Journalist Deborah Amos: A German court took a groundbreaking step today to hold Syrian officials accountable for crimes in that country's long civil war. The court convicted a former member of the Syrian security services for abetting torture....
Male News Anchor: [in German] ...it is the first trial worldwide about torture by the Syrian state, and the Higher Regional Court Koblenz has ruled...
Female News Anchor: ...at the trial, prosecutors argued that Eyad al-Gharib had helped to arrest protesters who were later tortured and murdered by the regime. He was handed a four-and-a-half-year jail sentence...
[music drowns out the speakers]
Fritz Streiff: How are you, man
Anwar Al-Bunni: Hi.
Fritz: I'm Fritz from the podcast.
Anwar Al-Bunni: Oh, welcome! Hi! How are you?
Fritz: Hi. Good.
[music drowns out voices]
Fritz: What's your reaction?
Anwar Al-Bunni: I am so happy. Really grateful for the court, really. How I must expect this will be-- [phone rings] Sorry, can I?
Fritz: Of course.
Anwar Al-Bunni: Sorry. Hello?
Anwar Al-Bunni: Sorry.
Fritz: No problem. No problem, I know.
Anwar Al-Bunni: I am happy because the decision come not against one person. I think it's hope message. The balance of fear is changed now.
Wassim Mukdad: This is the first step of a long way to reach justice.
Fritz: A worldwide first finding by a criminal court of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian regime. This is huge and long-awaited after 10 long years of impunity. This is a full and complete success, some say, or at least an important first step, but others are not as jubilant.
Asser Khattab: Welcome to this special episode of Branch 251. My name is Asser Khattab.
Fritz: I am Fritz Streiff.
Asser: This verdict from the Koblenz court and the experiences and emotions around it are an illustration of how justice and judicial truth can mean so many different things to different people.
Fritz: During the trial in the court, justice is being administered live. With witness testimonies, introduction of evidence, all the parties being involved, and exercising their procedural rights, it's quite a clinical process, very rule-focused. All for a fair trial. Very much focused on the individual defendant and with the goal of a fair administration of justice. That is what the judges did last Wednesday in Koblenz. The court made this very clear during the reading of its oral verdict. This decision is about an individual and his crimes. Eyad A and his limited contributions to the larger crimes by the Assad regime.
Eyad A was not on trial for the atrocities of the regime, but for his concrete and limited personal part in those atrocities, according to the court.
Asser: As soon as the verdict is spoken, as soon as members of the public leave the gallery and walk down the stairs of the courtroom, and out into the open into normal life, that clinical view on justice starts developing, starts changing, and takes on countless shapes and forms. From that moment, the court, in a way, loses its clinical grip on the interpretation of the kind of justice that it had administered just a few minutes earlier.
Then, after the court has spoken, there's ample space for more emotional and comprehensive views on justice.
Fritz: Our court reporter, Hannah El-Hitami, our Arabic series producer, Saleem Salameh, and I went to Koblenz last week. We were there to document this historic verdict, and to collect impressions, voices, and opinions from Syrian court observers and activists, victims, and Eyad A's cousin and teenage son who were also there. Our day last Wednesday started early. We wanted to make sure that we would get some of the limited seats in the public gallery. When we arrived at the courthouse shortly before 6:00 AM, there was already a group there. Mostly Syrians who had queued up since before 5:00.
It was cold, one of those really fresh early mornings of late winter. People brought hot coffee and exchanged thoughts. There was a certain nervousness in the air. Then when we finally got in, a rumor started making the rounds. For the first time since the beginning of the trial, there would be simultaneous translation into Arabic through the speakers of the public gallery. The court announced that this was an exception to the rule. A very welcome exception it was to the many that do not understand the trial language, German, and could now follow in Arabic.
I could feel this meant a lot to many. Then the nervousness made way for concentration. After the prosecutor and Eyad A with his lawyers came in, the judges followed. Everybody rose from their seat, and the presiding judge started reading the verdict.
Hannah: Just like the prosecutor's plea two weeks ago, the verdict also focused mainly on the larger picture of the crimes, and just briefly mentioned Eyad A's role in them. The presiding judge talked about the situation in Syria for more than an hour and went back all the way to the rule of Hafez al-Assad. She explained how the Secret Services became an instrument of power for the Assad family from the very beginning. Then she said, and I quote, "Bashar al-Assad took over the structures and used the Secret Services, especially from 2011 on, to intimidate and annihilate the opposition."
She talked in detail about the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. She talked about the first protests in Daraa, the military sieges of cities like Daraa or Douma, and mentioned, of course, the shooting at peaceful demonstrators.
Male Interviewee 2: [Arabic language]
Hannah: This Syrian visitor that we talked to said that it actually really moved him emotionally when the judge described the events that happened in Syria, and how she acknowledged that the protests were peaceful and that they were met with live ammunition, arbitrary detention, and forced disappearance, and with protesters being tortured, and even killed. The judge also mentioned the Caesar files that prove the atrocities that happened in the regime prisons. She added that she personally would never forget these images. She referred to the internal documents that prove that orders came from the very top.
These documents had been smuggled out of Syrian government offices, and carefully analyzed by an NGO called CIJA, and they had then been presented in court. According to the verdict, all this evidence proved that since 2011, the Syrian regime had, in fact, waged a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population. This is the definition of crimes against humanity. The fact that she defined it as crimes against humanity, this was why the verdict was so important to so many journalists, activists, and observers from Syria.
Female Interviewee: [Arabic language]
Hannah: This Syrian woman said that she couldn't really grasp what she had felt inside the courtroom. She had mixed feelings. She wondered whether she could really be happy because with all the crimes happening in Syria, one verdict against a small low ranking officer was not entirely satisfying. She said that the crimes are continuing and that thousands are still missing. She said that, yes, on the one hand, she did want to acknowledge the importance of this verdict, but at the same time, she felt that she still needed to stay rooted in reality and keep fighting for those who are still missing.
Hannah: Now, regarding the role of Eyad A, here's a quick reminder of the crimes that he was indicted for. At a protest in Douma in fall 2011, he had arrested protesters and taken them to Branch 251 even though he knew that they would be tortured there. In a way, he contributed a small part to making crimes against humanity possible. The judge explained that every person in Branch 251 was tortured. Everyone was held in inhumane conditions, and everyone had to hear the screams of other detainees. Nobody knew if they would get out alive.
According to her, being held in this branch was itself a form of torture, and she said that Eyad A had known about all of this. She rejected the defense's argument that he should be acquitted because he did not have a choice, that he would have risked his own life if he had not followed orders. She said he could have avoided arresting protestors by faking an injury or an illness, or by just leaving the protest without anyone noticing since there was a large number of security forces present. Of course, he decided by his own free will to work for the Secret Service before and after the uprising. Then the presiding judge arrived at the sentencing part of the verdict.
Eyad A was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, specifically torture and severe deprivation of liberty. The prison sentence could have been up to 11 years for aiding in abetting crimes against humanity, but it was lowered because he had defected quite early and because the court acknowledged that he had been part of a hierarchical structure and acted by command.
In addition, the judges recognized in his favor that he had supported the German police with his witness testimony, about the crimes in Syria, so much so that his conviction had only been possible based on his own statements about his work for the Secret Service. Some of the information he had provided was also added to the indictment against Anwar R. After having fallen asleep during the prosecutor's plea and having cried during the defense's plea two weeks ago, Eyad A did not show much emotion during the verdict. He looked tired and resigned.
He waved a quick greeting to his teenage son and his cousin who were seated in the courtroom.
Male Interviewee 3: [Arabic language]
Hannah: This was the voice of Eyad A's cousin who said that the family believed that Eyad had done everything he could, not to be part of the regime and its crimes. He added that the fact that Eyad A had given his testimony to the German police proved that. He said the family would try everything to prove their point of view on his case. In another conversation I had with him later, he claimed that defectors like Eyad A were celebrated as heroes back in 2012 and that his family also had many missing and killed by the Assad regime.
The defense announced they would likely appeal. That means that they do not accept the verdict and that a higher court has to check all the files of the proceeding and make sure that no mistake was made. If in the end the verdict is confirmed, Eyad A has two and a half more years in prison because he has already spent two years in pretrial detention. He might apply to get released even sooner, depending on a number of factors, of which general public security and his behavior in prison are just two.
Asser: Fritz, I must say that it has been quite surprising in some elements. For almost a year now we've been talking mostly about Anwar R. I think objectively, his case is more interesting for some Syrians than Eyad A. The extent of the accusations against him far exceeds those against Eyad, and he was on a higher level in Branch 251. He's more infamous, in a way. I didn't think that the response to Eyad A would be that much conflicted in a certain way, but I guess it makes sense because even though Eyad A was less prominent and less of an official, he is definitely more controversial.
For example, there are many people actually, who believe that he should have gotten a longer sentence. They thought that he worked for the Syrian Mukhabarat, he's done bad things, he should get more than four and a half years, which sound--
Fritz: And he was the first worldwide, first person to be convicted for crimes against humanity by the Syrian regime or at least his part in it. Right, yes.
Asser: Exactly, and that's precisely why they viewed it as somewhat of a disappointment that the first-ever verdict would be somewhat resonant, somewhat scary to people like him. I thought that would be the predominant view, but actually, it wasn't. So many opposition Syrians were talking about how Eyad A was actually a victim of certain sense of this symbolism of the trial because they had a certain sympathy, not with him as a person, but with his case and certain elements in it. Some people genuinely believe that he has a true story of defection from the Syrian Mukhabarat and actually switched side.
Many people believe that he says that he did his best to save his life while trying to show that he's obeying orders, but not really obeying them. I was surprised to see the extent of people who sympathized with his story, but also the extent of people who switched back and forth in their opinion on the verdict in the few days after it was issued.
Fritz: Oh okay, so it wasn't like there was two camps that were predetermined and met in discussions after, but it was really an organic discussion that also invited people to change their minds. That's interesting, yes.
Asser: It was exactly. The exchanges were heated, at some point, regarding how people view this. They were also- people were discussing it, providing certain points. I have heard survivors of detention or relatives of people who are detained saying that they actually sympathize with Eyad A. I heard others that say no, they don't have any sympathy, and actually, the fact that it's four and a half years shows that maybe this is what he exactly deserves for what he's done.
Fritz: Does this also have to do with the probability that there is so many others like Eyad A that used to be lower-ranking, that used to be part of the system, and that people can, in that way, identify with him in a way?
Asser: Yes. In a way, yes because people differentiate between the ranks that people are serving in, whether in the army or even in the secret police, especially when we were talking about people who volunteered, or joined, or were conscripted before the war because it was something that people just did, for example, before, regardless kind of political view. Because, while many people knew what the Syrian regime was before 2011, it was their regime. It was their country. That's what they have, that's what they've got, this is the army that exists and many would go serve because they have to.
Someone has to serve because there's this compulsory service. Some end up in the Mukhabarat, some end up in the army. People sometimes can accept, it's been accepted with many defectors. Now it goes back to the extent of crimes that the person is accused of having committed before they defected. This is brought up always and always again in Anwar R's case. In that, his defection doesn't wipe clean every accusation that's been leveled against him. Whereas, they look at Eyad A, well, some people look at Eyad A as someone who could be honest, in a certain sense, about his story of defection and his trajectory.
Fritz: What did you hear from the people that really are quite happy about what happened in Koblenz last week?
Asser: The people who were quite happy about the verdict are also divided into people who were happy he got a verdict, and he got a punishment, and people who were mad that the punishment was too short and wasn't harsh enough. In general, both think that he is guilty, and he deserves to be punished. Of course, there are people who said that they expected and hoped for the maximum sentence that could be given to someone like Eyad A. They weren't satisfied with four and a half years. They think that he brought this upon himself.
He volunteered in the Syrian Mukhabarat, and some said that the Syrian army would've been a little bit different, but the Mukhabarat has always been vicious and harmful. Whereas the army, before the war, didn't have much to do with civilians, for example, directly, in a certain way. They think that the Mukhabarat is something else. That he certainly must have done something that is bad according to them because you can't serve in a place like Branch 251, or the state security, in general, and not do very bad stuff. You must have condoned and participated in these crimes.
They think that his role goes beyond arresting people and taking them, for example, to Branch 251 or to another prison. They think that he could have done much more. They would ask you, "What was he doing all these years serving here in Mukhabarat?"
Fritz: Yes, that's the thing about a court verdict, right? It's absolutely limited to the exact facts or the exact allegations. The allegations were 35 counts, the court found 30 of those counts to have occurred, and then that's it. Of course, more happened. Of course, he was active all those other years as well. We don't know what else he may have done.
Asser: Actually, speaking of the symbolism of this, and speaking of crimes against humanity, and of these accusations, so many people, despite their discussions and thoughts about the verdict against Eyad A, they're still thinking more about Anwar R. They were still reminding each other that there's still the case of Anwar R that's still going. Those Syrians who have been talking about the verdict, and who have been talking about Koblenz, and trying to follow it, whether researchers, or journalists, or ordinary people, they have been having these discussions about Eyad A, as we said, but also keeping in mind that there's this other big fish as we may call it, who we still waiting to hear about.
This is something that some of those Syrians have said, is that some of them would say that "Actually, I don't care that much about Eyad A. I'm waiting to hear about Anwar R because he's the person who is accused of more human rights violations, and who used to have this more senior level in the Syrian Mukhabarat," but this trial is still going on.
Fritz: The Eyad A verdict of last week, occurred within the framework of the trial against these two people but is its own case. Having said that, it does, of course, serve as a direct precedent also, for the other case in this trial, for the case against Anwar R. In the sense that, if the court has now found that crimes against humanity occurred in that framework, and in that timeframe, that Anwar R was also the head of the investigations unit at that same branch, then it would be extremely surprising if the court didn't come to the same conclusion in the case against Anwar R.
If that happens, then I think the people that are looking at Anwar R's case with curiosity, in that sense, if that happens, they will potentially be more satisfied in that sense.
Asser: After seeing what I saw with the discussions, I'd be inclined to imagine that, when the verdict of Anwar R comes, obviously, it's going to be a very big day for Syrians. I can imagine the verdict being discussed or debated in Syrian circles, on whether it was just, or he could have also got harsher. I guess we'll always have people who would say, he should have got more, especially maybe Syrians who are used to what a person like Anwar is accused to having done in prisons, for example. I can imagine that we're going to see less sympathy when it comes to the verdict of Anwar R on whom there is more or less of an agreement in Syrian circles, as it seems to me.
Fritz: We will keep everybody updated on how the trial continues. Also, I am personally very curious to see what this verdict means outside of Koblenz, for other cases in Germany, perhaps in Europe. In Germany, you have the case against that former military hospital, Dr. Alaa M, which may go to trial soon, and other European jurisdictions may have cases in the making. It'll be really interesting to see how the Koblenz verdict, this first one, will also be referred to or will play a role in those kinds of cases as well.
Fritz: Next time on Branch 251, we will again take a step back from the Koblenz trial, and try to put it into a special kind of perspective for you listeners.
Asser: There's a reason that the Koblenz trial is happening. There's a reason why it's very symbolic for so many Syrians around the world. It's not only what's been happening in the past decade, but also in what's been happening in the past decades in Syria. It's an important month for so many Syrians around the world. It's been 10 years since the Syrian revolution against President Bashar al-Assad started, and so many are reflecting on it. So much of what happened in the past 10 years, have led us to where we are now with the Koblenz trial, and with so many other paths to justice that are taking place.
In the next episode, we are going to talk about this anniversary and what it means to Syrians, and try to set things in context.
Fritz: See you then.
Asser: See you then.
Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcasts production. This episode was hosted by Asser Khattab and Fritz Streiff. Hannah El-Hitami is our court reporter.
This episode was written by Fritz Streiff and Hannah El-Hitami, and edited by me, Pauline Peek, with additional help and feedback from Saleem Salameh who recorded many of the voices we heard. We want to thank everyone who shared their reactions with us.
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