Daoud: What is Koblenz?
Alaa: Yes, of course, I've heard of the Koblenz trial, which was named after the city it was held in.
Daoud: I can assure you no one has heard of this trial here.
Alaa: This trial aims to prosecute two officers of Al Assad's regime. The most notorious officers of Al-Khatib's security branch.
Hassan: This guy, but I forget what his name-- Anwar.
Iman1: The perpetrators thought that they could go unscathed after the damage they've done in Syria.
Daoud: Yes, many people who were affiliated with the government left and are in Germany right now.
Iman1: As for Al Khatib's detention center?
Daoud: Yes, I know Al Khatib's branch.
Iman1: I don't suppose anyone in Syria is unaware of it.
Rima: One of my own was held at Al-Khatib center.
Iman1: It's a morbid place.
Rima: I saw with my own eyes, the signs and ruins of torture implicated on my people.
Iman1: If anyone doesn't know about it, at least they have heard of it for sure.
Interviewee 5: No.
Asser Khattab: From 75 podcasts, this is Branch 251. I am Asser Khattab.
Noor Hamadeh: I'm Noor Hamadeh.
Asser Khattab: Over the past few weeks, our colleagues and us reached out to 16 people.
Noor Hamadeh: We asked them about Koblenz, about the Al-Khatib branch.
Asser Khattab: About justice and accountability.
Noor Hamadeh: People from a range of backgrounds, ages, and locations.
Asser Khattab: There are two things they all have in common, they are all Syrian, and none of them is directly involved with the Koblenz trial. In this episode, you won't hear from lawyers, professors, journalists, or experts.
Noor Hamadeh: Because as much as we want to help you understand what's happening in Koblenz, there's one question that people who are deeply involved with the trial can answer.
Asser Khattab: To what extent does the Koblenz trial live in the minds of Syrians inside and outside of Syria?
Noor Hamadeh: Now, we're not under the illusion that 16 Syrians alone can answer that question either, especially when you consider that the majority of people we contacted aren't currently living in Syria, only two of them do. We have audio from one of them, the others sent us written responses.
Asser Khattab: This particular flow, if you will, in our sample, actually demonstrates an important phenomenon that we should probably address before anything else, fear.
Iman2: All Syrians, including myself, live in a constant state of fear. This fear is embedded in us. We're terrified of being monitored. We fear that they may harm our families in Syria because we have a feeling that they could access anything we say. We always have this fear, as they say, "We were brought up in such a way to always have this fear."
Noor Hamadeh: You just heard Iman, this is not her real name. We changed it to protect her privacy and to some extent, as she illustrated herself, her safety. Iman lives outside Syria, which might help explain why she felt safe enough to talk to us at all, because talking when you're in Syria, is a dangerous thing.
Asser Khattab: Daoud, also not his real name, is a university student in Damascus. I contacted him through an encrypted messaging app, and he echoes Iman's words. He told me people inside Syria can't even follow certain news without getting in trouble, much less discuss it openly.
Noor Hamadeh: It's actually a huge hurdle for NGOs, journalists, and of course, Syrians outside of Syria who tried to stay in touch with their family members inside Syria.
Asser Khattab: People who live in government-controlled parts of Syria or those who live abroad, but have family members there always have to keep in mind that when talking about the country, they could face consequences for their statements. The regime could target them or their relatives and loved ones. The tricky thing is, that there aren't any clear rules or laws defining what is and isn't allowed. To a large extent, it's arbitrary. Someone could be detained and tortured for calling for the downfall of Assad, but they could suffer similar repercussions for simply speaking to the media that the regime doesn't like, or for complaining about inflation. The regime decides where the line is, it decides when you've crossed it, and then it decides and carries out your punishment.
Noor Hamadeh: It's true that people's communication is being monitored. The regime's Ministry of Information and Intelligence apparatuses keep track of what's being said about Syria in multiple languages, and they share information with one another.
Asser Khattab: Even though we wish we could share with you more voices of Syrians inside the country, real, rational, tangible fear is what's keeping people from voicing their opinion to us.
Noor Hamadeh: As you may remember from previous episodes to the judges in Koblenz, witnesses have repeatedly expressed fear for their own safety and that of their families.
Asser Khattab: It's important to realize that each person who spoke to us took a risk, especially the two people inside Syria. We've changed their names and the names of almost every interviewee for this reason.
Noor Hamadeh: Even though their names aren't real, their stories are.
Jameel: Hello, I'm Jameel.
Noor Hamadeh: Jameel currently lives in Idlib.
Jameel: I've heard of the Koblenz trial regarding the two security agents affiliated with Al Assad's militias. This trial is a great thing. Every single security agent, whether a Major General or a soldier, who murdered civilians in their liberated cities and towns previously, currently, and until this moment, if they are in a European country and the government has arrested and detained them, they should be prosecuted in the same exact city or country.
Noor Hamadeh: Jameel believes that European countries have the responsibility to hold people who committed crimes in Syria accountable. He says it's the least they can do in fact, and not just to deliver justice, but also to make sure that perpetrators don't devalue the meaning of being a refugee. He wants European countries to make sure that perpetrators aren't offered the same amount of protection, the same rights as the survivors of their crimes.
Jameel: They should at least honor the victims by not letting these agents become refugees, for their value not to equal the value of a civilian that was ejected by war, and torn apart from the towns and cities, homes, and families. Therefore, we're all with the persecution of criminals, especially when they are security personnel or part of Al Assad's militias. In the end, they are all affiliated with one regime, one head perpetrator, and one criminal.
Asser Khattab: It's interesting what he says in the end there. In his mind, people like Anwar R., and Eyad A., if they are found guilty of what they're accused of, represent Assad. Something similar was mentioned by Alaa. He recently left Syria and told us he's very familiar with the Koblenz trial. He thinks that the trial has a lot of merit, including giving Syrians hope and perspective for justice. Like Jameel, Alaa points out that Anwar R. and Eyad A. are more than just the sum of their alleged crimes. They represent Assad's system of oppression and torture. He draws a parallel between Anwar R. and Assad specifically.
Noor Hamadeh: Before Anwar R. became known in the western world as Anwar R., the defendant, he enjoyed a lot of power and status in Syria. Multiple people said that in these interviews. Al-Khatib branch, after all, is one of the most notorious torture prisons in Syria, at least in Damascus. According to Alaa, Anwar R. is not just affiliated with Assad, but similar to him.
Asser Khattab: It's easy to imagine then that Koblenz could have huge symbolic importance for many people.
Oday Al-Maasarani: I am Oday Al-Maasarani, a communications student at Wolfsburg University in Germany, I've been a resident of Germany for about five years.
Asser Khattab: I spoke to Oday who actually attended the Koblenz trial. When I asked him why he felt compelled to go, he basically told me that he was drawn to the symbolic importance of Koblenz, that it was history in the making. He was curious what witnessing it would look, sound, and feel like.
Oday Al-Maasarani: My motive behind attending is that I was honestly intrigued to see what it means for a trial to occur in the first place. To find out what it means to have a course of justice in the Syrian context. Coming from Syria, I'm not used to the concept of just courts or trials for human rights. I could not fully comprehend that we are actually safe in Germany, as Syrian refugees. However, we are witnessing the trial of individuals who are responsible for our torture. This in itself made me feel disoriented. My feelings were not even clear to me.
Standing in front of the court's door on the first day, I felt scared, spaced out, and a little out of touch with reality. On the second day when I went inside the courtroom and I gazed at the accused inside their cage, every cell in my body was shaking. I felt a mix of fear and happiness and joy of sweet victory in being able to finally put these people in the cage.
Asser Khattab: The way Oday talks about we and us was something that we noticed time and time again in the statements of people we talked to. He says, "We are witnessing the trial of individuals for our torture." A lot has been said about the symbolic importance of the trial whether on this podcast or elsewhere, and yet hearing him speak about it with such passion paints a clearer picture of just how significant this is to so many Syrians out there.
Oday Al-Maasarani: Again, this court is a milestone in Syrian history. It holds historical symbolism, the first trial to happen for former intelligence officers within the Syrian regime.
Asser Khattab: Oday also wanted to carry a message with him to the Koblenz trial and tell Germany and the world that despite this trial and all the developments in Syria, it still isn't safe for people to return and that those notorious branches are still at work.
Oday Al-Maasarani: The trial is a political context in disguise because violations are still happening today in Syria. There are still free officers who are committing crimes and violations until now. There are reports stating that 130,000 detainees are still in Syrian prisons. As long as these oppressive free officers are around, we can never say that Syria is safe.
Asser Khattab: This does not overshadow the significance of this trial which managed to teach even Oday, a former detainee himself, about the inner workings of the Syrian regime's intelligence apparatuses.
Oday Al-Maasarani: We see that every session in the trial clarifies events and details that we were not aware of. I did not know such details. As a detainee, myself, I did not even realize what was happening, so how would the rest of the world know? Today we are showing details and presenting proof to the whole universe, to every country and every person whether in Germany or not.
Today in this trial, we have proof of the regime's methodology. It is a proof to us Syrians and to all countries that this regime is a criminal one. It's not just a regime in a battle with terrorists, no, it's a regime that wants to rule over Syria with an iron grip of security forces, intelligence services, torture, arrests, and enforced disappearances. As Syrians, we need to support this course of action.
Although we wish we could see these trials in Damascus, we know there are international and legal obstacles that prevent it.
Asser Khattab: I asked him to describe the trial in one word.
Oday Al-Maasarani: Victory is ours.
Noor Hamadeh: It seems like justice means something different for everybody. Even among the few people we contacted, many different conceptions of justice were represented. Farah, for instance, emphasized the role the victims should play.
Farah: Victims need to be at the center. The process itself needs to be victim-centered.
Noor Hamadeh: Whereas Mohammad highlighted the need for a new democratic system in Syria before organizing tribunals possibly for years to come.
Mohammad: I think the closest example that we could go with is what happened with Rwanda, for example. First, to bring a new political system to Syria and have an actual change of political scene and take it more to a democratic one.
Asser Khattab: What do our interviewees think? Does this trial have a role to play in bringing justice for Syria?
Noor Hamadeh: Since there is disagreement about what justice really entails, the only thing closer to an answer would probably be, depends on who you ask. For some people, yes, for others, not so much. Let's look at some of the shortcomings that the people we interviewed pointed out and some of the concerns they raised.
Broadly speaking, most of them fall into one of three categories. Koblenz as partial justice, Koblenz as prematurity, and Koblenz as location. Let's start with the latter because it's probably the easiest to understand. Many of the people we heard from raised the point that Koblenz is too far away from Syria to have a tangible or even symbolic impact. Syrians don't own Koblenz, it doesn't empower or help them heal the way that a Syrian trial in Syria would.
Asser Khattab: Hassan doesn't follow the Koblenz trial that intensely but he knows Al-Khatib branch all too well. One of his childhood friends died there. He was shocked to find out one of Assad's intelligence officials was on trial and surprised that the trial was taking place in Germany, of all places.
Hassan: I believe that justice in Syria should be inside Syria, it's not outside Syria, firstly.
Asser Khattab: He had another criticism secondly which brings us to the next category of concerns about Koblenz.
Hassan: Secondly, justice, it should be for all the people who made the crimes against Syrian people.
Noor Hamadeh: Koblenz is partial justice.
Asser Khattab: Nobody believes that Koblenz trial is the be-all and end-all of justice for Syria. Universal jurisdiction is just one of many tracks. Over and over again, the people we interviewed expressed similar sentiments. Koblenz is a first step.
Noor Hamadeh: Some of the people we heard from emphasized the significance of that single step.
Oday Al-Maasarani: Yes, trials like this could contribute to achieving justice in Syria as prosecuting any Syrian criminal is Syrian justice no matter where they are found.
Noor Hamadeh: Others concentrated more on the steps not taken.
Munir: Why these two?
Noor Hamadeh: This is Munir. He was very active in the opposition even before the revolution. After the uprising started, he devoted himself to the revolutionary movement and was arrested twice. He was tortured while in detention.
Munir: In return, there are plenty of criminals roaming free in your Europe. There are tons of other criminals wanted for war crimes yet nobody's tracking them down. In general, any arrest of anyone implicated in such violations is always a game. It's a great thing. Something that we can't not welcome with open arms. However, I and many people involved in legal matters and victim organizations view justice as a comprehensive process, not a selective one.
Justice should be according to a certain political context. It shouldn't be like the system in Damascus. The security forces are doing their job while we're celebrating the detention of two people in Europe. I think they should be within the context of a comprehensive strategy. It shouldn't be a one-time case of detaining one person only. There must be a comprehensive strategy that leads to taking down all criminals.
Noor Hamadeh: Yasir, who grew up in Damascus, added that the two defendants aren't just not enough, they're not important enough.
Yasir: Both of the defendants that are on trial are not very high-ranking officials and we all know that the command responsibility or the chain of command and in Syria is so well-documented and so tightly followed that there are much more culpable mass criminals at large in Syria.
Noor Hamadeh: Mohammad, a university student whom you already heard talking about the need for political change, echoed some of Yasir and Munir's sentiments. He remarked that while the trial in and of itself is a milestone, he too thinks anyone are as far from the ideal defendants.
Mohammad: Being the first, it's a big deal but it's not you can say the one. It's not the one that's going to bring justice. It's one of many that need to be brought to justice. They've done a lot of harm. A lot of people could testify to that if this happened in Syria, there will be thousands of people that could testify to what you've done.
He's one of many. He's one of the small fishes. He's not the one that actually escaped, the one that is not involved anymore and there is plenty of things that happened from after he left that's even worse from when he was there. Not to say that he's less harmful or more harmful from other people or less criminal or more criminal, but there is plenty of other people that should be brought to justice.
Asser Khattab: This brings us to the last category of criticism, Koblenz's prematurity. One of the remarkable things about the court in Koblenz is that it is putting people on trial who are affiliated with a regime that is still in power. When we think of putting war criminals on trial, the war during which they allegedly committed those crimes is usually over. The Nuremberg trials, the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the Rwandan genocide.
The conflict in Syria is ongoing. People are still being detained and tortured, and the perpetrators that are active in Syria today might look at what's going on in Koblenz and realize that that's the fate that possibly awaits them if they don't win this war. It might discourage them from defecting instead to make them put their heels in the sand.
Mohammad: The only way for me for such a trial happening is that they might become more brutal or more criminal, and they know that. We're not going to submit or try to find a solution because if we did it that's our end. We're going to be brought to justice, and treated as criminals around the world. This is it, we're going to keep fighting until we win.
Noor Hamadeh: Mohammad is torn between seeing the potential danger of raising the stakes for today's perpetrators on the one hand, and recognizing the importance of bringing an end to impunity on the other.
Mohammad: I see that's the main negative that such trials could bring now because they're maybe prematurely happening now but they still need to exist to show them that. You can't just run freely at a certain point if you decide "okay, I've got enough money, I got enough power. I can just move around wherever I want and set up in any country I want." No, you don't have that option.
Asser Khattab: Noor, what do you think of these issues?
Noor Hamadeh: Asser, I agree with a lot of what these people are saying about Koblenz being a first step towards justice. It really can't be the only thing that encompasses that. I also think it's really important what Yasir and others highlighted which is that the two defendants here aren't the most important defendants. As much as they committed crimes, they were also carrying out orders from people higher up, and those people who are higher up are truly the ones who are responsible.
Asser Khattab: I quite agree. Justice is always partial, never complete, and we must always remember that we're not going to get everything we want, everything we are owed from one trial. To me, the most impactful reminder of what Koblenz can or cannot achieve came from the person who out of all the people we heard from actually had the least time to think, or read, or talk about the trial, Daoud, from whom we briefly heard earlier. He lived in a government-controlled area in Syria. Here are his words but not in his voice.
Daoud: What is Koblenz? Yes, yes I have heard something along these lines. The trial of the refugees who were actually in the intelligence forces.
Asser Khattab: He's not surprised that Anwar R. and Eyad A. were arrested in Germany.
Daoud: Yes, many people who were affiliated with the government left and are in Germany right now.
Asser Khattab: He doesn't see how their trial could help him or the people around him.
Daoud: I don't know if any of this is actually useful. As a Syrian here, it won't really affect me. We just want the war to come to an end and for the sanctions to lift in order to live our regular lives.
Asser Khattab: He says a very faraway trial isn't really on anyone's mind right now.
Daoud: I think people's first priority has become their livelihood. No one's thinking much about politics.
Asser Khattab: Even if you wanted to--
Daoud: You know how it is, you can't follow these topics without getting into trouble.
Asser Khattab: Following the news is not a given.
Daoud: Look I can't say we're keeping up with these things around here. People can barely manage to get hold of bread and petrol. They sometimes don't even know what's going on in another city. I can assure you no one has heard of this trial here. Don't be surprised because people aren't in the mood to keep up with these things.
Asser Khattab: From what he knows about the trial, he doesn't seem to have much faith in its potential to have an impact.
Daoud: The problem is things never change here. The government might actually be watching and mocking the trial from where they're sitting.
Asser Khattab: He thinks it's mostly a news story, a collection of articles and reports, that might drew attention to Syria again but won't really move the needle on justice.
Daoud: As I said, I don't have an issue of what's happening and I know so many mistakes happen here but no one is held accountable for but even now with everything going on in Germany, it might be increasing the publicity of it all but no punishments are being imposed on the government. Its only purpose seems to be media coverage but no justice.
Noor Hamadeh: It's interesting that Daoud hasn't heard of this trial and all the other people we spoke to have at least heard of it and have something to say about it. I imagine he brings up an important point which is that his priorities are different. He isn't interested in justice abroad, he's interested in how to survive.
Asser Khattab: He paints a different picture here. It's honestly not surprising to hear Koblenz doesn't really have a place in the minds of those still living in Syria. I suppose it's a privilege to even be able to follow it.
Noor Hamadeh: Yes, and even though almost everyone you heard from today is, to varying degrees, aware of Koblenz, that doesn't mean we should draw too many conclusions from that either.
Asser Khattab: It's probably safe to assume that what Daoud described is true. That not many people inside Syria know about Koblenz. You really have to look for information for it and they're too concerned with staying safe to do so. By the same token, there are probably many Syrians outside of Syria, particularly from the younger generation, who are too busy trying to settle into their new lives away from their country to keep up with Koblenz too.
Noor Hamadeh: Our colleague Pauline spoke to Yara. She fled Syria as a kid before she could finish high school. Her favorite subjects were math and biology, and she's currently studying for a job in the medical field. She has vivid and traumatic memories of the start of the uprising and her journey to Europe. She follows both the local news and the news from the MENA region but still--
Yara: [in Dutch] No
Pauline: [in Dutch] The Koblenz trial itself? The Al-Khatib trial?
Yara: [in Dutch] Hm. No.
Noor Hamadeh: What are you thinking, Asser? After hearing all these different people, what's the takeaway for you?
Asser Khattab: Noor, we are getting different opinions on the trial depending on whom we speak to but one thing that strikes me is that view of Anwar R. and Eyad A as guilty of the accusations made against them. No one is saying that they are innocent, or at least innocent until proven guilty. What do you think?
Noor Hamadeh: I agree, Asser. I noticed the same thing and I think part of that is that Syrians, to a certain extent, see anyone who's affiliated with the regime or works with the regime as automatically guilty. Another thing I noticed was that a lot of people highlighted that they saw this trial as a first step towards justice. Despite all these criticisms, I think people are hopeful that something important will come from it. Maybe that's one of the most important consequences, whether intended or not, of the Koblenz trial. The fact that it reignites the flame of hope for justice and may even trigger future justice efforts.
Asser Khattab: A journey that started in Koblenz but isn't going to end there.
Yara: Hello. Of course, I've heard of the Koblenz trial. I know many young men and women involved in activities supporting the trial. As for Al-Khatib's detention center, I don't suppose that anyone in Syria is unaware of it. If someone doesn't know about it they at least have heard about it for sure. It's a morbid place. Anyone that enters suffers a lot there.
I don't personally know anyone who has had a first-hand experience with the center but I often hear about it. I can't help but be hopeful about this trial. It gives hope to victims of injustice in Syria that they will get their justice. Even if it was outside Syria, there is a system that will restore their justice. I'm hoping that this trial would give those who were treated unjustly part of the justice that they deserve and surely I ask God to do justice to everyone. This truly is a huge step in the course of justice. That's what I think. I firmly think this is beneficial.
One might say we've left Syria and now no one can reach us but fate interfered and cut their journey of deniability, and pretense innocence short. I wish with all my heart that all victims of injustice would manage to secure their rights from their oppressors I pray for this with all my heart. Thank you.
Pauline: Branch 251 is a 75 podcast production. The episode was hosted by Noor Hamadeh and Asser Khattab. It was written and produced by me, Pauline Peek, with additional feedback and production assistance from Saleem Salameh and Fritz Streiff. Today's episode was made possible with the support of Foerderfonds Demokratie. We want to thank everybody who was willing to be interviewed for this episode, as well as everyone who helped us reach you, and a huge thanks to all our amazing voiceovers this episode.
[00:30:59] [END OF AUDIO]