Fritz Streiff: Anwar R. is a good guy. He is just a bureaucrat who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and had nothing to do with any criminality before 2011. Then, then he realized something was wrong. He was appalled by the criminal methods of the inner circle of the Assad and Makhlouf gang. He was offended, so he complained and he helped prisoners. He put their names on release lists and as a result, he was sidelined and degraded.
He saved his family when the moment was right to leave the country. He left his post in Syria as soon as he could to do the right thing and help the other side with all knowledge and documentary evidence he could provide. He was even vouched for by a prominent member of the opposition. He took part in official opposition activities. He was convinced he did nothing wrong but then found out to his utter surprise that his former role and some of the activities he performed in that role were now seen as illegal by his new host country.
Noor Hamadeh: Anwar R. is the former head of the investigations unit of the al-Khatib branch or branch 251 in Damascus, Syria. In that role, he was responsible for crimes against humanity including murder, torture, and sexual violence. He was an active part of the Assad killing machine and not just since 2011, but long before that too.
Fritz: Anwar R. is a pure professional. He is a highly educated investigator who was very good at his job and still is. With a law degree from Damascus University, he rose through the ranks of a typical intelligence service career. He made it all the way to a small circle of elite officers. Anwar R. found his role within the system. He identified his limits and his redlines.
He's a professional investigator with a certain pride in his job. He followed his rule book of how to perform his job meticulously, namely; investigating crimes and collecting intelligence, not more, but also not less. What that meant in Syria at the time, and even before that, what kind of methods did he employ for that, or rather, had others employ? Well, that's another story, but he never got his own hands dirty sitting behind his well-organized desk.
Noor: Anwar R. is a typical opportunist. He's a chameleon that knows exactly when and in what context to change color so that he easily blends into the environment he has just adopted to increase his chances of survival. He's like a flag in the wind. Just look at his biography and the choices he made. A perfect career in a dictatorial regime for decades, rising through the ranks and working extra hard to please the ruling elite because he was from another Islamic denomination.
Then, when the tables started turning, he turned his back on all of that to save his own skin, to secure his part in the future of a new Syria after the imminent fall of the Assad regime, to be on the right side of history. His choice to defect was not born out of a conviction that the regime he had served was now all of a sudden bad and wrong, that would've been a grave type of self-deception. Rather, it was convenient. In fact, it was necessary. Change sides, change color, because that's what a chameleon does when it needs to.
Fritz: Anwar R. is a double agent who has been playing cat and mouse games with multiple intelligence agencies, including his own. He has been on the payroll of at least two, probably more, secret services during the course of his life. When he defected, he did not really defect. He still provided information to the regime back home and other services. He provided information and documents to whomever if it helped his situation. His stories of being followed by Mukhābarāt in Berlin, the fear that they would kidnap and kill him, which he reported to the Berlin police, a well-crafted cover, but then the police arrested him and his home base dropped him. Just like that, or did it?
Noor: Anwar R. is a victim. He was taken advantage of and when he needed help and asked for it from those same authorities that protected him before by inviting him to Germany, they instead arrested him. He was led to believe that he'd be protected by the country that had provided him with a special protection visa. When he needed help the most, when his life was at risk, he found himself being behind bars and indicted as responsible for atrocity crimes. Now he's the main accused in the worldwide first criminal trial against former Syrian regime officials for crimes against humanity. He is a scapegoat.
Fritz: Anwar R. is the perfect symbol of the regime as a whole, the perfect illustration of a regime that is responsible for the most atrocious crimes, and when confronted with hard evidence, just denies everything as if they never happened. Giving the most absurd answers when they're being challenged with the facts. That's what the regime does and that's what Anwar R. has done in Koblenz.
Noor: From what we heard in more than 100 days of trial, Anwar R. He could be all of these versions, but which one is he really? The Koblenz trial's slowly coming to an end. In today's two-part episode, we want to zoom out a bit and take a detailed and critical look at the core questions in preparation for this final verdict, who is the defendant again, but really, who is he?
Fritz: This will be a trip through the case and the trial so far, a good look at the accused and at the expectations for the verdict. This episode will be in two parts. Here's part one, let's do it. I'm Fritz Streiff.
Noor: I'm Noor Hamadeh.
To go back to the beginning, we talked with our court reporter Hannah El-Hitami about how the case actually started.
Fritz: A lot has been written and said about this, but not all of it seems accurate, Hannah. What's up with that?
Hannah El-Hitami: One of the myths that has been reproduced throughout media coverage of this trial is that Anwar R. was arrested after the famous Syrian human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni met him by chance near the refugee home in Berlin. While it is true that they crossed paths, and of course, that's a great story to tell, how people from such different ends of the Syrian human rights landscape end up in the same place in Germany, but that was not how it all started.
Noor: What triggered his arrest then? How did he get onto the radar of the German War Crimes Unit?
Hannah: Well, I have to admit that I myself had understood a wrong version of the events for a long time. Anwar R. thought he was being followed by the Syrian Secret Services in Berlin and he went to the German Police in 2015 to ask them for help and for protection. I had understood that this police complaint that he filed at the time was the reason why the authorities started digging into his past, but turns out it wasn't.
He actually lived without any problems for another two years, until in 2017. Anwar R. was summoned by the police in the south of Germany to testify in a case against another suspect, another former Syrian Secret Service officer and another defector had recommended Anwar R. as a witness to the police. So he went to testify, but it soon turned out that he couldn't really be of much help because he had worked in a different branch than the suspect, but at the same time, he did talk a bit too openly about his own past during that meeting.
He talked about arbitrary arrests and about interrogations where "one could not always stay polite." This testimony was forwarded to the federal police who then started collecting information about him. Then they started considering him a suspect. In way, he indirectly turned himself in by feeling too safe in his position as a defector and as a refugee in Germany. He didn't really think that his past might come back and haunt him. For me, I think it's still interesting to hear that he was also afraid of the Mukhābarāt following him in Germany and that he did go to the German police to ask for help.
Fritz: Did that come back during the trial, Hannah?
Hannah: The fact that Anwar R. was so paranoid came up several times, yes. Witnesses who had met him after his defection remembered that he was afraid from the moment he left the country for Jordan. He probably had every reason to be. "He knew who he had worked for and what they were capable of," said one witness, himself a high-ranking defector from the Syrian army.
Noor: Some defendants just categorically deny all charges. Was that an option in Anwar. R.'s case?
Hannah: Well there were never really any doubts that he had worked in the branch, that he was a colonel, and that he was hierarchically in charge of investigations. On the one hand, all the information gathered about branch 251 from the beginning of the trial, all that can be seen as evidence against him. All those survivor witnesses who described the inhumane conditions in the underground prison; the lack of food, hygiene, medical care, a situation that the court has considered a form of torture in itself and then of course, the torture that took place during interrogations.
Fritz: From the verdict in the case against Eyad A., we know that these crimes were committed in the framework of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population. That's the element that makes them crimes against humanity. During the first phase of the trial, the prosecutor presented a lot of evidence to that effect which we discussed during the course of the podcast. Maybe you remember the testimony of the so-called grave digger, of course the Caesar photos and the Syrian expert witnesses that testified as well. What role, Hannah, did Anwar R. play in these crimes?
Hannah: In his own initial statement in May, 2020 Anwar R. said that he did not order torture or support it and that he did not know about deaths in the branch while he was there because those of course would've been his responsibility as well.
Fritz: Okay, but he did confirm that he was there, that he was the head of investigations during the time spent of the indictment between April, 2011 and September, 2012?
Hannah: Right, in branch 251 and also for a short while in another quite similar branch, branch 285 but no witness claimed that Anwar R. was ever himself a torturer, the guards were in charge of that. One witness claimed to have been punched in the face by Anwar R. but this was unusual compared to many other testimonies, testimonies of witnesses who had personal encounters with him. The overall picture was not really that he was the kind of person who physically assaulted anyone himself.
Some witnesses however, confirmed that they had traces of torture on their bodies when they came into his office. They also confirmed that the prisoners screams could be heard in that office on one of the upper floors of the building. That means he must have known what was happening. There were witnesses who had met him in the prison but most of them actually remembered that he was quite friendly, so even offering tea and cigarettes, speaking with them reasonably. I remember one of the plaintiffs said that he talked to her like a friendly uncle, but at the same time he refused her desperate wish to be transferred to the communal cell because she felt she was going crazy in solitary confinement.
Noor: We heard some good things about his behavior towards detainees but then also some testimonies like this one that suggests a good cop, bad cop play he engaged in.
Hannah: Yes. Some witnesses said that they were tortured directly after he interrogated them, so they assumed that this was the routine, a somewhat reasonable interrogation, but if it wasn't satisfactory then it would be followed by torture to break them for the next questioning.
Fritz: How did the defense then try to make its case?
Hannah: There were some attempts by the defense to discredit specific witness testimonies by pointing out contradictions or by suggesting that they had been tampered with. But with 4,000 cases of torture and 68 killings and several cases of sexual violence, questioning individual statements can hardly challenge the accusations as a whole.
Noor: It sounds like the defense was trying to sow doubt regarding certain witness testimonies to prevent the court from concluding his guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" but that wasn't their only line of defense surely. What other strategies did they have?
Hannah: As I mentioned, they never tried to deny that Anwar R. was in the branch, that he was a colonel, that he was head of investigations, but he claims that he had helped so many prisoners that he lost the trust of his superiors and that he was left in his position only proforma without any actual authority. He claims that he was even transferred to the other branch, branch 285, as a punishment for his behavior. His lawyers have argued that the power balance in the secret services was based more on religion than on rank and that he as a senior officer had less power than his Alawite colleagues and that he would have risked his life with any wrong move.
Fritz: Right, so here the defense would be painting a picture of someone who was stuck in a relatively high position of hierarchy, but without any actual responsibility. In a way, the defense tried to, I guess, steer the court away from any conviction that he could be qualified or his activities could be qualified as co-perpetrating, as a co-perpetrator.
Hannah: That's how it's seems, but there were documents presented by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, CIJA, that showed his signature on internal documents from branch 251 where he was part of a crisis committee and decided with others how to deal with certain detainees. One insider witness remembered that until his defection and even after his transfer to branch 285, Anwar R. had a company car, his own office, and a bus boy who served him tea.
On top of that, none of the insider witnesses knew about cases where officers who were considered disloyal were kept in their position and only stripped of their authority. On the contrary actually, several witnesses mentioned officers who had hardly given any reason for suspicion and yet they were imprisoned, tortured, killed, or at least removed.
Fritz: What you were describing there, that document with his signature, that's a document with the accused's signature on it seems really a key piece of evidence in any international criminal investigation, so that's probably a big one. In combination with the witness testimonies, that seems like a pretty tough one to get out of for the defense.
Noor: I want to go back to the line of defense for a moment. If his lawyers seemed to have argued that despite his position he didn't have any real authority, how did they try to prove that?
Hannah: As far as I recall, there was no factual evidence that supported the argument that he had no authority in the branch. There was a relative who confirmed that Anwar R. had told him about that but since the alleged reason for his loss of authority was his support for the prisoners and his sympathy for the revolution, so the defense focused on character as another line of argument.
There were some witnesses who spoke favorably about his character. As I mentioned before, the ex-detainees who were treated well by him, some of whom he even met again later in Jordan or Turkey and two low-ranking insider witnesses remembered him as a friendly and respectful superior who treated them well and greeted them apparently unlike other high-ranking officers in the branches.
There was also a defected army officer who said that Anwar R. had cooperated with a Jordanian Secret Service after his defection and had provided them with internal documents that he had brought with him. That he even helped the Jordanian Secret Service find a safe route for Syrian civilians fleeing the country. Also, several defense witnesses confirmed that he told them he had wanted to defect much earlier, but he would not have been able to take his family, which is why he waited.
There was of course all the info about his work for the opposition after leaving Syria. He even went to the peace talks in Geneva in 2014 as part of their delegation.
Fritz: I feel like we're slowly getting somewhere and it seems, what we already suggested in the beginning, his is a story of many layers. There isn't just one Anwar R., is there?
Hannah: I'm sure there is one, but it's just hard to know what his real face is. On the one hand, it really does seem that he honestly changed sides, but then on the other hand, there are doubts about that again. For example, his daughter's asylum hearing was quoted at one point in court. There she said that they left Syria after an almost fatal attack by the Free Syrian Army on her brother, so Anwar. R.'s son. Apparently they had threatened him that the next time they would kill him. So yes, your son almost getting killed is a very good reason to leave your country, but it casts doubts on whether he left because he actually turned against the regime or just to keep his family safe.
Noor: These doubtful intentions say something about his character, but what about the crimes he's accused of, right? That's what the court will eventually have to consider.
Hannah: Well the persecution argued more than once that his behavior after the defection or his wish to defect earlier or his opinion about the revolution did not change the fact that he was responsible for the alleged crimes. However, it can make a difference for sentencing whether he was totally convinced of what he was doing or whether he committed the alleged crimes reluctantly and out of situation of pressure and risk to his and his family's life.
Fritz: These could be the so-called mitigating circumstances during the reading out of the verdict against Eyad A., the court described how the judges can take those into account. That's not the only legal technical question that can make a difference when we consider what Anwar R.'s sentence could actually be if he's convicted.
Noor: To understand those legal technical questions better, we called up Antonia Klein of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights or ECCHR, where she works as a legal advisor. Antonia has monitored the trial closely. She talked to us about the importance of understanding some of these technicalities. We started by asking her what her expectations of the verdict are right now.
Antonia Klein: At the moment it looks like the charges of murder and next to murder, also killing, torture, severe deprivation of liberty, and sexualized violence as crimes against humanity will be confirmed. If Anwar R. is convicted as co-perpetrator of murder, then he would face an obligatory life sentence, which would mean, translated into German law, 15 years plus X.
Noor: If the charges of murder as a so-called co-perpetrator are confirmed, the court is obliged to hand down a life sentence. What if the qualification of a possible conviction for murder is not as a co-perpetrator?
Antonia: The defense seems to aim at a conviction for aiding and abetting murder, and of course, the crimes against humanity. In that case, the sentence would be reduced to 3 to 15 years of imprisonment.
Noor: That's a pretty wide range, 3 to 15 years, how is that determined? Is that where the mitigating circumstances might play a role?
Antonia: The concrete length of imprisonment would then depend on different factors. For example, the high number of victims of course would be considered, other crimes that have been committed, and the effects of them as SGBV and torture. Also, of course, the fact that he deserted, that he spoke out, yes, different factors would come into play then. The three-year option is really rather a theoretical one. Because if we look at the high number of victims, the high number of murders and killings, the fact that sexualized violence is involved, then it seems to be impossible that three years come out of it.
We also see Eyad A., who already had, in comparison to Anwar R., I would say, a minor guilt. Also, that could be, of course, an indication that we would not stick to three years.
Noor: Okay, quick recap here. Antonia thinks that a conviction is likely, that the charges will be confirmed as indicted and that the eventual type of punishment depends on how those charges are classified by the court. It could be anything from three years to a life sentence, wide range. Now here's the thing. The so-called life sentence in Germany is not the same as actual life in prison.
Antonia: Yes, I think that's very important because the life sentence wording is really confusing as in Germany, by law, everyone should have the possibility to regain freedom from prison before his or her death. That's the reason why the law provides for parole after 15 years under three preconditions. One is that is the least interesting, I think, if the convicted person consents to that parole. One is, if the severity of the convicted person's guilt does not require the continued imprisonment. I can speak about that in a second. Then if suspension of the imprisonment can be justified with regard to the public security interests.
Yes, I think with regard to the public security interest, if we look 15 years ahead, or even if we look 15 years ahead, then we can say that it's not very likely that Anwar R. will, in case that he is convicted for murder and then phases this lifelong sentence, that he will commit these crimes again because he's here in Germany. It's really not foreseeable that he will be “recidivistic” in that regard, because there's just no room and the context is missing for the crimes.
Most interesting, I think, is the severity of guilt. That's particularly interesting at the moment because the court, the Koblenz Court will decide with the conviction, as I said, if he's convicted of murder as a perpetrator, then the court will directly decide whether it sees the severity of guilt. If it confirms the severity of guilt, then it becomes less likely that parole will be granted already after 15 years, but then it's likely that, yes, it exceeds 15 years and it's, at least at this point in time, unclear when he would get out of the prison.
Noor: Antonia explained to us that this test that the court will perform regarding the severity of guilt depends on a number of factors. What it comes down to is that the judges take into account everything they learned about the accused. His personality, how he conducted himself before and after committing the crimes, what his objectives and reasons were. The court will also look at the crimes: how brutal they were, how many victims, how long was the period that the crimes were committed in. The judges take all of that into account, and they decide whether the severity of guilt can be established.
Fritz: With that decision, they kind of pre-decide whether, if convicted, Anwar R. would have the right to request parole after 15 years. In a way, in this decision, the court can now already decide whether this will be a relatively short life sentence or not.
Noor: Right, because if they decide that the severity of guilt can be established, there is no parole after 15 years. Antonia told us he could theoretically remain in prison until he dies. Okay, time to recap again. In Germany, a life sentence does not mean prison for the rest of life. With a life sentence, parole is usually possible after 15 years, except when the court decides on the severity of guilt, which makes it impossible to determine when parole might be granted, but definitely later than 15 years.
Fritz: Antonia made a point as well during our conversation, that with the verdict coming up, even if Anwar R. is convicted, this quite likely does not yet mean, in legal terms, that he is guilty because he might and probably would appeal the sentence. As long as the appeal is running, possibly all the way to the highest court, the presumption of innocence is valid. Again, this is speaking in legal terms, but then we cannot yet speak of a finally convicted criminal. Such an appeals process might take years.
Noor: The wheels of justice turn slowly.
Fritz: They do indeed.
Noor: There seem to be so many ways to describe who and what Anwar R. is. Hannah, you attended almost every single trial session yourself, you have seen and observed Anwar R. in detail. What is your sort of final take on him?
Hannah: He was always very interested and focused during the sessions. I remember the journalist Christoph Reuter, who met Anwar R. in Jordan years ago, and who testified in Koblenz as well. He said that Anwar R. was highly intelligent and had a photographic memory. In court, he was always taking notes. It seemed to me sometimes that he saw himself as an investigator solving his own case. He frequently exchanged greetings and smiles with the translators and lawyers in the room.
Yes, he did seem quite respectful and friendly, I have to say. Of course, why wouldn't he be? We like to imagine criminals as inhumane monsters or ice-cold sociopaths. I'm not the first court observer who realizes that in the end, they are, of course, just human beings. That is perhaps the scariest part.
Fritz: This was part one of this episode. In the second part, Noor and I discuss the larger significance and value of the upcoming verdict and of the trial as a whole. We will have a Syrian guest who will help us make sense of it all. See you then.
Noor: See you.
Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcast production. Today's episode was hosted by Noor Hamadeh and Fritz Streiff. It was written and produced by Fritz Streiff and Hannah Hannah El-Hitami with editorial help from Saleem Salameh, Naya Skaf and me, Pauline Peek. Editing and mixing by myself. A special thanks to Antonia Klein from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights for her time and legal insights. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by IFA's zivik Funding Programme.