Branch 251/
S2E8: A Cup Of Coffee


A popular Syrian actress is invited for a "cup of coffee" in Branch 251. Years later, she's too afraid to testify in court about her strange encounter with Anwar R. Plus, the motion to add sexual violence as a crime against humanity to the charges against Anwar R. is accepted. Luna Watfa is our court reporter this episode, filling in for Hannah el-Hitami.

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Episode Transcript


Pauline: Hi, everyone. Today's episode of Branch 251 is a bit different than usual again. Our court reporter Hannah couldn't make it to a few sessions in Koblenz last month, so instead of Hannah, we have a guest court reporter. Her name is Luna Watfa. We're very excited to have her on and grateful that she stepped in for Hannah. After Luna's report, Noor and Asser will offer their thoughts on some of the things Luna told us.


Luna: Hello, everyone. I'm Luna Wafta, a freelance journalist. I attend all the court sessions personally, to cover the Koblenz trial. For those of you who have been following the podcast since its start, you might remember that I was a guest in the first season. My colleague Hannah El-Hitami asked me to cover today's episode, as she was not able to be present in the court for the last two sessions. I will tell you what happened during these sessions, and Hannah will continue with you in the upcoming episode as usual. On the 24th of March 2021, the day of the 66th session of the Koblenz trial, an investigator from the Federal Criminal Police answered the questions about the statement of a Syrian witness who was supposed to come and give her testimony herself in court.

However, the witness emailed the judicial panel that she is not in a good mental state to personally attend the court, and that she fears for her family members who are currently in Syria, especially after what happened with other witnesses and the threats that their families received. The witness, a well-known Syrian actress and director, was arrested at the beginning of the revolution. The accused Anwar R. allegedly summoned her to his office after she arrived at Al-Khatib Branch. According to what she described, he was respectful to her. He served her coffee and he praised her work and told her how much he and his family liked what she does.

The witness testimony read out by the officer included that she was very scared, but at the same time she had a feeling that Anwar R. wanted to help her. This, of course, was a very strange position to be in for her. Because, on the other hand, he was representing the regime. Does this mean that her testimony was in favor of the accused Anwar R? In order to answer this question, we must clarify an important point. Usually, when the Criminal Police Investigator comes to recount that testimony of a witness who is unable to attend the session, it's limited only to what the witnesses mentioned in their statements to the Criminal Police.

This has an important consequence. With the investigator on the stand instead of the witness, the judges and the defense lawyers will not be able to ask many questions. After all, the person they are asking the questions to is not actually the witness. The investigator cannot answer something that is not included in the testimony. They cannot really speak for that witness. For this reason, it's extremely difficult to determine what the witness meant when she said she thought Anwar R. was trying to help. The judges cannot really ask her to clarify her position towards Anwar R. Is it positive about him speaking in his defense or not?

What is certain is that she talked about her detention experience and the fear in which she lived because of that, whether or not her experience with Anwar R was overall positive. If strange, she didn't want to go through the same experience again. The fear of detention was the reason behind her leaving Syria. That was the 66th session. Let's go back to the 65th session, which was held on March 17th, 2021, where a witness and plaintiff for civil rights submitted his testimony to the panel of judges. The Syrian witness said that he was arrested on March 31 2012 in Branch 40 and was later transferred to the Al Khatib branch.

This witness talked about being tortured during his interrogation and about the poor conditions inside the prison, but he also mentioned methods of torture that he either saw or heard about from other detainees. Among these methods was beating directed to the genitals or electric shocks. Why is this detail important? Because this moves us to the end of the session. The judges say that to the witnesses who are subjected to sexual violence, it's possible now to add sexual violence to the set of allegations submitted according to Article 7 of the German code of crimes against international law.

In order to understand the importance of the judge's words, about adding sexual violence to the group of charges, it's necessary to go back in time to know what happened before this session. At the 45th session on November 19, 2020, a request was submitted by the lawyers Patrick Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer on behalf of eight plaintiffs in this case. By the way, the podcast team has made an entire episode on sexual and gender-based violence in security branches and prisons under the title of They Pay Twice. You can listen to it, if you want to know more about the use of sexual violence in the conflict in Syria.

It became quite evident to the lawyers that sexual assault is systematic in Syria, and it's occurring in a daily basis in the branches of the Syria Intelligence. In their opinion, it should be considered a crime against humanity in this case. Based on this, the lawyers asked the judges to consider these charges as crimes against humanity in this case file, and not as individual crimes. They emphasized the importance of considering them as main charges as crimes against humanity when issuing their verdict, given that the accused Anwar R was the head of the investigation department at Al Khatib Branch.

In this capacity, he would be responsible for the occurrence of these assaults in his department. As not only for the individual charges of rape and sexual harassment, but rather for the crime of sexual assault as a systematic crime against humanity. The public prosecutor's response to the request of the lawyers took place in the 51st session held on 16 December 2020, in which they said that the federal public prosecution rejects the submitted requests and remains in its position and adheres to what was said in the indictment. For them, there is nothing that proves the extension of a systematic violence against Syrian civilians to include the sexual aspect, according to statements that have been made so far and according to the witnesses. Thus, the public prosecutor's office, so no need to add sexual violence to the list of indictments and as  pressed charges against the accused.

After the public prosecutor's response, it was up to the judges to accept or reject the request. This is what happened during the 65th session, which was held on March 17, 2021. Herein lies the importance of the judges' response. Why? Because sexual violence is usually an individual crime, not a systematic one, which is an important prerequisite for labeling something a crime against humanity. Now, based on universal jurisdiction, for the first time in Germany it will be possible to consider sexual violence as a crime against humanity, according to article seven, paragraph seven of the German code of crime against international law.

To clarify, Article 7 stressed the following: For the purpose of the statute, crimes against humanity means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population with knowledge of the attack. The seventh paragraph states, "Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, enforced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity." Should the court decide this in the verdict against Anwar R? this decision, this verdict is expected to be handed down sometime in the fall.


Noor: I think it's important to note that the actress and movie director who is a witness didn't testify in person. I think that's really huge. Obviously, first of all the fact that she didn't feel safe going to the court and testifying, I think it highlights something that people have brought up several times before, which is that the court hasn't necessarily been very protective of witnesses, considering the threats to their safety or their family's safety when they do testify in the court. I think it's significant that there wasn't a way that the court could make her feel safe to testify in person.

I also think it's significant because testimony, when in person, in large part comes through the questions that are being asked. Not just the statement that's made, but also questions by her own lawyers. Then also questions in cross-examination by the defense. Those are all really important ways of clarifying her testimony. That's already clear in what Luna said about some of the questions that came up about her testimony and the light that she was painting Anwar R in. I also think that something Luna said that was important is that the point that the witness made about Anwar R. seemingly being nice to her and offering her coffee.

I think part of why, at least in this case, that's happening is because she does play a significant role in Syrian society as someone who is an actress and a director and a public figure towards to a certain extent. I can imagine that he is trying to paint himself in a good light in front of her without actually having to do anything to demonstrate that he is, in fact, someone who's there to look out for her or protect her in any way. The outcome was that she was detained, and she did suffer in detention. Regardless of the way Anwar R. acted with her and the way he treated her, at the end of the day she did have to face detention.

Anwar R's role did play a part in that, right? He played a decision-making role that led her to detention. Regardless of the light that she's painting him in, regardless of the way he treated her, that result still happened. He was still involved in that, unless there's a way to prove that he isn't. Considering his role in branch 251, he did play a role in her detention.

Asser: Actually, very interestingly, I have heard several stories from Syrian detention survivors and Syrians in general about their visits to the Mukhabrat branches as they call it in Syria, to get a cup of coffee. Which is basically, I mean, it could be an interrogation, could be an investigation, could be detention and could lead to much worse things. Usually they use the code term “getting a cup of coffee” at the mukhabrat branch. Some of those people have either told me or told the media, I've seen reports about it, that there's always this Syrian official in the secret police or in the intelligence, who's trying to seem like he's an understanding person.

He is a reasonable person who wants to hear the other person out, who wants to see what the demands are, for example, if they had criticized the president or the regime or the government. Is there anything that can be fixed? Is there any common ground that can be reached? Stories like this happen all the time, they have been reported. It's always someone like Anwar R, who's a senior official, who's trying to portray himself in a different way, a way that's more civilized, maybe a way that's more humane. The same experience also, as you said, Noor, and as we have seen from the story of this witness, it ends up not being very civilized and not being very friendly.

Almost always turns into enforced disappearance or detention, torture, abuse, sexual abuse, and sometimes even death or murder in prison under torture. Whatever they're trying to do by seeming nice or helpful at least is not in line with other practices that are happening in the same prisons, in the same branches.

Noor: Luna also said that the court approved the motion to have sexual and gender based violence included as a crime against humanity, which I think is huge. On the one hand, because it is a crime that has been used in a widespread and systematic manner in the Syrian context. I think there's no denying that. We go into detail about this in our episode They Paid Twice. The second reason it's huge is because generally this is a crime that has been difficult to prosecute in the context of crimes against humanity, not just in the Syrian context but generally. It's something that international lawyers have really struggled with.

I'm hoping that if Anwar R. is found guilty of the crime against humanity of sexual and gender based violence, that this is a court that, in future cases, lawyers can turn to this case and look at what it was that made the court decide that the charge of crimes against humanity should apply to sexual and gender based violence. That can be used as evidence or precedent to suggest that, in future cases, sexual violence can also be considered a crime against humanity based on the same degree of evidence or the same types of crimes or events being perpetrated. Asser, You said that you've been speaking or seeing a lot from Syrians on social media about the case.

I'm wondering if you've seen anything relating to people's views or reactions to the crimes against humanity charge of sexual and gender based violence?

Asser: No, I don't think it was ever brought up in these conversations, at least not the ones that I was privy to. They're really not getting into the accusations or the procedures, as much as, is Eyad really guilty? Should we forgive him because he defected. Either with Anwar R or Eyad, they haven't been really discussing the actual accusations or crimes as much as the broader context and whether this is helpful or not helpful, or will this have the effect or stuff like this. Noor, we've had about two sessions. I was wondering what stands out the most for you from what we've heard from Luna?

Noor: Honestly, for me, I think what stands out the most, what keeps coming to the back of my mind is the fact that we had a witness who chose to provide her testimony through a written statement. Obviously, I can completely understand the safety concerns that she had and the mental health concerns that came with such a trial. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's a shame that she wasn't able to provide the full testimony. It's a shame that this type of trial obviously results in the types of mental health and safety concerns that she has that result in that kind of thing. That's an unfortunate reality of this case. I would have been really interested to hear more from her.

Asser: I agree, especially that there have been some comments and some remarks made. We could have easily witnessed a debate in the courtroom going about some of those statements that have been made. Some follow-up questions could have contributed to clarify a little bit more of the situation and maybe help the judges understand how her experience could fit into the larger scheme of the accusations leveled against Anwar R. It is such a pity. I agree with you, Noor, but it's also a reminder that this is not a thing like the films, where you can just go to the courtroom and deliver a passionate statement.

Whenever that is possible, of course, it's welcomed, but we're talking in realistic terms where people have to worry about their mental health and have to worry about their relatives and their family and loved ones. The fact that this is not possible, even for so many Syrians that are supposedly safe because they are outside of Syria, turns out that actually, maybe they aren't. It's still very complicated to put themselves in such a risk, even though this could help the course of the trial.

Noor: Exactly. This is a significant trial from a justice and accountability, and an international law perspective. It's also very significant for the people involved, for the witnesses. If they're having to reopen old wounds, that's absolutely not an easy thing to do.


Pauline: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcast production. This episode was written by Luna Watfa with contributions from our other hosts, Noor Hamadeh and Asser Khattab. Editing, mixing, and production by me, Pauline Peek. With editorial feedback from Saleem Salameh and Fritz Streiff. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by IFA’s zivik funding program.


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