him if he had known anything negative about him because you have to remember Riad Seif himself was imprisoned in Syria for almost seven years. Even when he was out of prison he was summoned to the secret service branches numerous times. He also mentioned that he had been to Al Khatib branch numerous times where he was interrogated, he was detained for a few hours. He was threatened. He said in court that there's no secret service branch in Syria where there's no torture and if anyone said that was the case, they were lying.

Considering this, if you heard about a high-ranking ex-secret service officer, head of interrogations he must have known that this guy did not have a clean slate. The prosecution actually asked him about that and they quoted something that Riad Seif said during his police interrogation. Where he said that he cannot imagine that Anwar R was nice during his interrogations because as a Sunni in such a high position he was always under observation by his Alawite colleagues and he wouldn't have adhered to be friendlier to prisoners and offer them tea or biscuits or whatever Anwar R had said in his statement.

Fritz Streiff: Okay interesting. Riad Seif was actually referring to something here that is considered common knowledge among Syrians and those who know Syria. As Anwar R belonged to a different school of Islam than most of his colleagues and the ruling elite, he would have been under extra pressure to prove himself basically. According to Mr. Seif's logic, Anwar R probably wouldn't have felt safe or secure enough in his position to show the mercy that he claimed he did in his personal statement. Hannah, did he say more about why he did vouch for him then?

Hannah: He gave several reasons. One being that he trusted his son-in-law and wanted to help him. The second reason was that he wanted to encourage high-ranking regime officers to defect, so he wanted to support this one. The main reason I think that he mentioned was that he wanted to get information from Anwar R. With Anwar R being such a high ranking officer in the secret service Riad Seif was really hoping for information from him that he would share all the information that he had gathered during his work from a secret service.

Fritz Streiff: Did he deliver on that information?

Hannah: Well, Riad Seif was actually disappointed. He said that Anwar R came to visit him one time after arriving in Berlin. He came to visit him at home with his wife and his children. Riad Seif tried to ask him questions and get some information from him but he said that Anwar R did not say a single word. The defense asked him whether there had been a deal between him and Anwar R that he would help him come to Germany in exchange for information but Riad Seif said no there was no deal. He was expecting Anwar R to give information in favor of the revolution but he did not make a deal. It was not a prerequisite for supporting him.

Fritz Streiff: In your estimation, and I know this might be a bit of a speculative question, but did either the prosecution or the defense get from Mr. Seif what they hope they would?

Hannah: The defense definitely did not get what they wanted and it was clear that Anwar R was hoping that Riad Seif would speak in his favor and that he would say that-- thatt he would confirm his sympathy with the revolution and that he had been in touch with the opposition but none of that happened. Riad Seif actually said that Anwar R had not been in touch with the opposition before he left Syria.


Fritz Streiff: Riad Seif is not the only person who testified in Koblenz recently. The week before him, torture survivor, Wassim Mukdad took the witness stand. He actually became involved in the trial after bumping into someone working on the case while he was just barbecuing in a park in Berlin. He learned about the Koblenz trial and since he's a victim of the alleged crimes, he became a civil party. Civil parties or joint plaintiffs joined the prosecution and the case against Anwar A and Eyad A and can participate in the proceedings. For example, his lawyers can ask questions to the witnesses.

This was a special day for him because he appeared as a witness himself. Mukdad had been arrested in Syria during the uprising when he was looking to join a protest. He was arrested, kicked, and beaten before being taken to Branch 251 or as many survivors call it Hell on Al Khatib Street. Hannah, what can you tell us about Wassim Mukdad's testimony?

Hannah: Wassim Mukdad was the second of the joint plaintiffs to testify. He spent five days in Al Khatib branch in 2011, after having been arrested while out on the streets looking for a demonstration to join. He gave the usual descriptions of torture, mainly the beating on the soles of the feet during interrogation. He said that he had suffered from a broken rib during his arrest and he had to endure that during his house day. He didn't receive any medical care for his broken rib. That was very painful for him. He also mentioned that during the interrogations, he hid his hands underneath his body, first of all, to protect his rib but also because he's a very successful musician.

He plays the old Arabic instrument and he wanted to protect his hands from being broken. He said he didn't care if you know someone beat his feet or legs or whatever, as long as he was still going to be able to use his hands afterwards. One important thing that he said was that all his three interrogations were conducted by the same person and that he would be able to recognize that person's voice. Since Anwar R is not willing to give a voice sample, he's not going to be able to recognize him by his voice in the courtroom. However, Anwar R in his own statement mentioned one interrogation that he conducted with Wassim Mukdad.

If one of the interrogations actually happened, then that could mean that the other two also happened under the need of Anwar R and according to Wassim Mukdad torture was used during the interrogations. That would prove that Anwar R's interrogations were not peaceful and without violence.

Fritz Streiff: The day after Mukdad testified we had another civil party appear as a witness, right?

Hannah: Yes. That was the third joint plaintiffs. He was a blogger who was arrested for his political blogging that he did before and in 2011. He was arrested in October 2011 and he stayed in Al Khatib branch for 10 to 15 days until he was transferred to another branch and later to prison. His statement was also in line with all the statements by the victims that we heard until now, so there was nothing really different. He also said that he would recognize the voice of the interrogator. One interesting point was he was the first one who mentioned talking to other prisoners about their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault in prison.

All the other witnesses had said that this is something people don't talk about but this witness said that when he was in prison, he met people who had been in different Secret Service branches, and many of them shared their stories of rape and sexual harassment. He couldn't say in which branches exactly because those were people that he met in prison later.

Fritz Streiff: Now we have at least two people who said they would be able to identify Anwar R by his voice. However, Anwar R has not spoken a word since his trials started only communicating through his lawyers and through written statements. You might be wondering if the judge or the prosecution or anyone else could demand his speech sample from Anwar R? The answer is no. This is because of the principle that in a criminal proceeding, none of the defendants can be forced to say or do anything that might incriminate them. Anwar R's defense has made this clear multiple times in the courtroom.

Hannah, before we let you go, I'd like to ask you a question that goes beyond the last two weeks. Let's take a step back and look at the entirety of the Koblenz trial. It started a little over four months ago. So far, there have been 27 court sessions, and you've seen 26 of them. In a way, you're sort of our expert witness here. Tell us about what you expected of this trial at the beginning, and how you look back at those expectations now.

Hannah: When I first read about this trial and heard about universal jurisdiction, I expected it to be a very international type of trial but I have to say that in this regard, I've been a little bit disappointed. I think that the trial is much more local than I would have expected. Also, yes, it's based on international law in the form of universal jurisdiction but the code of criminal proceedings is the German one. I had the feeling that this has a very big influence on how this whole trial was conducted. It has an influence on the way that witnesses, for example, are protected.

I think that the rules for witness protection should be different in an international proceeding than in a normal everyday criminal case that happens in court in Germany, for example. I have to say that there are some things that would work better in a more international trial. The media attention has also been quite disappointing. I feel like it's a historically important trial and it's unique, or it's at least the first of its kind.

It's a bit surprising that it's not being followed a lot more like often I'm the only journalist in the audience. Sometimes there's two or three but I think it's a pity because there's probably so much we could learn from this trial, and there will probably be so much more universal jurisdiction places in the future. It would be important to really monitor and record and document this trial.


Fritz Streiff: Thanks so much for your time, Hannah.

Hannah: Thank you.


Fritz Streiff: Hannah recently published a piece about the Riad Seif testimony. It's a great article. You can go check it out. We've posted a link in the show notes. Personally, I was also very curious about Mr. Seif's testimony. Ever since I learned that such an important member of the opposition had vouched for Anwar R and that Anwar R himself asked the court that Mr. Seif should appear as a witness. Now, after his testimony, I have to say it was disappointing, but I'm not surprised. Mr. Seif did not say anything unexpected. He helped a relatively high-ranking regime official, hoped for information that would be valuable to the opposition.

He made a bet that helping a defected Colonel of the security services would further weaken the regime. Listening to Mr. Seif, those expectations did not quite materialize. He now regrets having used his own status to recommend Anwar R for asylum in Germany. I get the feeling he's embarrassed about how things turned out and that makes sense. What this all comes down to is that Mr. Seif just testified as a witness about a man that is in the dock for allegations of crimes against humanity. A man he helped get into the country that now prosecutes him based on these allegations.

Just one last thought in connection to the last question I discussed with Hannah about her opinion of the trial so far. I think Mr. Seif'ss testimony once again shows that if we have learned one thing so far during the trial, it is that things were not black and white as they never are. There are so many shades of gray when reconstructing complicated and complex facts like these.


That's it for today's episode, but first, we have some sad news to share. Unfortunately, Karam is moving on to other responsibilities and projects and will no longer be able to contribute to the podcast. His contribution to this first phase of the podcast was absolutely invaluable. We're sorry to see him go and wish him all the best for his future endeavors. Thank you, Karam, and thank you all for listening to today's episode. We'll see you next time on Branch 251.


Paulina Peek: Branch 251 is created produced and hosted by Fritz Streiff. Production feedback by Maarten van Doornmalen Production assistance by me, Paulina Peek, Hannah El-Hitami is our court reporter. This podcast is entirely listener-supported. If you enjoy listening and want to help us out, the best way to do so is by becoming a patron of the show via Patreon. Every donation no matter how small helps us in keeping Branch 251 going. Please consider becoming a patron today. We'd be so grateful to have your support. There's a link to our Patreon page in the show notes.