Branch 251/
S3E1: Beginnings


In this first episode of the third season, we bring you up to speed on what has happened in court since May. As the end of the trial is nearing, the proceedings zero in on Anwar R.'s role in Assad's bloody regime.

Plus, we introduce you to our new host, Naya Skaf.

For more information and regular updates on the trial, follow us on Twitter

Follow Hannah el-Hitami on Twitter

ECCHR trial reports

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre's monitoring of the trial

Logo design by -- Photo by James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images.

Theme music by Kevin McLeod, additional music via Blue Dot Sessions

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA's zivik Funding Programme.

Episode Transcript

Pauline Peek: A listener's note, the following episode contains descriptions of torture. Please take care when listening.


Fritz Streiff: Welcome back to Branch 251, the podcast about the worldwide first criminal trial against Syrian regime officials. And yes, the trial is still going on. We have been on a summer break since our last episode in May, but the trial in Koblenz has been continuing. Today, we are filling you in on what has happened since that last episode. We have our court reporter, Hannah, with us, and she knows all about it.

Noor: Welcome to a new season of the podcast. Last season, we hosted this podcast along with Asser Khattab. Unfortunately, Asser has moved on from the podcast to bigger and better things.

Fritz: Asser, again, thank you so much for everything you've contributed to the podcast. We're going to miss you, but it's great to know that you'll remain a friend of the podcast. I'm sure our listeners will miss you too.

Noor: With that being said, I want to introduce our listeners to Naya Skaf, our new co-host, and Syrian independent journalist and presenter. Naya, we're so thrilled to have you join us.

Fritz: Welcome, Naya.

Naya Skaf: Thank you so much, you both. I'm so happy to join the podcast.

Fritz: Now, we don't want to keep you waiting for much longer. It's time for updates from Koblenz from the trial.


Noor: Hannah, what's happened in the past few months? Fill our listeners in.

Hannah: As usual, the majority of witnesses during the past few months were survivors of Branch 251. Since the last podcast episode that we had in May, we actually heard eight former detainees, five of whom were also joint plaintiffs, and one of them was a woman. In addition, there was a German police officer who told us about his interrogation with another survivor and witness, because that witness actually had refused to show up in court. Generally, all the witnesses had quite similar experiences to the many other survivors who already testified in the past, almost one and a half years.

Most of them were arrested during, or after demonstrations, or just arbitrarily. They spent some time in the Al-Khatib branch, but they were also transferred to and from other branches. They were interrogated and tortured, and all of them were held in tight, overcrowded cells with bad nutrition, lack of air, lack of daylight, and medical care.

Naya: Okay, Hannah. The court heard eight former detainees, how many witnesses did we hear in total?

Hannah: 13.

Naya: Which testimonies were especially memorable?

Hannah: Actually, one that stuck in my mind is the one I mentioned by the witness who wasn't actually in court. He didn't show up, he had the choice not to because he lives in Norway. I think we mentioned before that those witnesses who live in Germany have to appear if they're summoned. This witness didn't come, and I think the reason might have been that he had a really terrifying experience, and maybe he just didn't want to recount it again and relive it all over again. Apparently, he had already broken down during his police interrogation in Norway.

Then he was also interrogated again by the German police and that German police officer who interrogated him testified in court. This German police officer told the court that the witness had told him that he was suspended from his wrists in Branch 251, a torture method known as shabeh, where detainees are hanging from their wrists, and their toes hardly touch the ground. That's a very painful position that they have to stay in for hours. Also, they're beaten at the same time. He said that there was a man suspended next to him in the same position, and that, at some point, that man died, but he continued just hanging next to this dead man for hours.

Apparently, this was a very, very horrible experience for him that he had some trouble talking about.

Noor: Yes, I can imagine that this testimony stood out and that this was probably a very difficult story for him to recount. Were there any other witness testimonies that stood out to you?

Hannah: Yes, another witness that I found interesting, he had been a boxer in the Syrian National Team, and he was excluded from the team in the early 2000s, for political reasons. Apparently, he came from a family of influential business people, and they had been known for being oppositional to the Assad regime, so that ended his sports career. This guy came into the courtroom, sat down, and just immediately started crying. Of course, he wasn't the first witness to cry in this court, but it was just so moving that he couldn't even start talking, and he immediately broke down.

Then when he did start talking, he said that he had been arrested 13 times altogether. He was obviously physically and mentally traumatized. I guess it was just especially tragic to see someone like him who used to be this big, successful boxer, a strong, tough guy, who then ended up broken in so many ways. I guess that just illustrated what the experience of detention in Syria does to people. This witness said that he met Anwar R in the Al-Khatib branch and that Anwar R ordered the guards to torture him.

He said that Anwar R could be very friendly one moment, with what he called a "yellow smile," but that then he could be very cruel just a second after that. He also said that he received electric shocks, that he was beaten with cables every day, and also suspended according to the shabeh method that I mentioned before. He still suffered medical issues with the nerves on his wrists, for example, and he had gotten surgery after leaving the country. Also mentally, he said that he suffered from memory loss and that he had been in therapy for years.

Naya: Hannah, as I'm hearing this, I'm wondering, we've heard so many stories like these before, the judges have heard them too. Of course, every testimony is valuable, but for the collection of evidence at this point of the trial, what is the added value of hearing more and more accounts like these, especially since testifying is such hard emotional work for witnesses?

Hannah: That's a good question. It's true that some elements are quite repetitive, which makes a lot of sense because they were all in the same branch. To me, it seems like many of the witnesses who testified after Eyad A's verdict in February, have been witnesses who had personal encounters with Anwar R. I guess that maybe the judges are trying to find out more about his personal role in the crimes, and also about his position in the branch at the time. Another very basic reason is that some of the recent witnesses were joint plaintiffs.

There are about 20, I think, at the moment, and they just haven't yet testified, so it was just their turn to testify. I think there will be around three more to come.

Noor: Apart from ex-detainees' testimonies, were there other types of witnesses in the last few months?

Hannah: Yes, there was one type of witness that we had never heard from before, and honestly didn't even think existed. A doctor who treated prisoners in Branch 251.

Naya: What made you think that didn't exist?

Hannah: So many survivors of the branch have been asked about whether they received medical care while being imprisoned, and most said there wasn't any. The most anyone had mentioned was some painkillers or antibiotics being thrown into the cells, but definitely not a doctor. Then there was this guy who was a medical assistant. He worked in the Red Crescent Hospital, which is right opposite the branch. He said that starting in August 2012, he and his colleagues went to the branch's prison almost every day to examine and treat the prisoners' injuries.

It was very surprising to hear about this extensive and regular medical care for prisoners. Then again, this medical assistant was talking about a time later than when most of the survivor witnesses had been in the branch, so, starting from summer 2012.

Fritz: In a way, I guess this witness testimony, even though it's very new, and we hadn't heard this before, maybe can be seen as another piece of the large puzzle that the court is trying to put together, right? They're trying to put together a timeline, like a puzzle of what happened at Branch 251 in the period of the indictment between April 2011 and September 2012. This piece of the puzzle is perhaps located between the accounts of torture and unbearable detention conditions that we've heard early in the trial. Then also the piece of what happened to those who did not survive, what happened to the bodies.

Also early in the trial last year, we heard about the Caesar photos, and we heard from the gravedigger. Perhaps this account fits into the middle of those two puzzle pieces.

Hannah: Yes, that's right. This was actually new information for the court and for us observers, but it, of course, added to the big picture. This witness said that most of the patients looked like the bodies in the Caesar photos. Pale, hair unkempt, skinny, with clothes that were old and torn. He said that their injuries were nothing like what he had learned in medical school. He talked about treating hundreds of inmates, and also witnessing deaths in the branch itself, but also in the hospital because some of the prisoners in the worst conditions were even transferred to the hospital.

He said that almost every day someone died. The reasons for the deaths were their overall condition, and then also indirectly, the consequences of torture. Infected wounds, for example, but not the torture itself as a direct cause. He said that it was hard to determine what exactly had caused their deaths. Especially since he and his colleagues were not allowed to examine the bodies.

Fritz: I can imagine also, as he said himself, they weren't trained in med school for these kinds of circumstances.

Hannah: Yes, exactly. This testimony really offered some valuable insight into how the hospitals in Syria were systematically incorporated into the torture system. We have this doctor who was there to treat prisoners, but we know about other doctors who participated in the torture themselves.

Fritz: We are just at the beginning of understanding this, to understand the role of medical professionals in the structural torture that the Koblenz court already decided is a core part of the Assad regime's response to the revolution. Just recently, in late July, just a few weeks ago, the German Federal Prosecutor's office published an indictment against a former Syrian military doctor called Alaa M. We've mentioned this case before. It's been big in the media as well. Now we know the exact charges in that case. That the case will probably go to trial sometime later this fall at the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt.

More on this soon. We're preparing a special episode about the role of medical professionals in the state-sponsored torture structures of the Assad regime. Stay tuned for that.

Hannah: The trial against Alaa M that you just mentioned is probably going to start before this one ends, or maybe just at the same time. Right now it seems like Anwar R is going to receive his sentence sometime in November. Before that, we might hear from some witnesses requested by the defense. In fact, we already have. One of his relatives appeared in court in July, just before the summer break started. That was really interesting. It was Anwar R's cousin as well as his son-in-law. He's married to Anwar R's daughter. He told the court that Anwar R had confided in him about his plans to defect as early as April 2011.

He, all over, reproduced the defendants' own version of the events by saying that he had always helped prisoners and ordered their release. That's why he was being observed, and his authority was taken away from him. The problem with this witness was that there were just so many contradictions between his testimony in court and what he had told the asylum authorities some years ago when he arrived in Germany, especially regarding the reason why Anwar R left Syria, and what his reputation was in the opposition.

Another issue was that the witness was reading his whole testimony from a piece of paper he had brought, so it seemed pretty unauthentic, and perhaps even prepared with external help. Maybe they weren't his own words, especially because he was often unable to answer any detailed questions that went any further than his written notes. Anwar R had requested this witness, but I'm not that sure if it did much good for him.

Noor: Hannah, thank you so much for this update.

Hannah: Thank you, and let's see what happens during the next and probably final weeks in court.

Noor: Thanks to you, dear listener, for tuning in again. We're happy to be back and ready to share more with you in the months to come.

Naya: Yes, we will almost certainly see the judgment in the case against Anwar R.

Fritz: We look forward to being your guide through all of this again, through this complicated and important trial and its context.

Noor: That's it for now. The next episode of Branch 251 will be in 2 weeks.

Naya: We will be talking about how power, security, and fear interrelate and co-produce militarized cityscapes or security cities. In particular, we will talk about Syria, the kingdom of silence, where walls have ears, and buildings have eyes, and everyone look around them before talking. Cities where everyone is being watched and considered as a threat to be eliminated if they try to speak up and retain their rights against power. Stay tuned.


Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcasts production. This episode was written and presented by Hannah el-Hitami and Fritz Streiff. You also heard Naya Skaf and Noor Hamadeh. Production editing and mixing by myself, Pauline Peek. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by IFA's zivik Funding Programme.

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