Branch 251/
S1E18: Man's Inhumanity To Man


"There's a reason it's called crimes against humanity": In this season finale, we discuss a testimony that stands out: witness Z 30/07/19, a grave digger for the Assad regime with a first-hand account of the massive scale of the crimes against humanity that the regime is accused of. Special testimonies like these make you suddenly realize what this whole trial is all about.

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Episode Transcript

Fritz: Hi, Hannah.

Hannah: Hi, Fritz.

Fritz: How are you doing?

Hannah: I'm good. Going back to Koblenz in the afternoon. How are you?

Fritz: Yes, good, thanks. I also really wanted to go to Koblenz this week because it's such an interesting phase of the trial, but with everything going on and the travel restrictions, it wasn't possible, especially when coming from a high-risk area like Paris.

Hannah: Yes. It's difficult to come from a different country, but you can always ask me about what happened and I'll give you all the details.

Fritz: Exactly. That's what we have you, right?

Earlier this week, I called up our court reporter Hannah El-Hitami to ask her about trial days 30 and 31 in Koblenz. They were not ordinary days. Well, no day in court in the world's first criminal trial against members of the Syrian regime is ordinary, I guess, but this one will probably stand out in the memories of those who were in the courtroom those days. Listening to Z30/07/19, an anonymous witness. A quick note of warning. The contents of the testimony which we'll discuss in detail today are shocking and potentially disturbing to some listeners. Please take care while listening.

I gathered that last week's testimony in Koblenz was was pretty special. I'm quite interested to hear your thoughts on that. Maybe you can just start by telling us who testified and why that was a special type of witness.

Hannah: Yes. I can't tell you his name because he was an anonymous witness. He appeared under the abbreviation Z30/07/19. He had requested to appear also hiding part of his face and he was allowed to do that so he just left his face mask on. He was a former employee of the Damascus Burial Authority. He used to work for the regime but not in the Secret Service sector.

He however came in touch with the work of the Secret Service in 2011 when he was recruited by two officers to work in Najha and Al-Qutayfa, these are two locations of mass graves near Damascus. He and his colleagues had to start working there. He was lucky to just be hired as a driver and to keep lists of the dead bodies delivered, but his colleagues really had to do the dirty work. They had to climb into the trucks that were full of dead bodies from the prisons and the security branches and they had to push them out and push them into the ditches that were dugout.

Fritz: If I understand correctly, this person was a civil servant before 2011 working for burial services of the state, and then was recruited by the Secret Services to start mass burying bodies that came out of the Secret Services prisons. Is that right?

Hannah: Yes, exactly. They actually came out of the Secret Services Prisons and were then delivered to the military hospitals, Tishreen and Harasta. From there, they were delivered to the mass graves, and other bodies came from Sednaya Prison, which has also been known to conduct mass executions.

Fritz: That's the prison that Amnesty International a few years ago had a very impressive report on with some forensic analysis and some sort of 3D, I think, also audio material, right?

Hannah: Exactly, yes.

Fritz: Just one more question. From my understanding, if I place his role into what we've learned so far in this trial and also have learned from other reports including from one of those really special witnesses that we also discussed on the podcast, namely the Caesar photographer, the person that worked as a photographer, a crime scene photographer before the revolution and then became a dead body photographer, that person, that photographer, took pictures of the dead people coming out of security services, prisons.

He took photos of them. Those photos were registered, including to be able to, later on, produce death certificates without having to produce the body to the families. We had an extensive episode on this on the podcast, and then the witness last week that you just described came in after the role of Ceasar to pick up those bodies after they were photographed and organized and took those to mass graves to mass bury.

Hannah: Yes, exactly. What really struck me about this testimony and also about the Caesar files, obviously, is the bureaucracy of it. That a government would conduct mass killings and at the same time keep orderly lists of these killings or to give each dead person three numbers declining the number of the inmate and which branch they were killed in. You would think that a Secret Service would not be that interested in documenting their own crimes. At the same time, it almost gives their crimes an appearance of being legal because they're documented in every step in a very bureaucratic, official way. That's the connection between the two. I think it's just horrifying that such horrible crimes can be committed in such an orderly way.

Fritz: The witness from last week also had a bureaucratic role like that.

Hannah: Yes. He said that he did not himself have to get in physical touch with the bodies. He was standing nearby. He received the lists from the security officers and then, together with another security officer, he went back to the office, wrote them down in the big notebook that was then stored in a safe. He wrote down how many bodies came from which branch and the name and the number of the branch.

Fritz: What else struck you about his testimony last week?

Hannah: He gave a lot of really horrifying details. He talked a lot about the smell. He said that he could distinguish the bodies from Sednaya from the bodies from the military hospitals by their smell, because the bodies from Sednaya had allegedly been executed the same night and had to be buried the day after, so they did not have a smell. These bodies, he approached and he took a closer look at them. He said that he saw the marks on their necks where they had been hung. He saw that they sometimes had bruises and their fingernails sometimes were pulled out. Some had marks of electric shocks.

However, the other bodies from the Secret Service branches, he tried to keep away from them because they smelled so bad. It was almost impossible to get away from that smell of decay. He said that it really stayed in his nose even after he went back home. The first time he had been at the mass burials, he could not eat or drink for days because he was so disturbed by what he saw and what he smelled.

Another description that really stayed in my mind was he described how this whole burial took place. He said the trucks arrived, they opened the door and first a stream of blood and maggots came out and then his colleagues had to go into those trucks and push out those bodies, They were thrown into the ditches. The ditches were 100 meters long and six meters deep. Whenever they finished filling a part of that very long ditch, they covered that part, and then the next truck could arrive.

Fritz: If the graves were that large, how many bodies are we talking about at the same time?

Hannah: Well, per truck, he said there were around 700 bodies, but they were not always 700 bodies. There could also be less. He was not really able to give a very clear number in court how many bodies he had counted all together during the whole time that he worked there. Apparently, in his police interrogation last year, he had said that there were about 50,000 corpses coming from state security in 2011 and '12. Of course, Al-Khatib branch belongs to state security. He said that around 10,000 per year would have then come from the Al-Khatib branch.

Fritz: 10,000 bodies in that one year between 2011, 2012 from Al-Khatib branch from Branch 251.

Hannah: Yes. He said that after 2013, the numbers grew.

Fritz: How would the burial take place?

Hannah: Basically, they'd just open the truck and they'd just push all of them out and they'd just fall into the ditch in one big pile. That's how I understood it. There were also bulldozers that would cover up the graves. The witness remembered one really horrible scene where he and his colleagues saw that one person among the dead was actually still alive and breathing. When their superior noticed that, he told the bulldozer to just run that guy over.

Fritz: Those are some pretty terrible scenes that this witness described. Is there anything else that stayed with you mostly from his testimony?

Hannah: Well, he did mention that he still had nightmares until today. One scene that apparently really stuck to his mind most was when he saw a woman hugging a child among the dead bodies. He said that this was the worst thing he saw and that really made him fall apart.

Fritz: It's impossible to imagine, of course, what I find mind-blowing is that this person did this job for at least six years between 2011 and 2017. Do we have any idea how this person ended up in Germany as a witness in this trial?

Hannah: No, he's anonymous so there was no more information about whether or how he defected, how he came to Germany, all this was not asked or answered.

Fritz: That is all, of course, to protect the security of himself and his family, possibly here in Europe and back in Syria?

Hannah: Yes, well, apparently he had already requested anonymity during his police interrogations because his family had already been threatened.

Fritz: Okay, Hannah, this is a very special, I think testimony within this trial, the first of a kind, I think, in terms of what happens with the bodies coming out of Branch 251, Al-Khatib branch, where do they end up and how does that process work. It sounds like we and the court learned for the first time about that. These symbols of a bulldozer at night on a mass grave, it's really unimaginable. I hope that you have some good days to rest afterwards before you go back to Koblenz today.

Hannah: Yes, I did.

Fritz: Okay, well, thank you, Hannah. We really appreciate it as always, and we'll talk to you again soon.

Hannah: Thank you.

Fritz: Bye-bye.

Hannah: Bye.


Fritz: Just a quick note on what's special about this witness from a legal perspective, he did not tell the court anything specific about the individual crimes that Anwar R and Eyad A are accused of. He did not see them rounding up, torturing, or killing anyone or ordering those crimes, or letting them happen under their watch. From what we understand the defense lawyers during the hearing wanted to establish exactly that by trying time and again to reveal the witness's identity, probably to demonstrate that he was in no position to give incriminating evidence against the accused.

That he was not in the relevant chain of command to tell the court about the accused roles. Hannah told us that the court took a formal decision during the hearing, that the witness did not have to answer any of the questions from the defense that could reveal his identity. Witness Z30/07/19 did not tell the court about the individual allegations of crimes that the two defendants are accused of. Testimonies like this are significant, why? Because they're necessary for proving that these crimes are crimes against humanity, not just single occurrences of murder and torture.

This accusation, the accusation of crimes against humanity is also part of the indictment. To prove that, the court needs to hear about the structural characteristics of the crimes, about the system, and plan that the crimes at Branch 251 are part of. That can be difficult to establish without witnesses that can testify firsthand about evidence of that structure, mass graves, industrial style burials, possibly hundreds of mutilated and defaced bodies at a time, and according to this witness, possibly 10s of 1000s in total over years and years. The massive scale and organization of the crimes against humanity that the Assad regime is accused of.

Listening to the horror described in his testimony, I had a similar sensation to when I first saw and heard about the Caesar photos. Suddenly, you realize what it's really all about. It's about people because of course, you can look at this trial from many angles and when you do, it becomes clear that what's going on in Koblenz is interesting and important in a lot of ways. Legally because by interpreting and applying laws, we set important precedents because it's testing this young, exciting legal principle of universal jurisdiction.

Politically, because in bringing Eyad A and Anwar R to trial, Germany signals to the world, they're willing to take action against the systemic torture practices of Assad. Historically, because how we deal with the past tells us something about who we are, who we want to be, and the future we want to have. There's one thing we shouldn't forget, bearing witness this way matters morally. We listen to victims and witnesses and through their stories, we are reminded of our own humanity. I don't know about you but for me, I realized that for so many people, this trial is also a way to grieve and to commemorate.

Koblenz is about people, whatever the outcome of the trial, there's a deeply human aspect to all of this. There's a reason it's called crimes against humanity. What has happened and is still happening to people who have been pushed into vans, thrown into torture dungeons, to those who didn't survive and were unceremoniously buried by men like Z30/07/19, to those who did survive but will never be the same, some of whom we've heard from on the podcast. What happened to people who had no chance to say goodbye to their loved ones? Who said, "See you later," and then never did, wondering where their father, brother, best friend, daughter might be.

In the end, it's just incredibly sad. Between the codenames and the translation issues and the historical context, and the legal questions, it's important not to lose sight of this, also for us here on the podcast. On that note, with this episode, we're wrapping up season one, we're taking a bit of a break, so there won't be any Branch 251 in your podcast feed for some time. Don't worry, we'll be back with season two before you know and we have some announcements coming your way soon, so do stay tuned.


Pauline: Branch 251 is created, produced, and hosted by Fritz Streiff, production feedback by Maarten van Doornmalen, production assistants by me, Pauline Peek, Hannah el-Hitami is our court 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.


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