Branch 251/
S1E1: A Historic Trial

  • On this first episode of Branch 251, your hosts Fritz and Karam introduce the listeners to the trial that started in Koblenz, Germany, on 23 April 2020.
  • They revisit the question of why this trial is taking place in Germany, and not at the International Criminal Court, for example. And they introduce the accusations against the two defendants, Anwar R and Eyad A.
  • Tune in, to also hear from someone who was actually imprisoned in Branch 251. And get Fritz and Karam's take on what happened in the courtroom during the first week of trial.
  • Do subscribe to keep every episode coming to you automatically every week. If you would like to support the podcast, follow this link or go to our website and click 'Support This Podcast'.
  • You can follow us on Twitter @Fritz_Streiff and @KaramShoumali.


Episode Transcript


News anchor: We turn to the latest powder keg in the Middle East,Syria. A bloody day, at least 75 people were killed during pro-democracy--

News anchor: Any chance of there being any investigation or any accountability for these crimes.

News anchor: [German language]

News anchor: For the first time Syrian officials are going to trial to face accusations of war crimes. The trials--

Fritz Streiff: Welcome to the first episode of Branch 251, the podcast about the world's first criminal trial dealing with accusations of atrocity crimes by Syrian officials. My name is Fritz Streiff. I'm a human rights lawyer based in Paris. My work focuses for a large part on international justice, particularly in recent years on Syria accountability. I'm one of the hosts, and I'll be the lawyer guy on this podcast. Since nobody likes too much lawyering, I'm very happy to introduce my co-host for this podcast, Karam Shoumali.

Karam, how are you doing?

Karam Shoumali: Thank you, Fritz. I'm good. Hello, everyone. I'm Karam Shoumali. I'm a journalist from Damascus living now in Berlin. I have covered the conflict in Syria for the New York Times for past eight years. Together,Fritz and I will give you a short weekly update on the trial that started inKoblenz last week and provide you with some background and context to this complex and groundbreaking trial.

Fritz: Groundbreaking is the word here. This is really a first of its kind trial. The first criminal trial that deals with accusations of atrocity crimes by Syrian officials after all these years. It is really historic in a way.

Karam: Yes, it is. This is a big moment for us Syrians. We have been waiting for this for a long time. The conflict has been going on for nine years as you know. Now, finally, there is a court that looks at the terrible crimes that were committed by the regime. From Syria all the way to Koblenz in Germany,Fritz, it's quite unexpected that this trial is not taking place at theInternational Criminal Court or at any other international tribunal.

Fritz: Yes, no. It is kind of strange and some legal commentators have dubbed this a third-best option for international justice for Syria. Many of our listeners will know this, but it's good to just quickly revisit why this trial is taking place in Koblenz in Germany of all places. At the United NationsSecurity Council, referrals of Syrian crimes to the International CriminalCourt, the ICC in The Hague, have routinely been vetoed by China and Russia.The creation of an ad hoc international tribunal, like the ones for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have also been blocked. Also, Syria is not a member of the ICC itself, so direct jurisdiction for the court is not an option either.

Germany has what they call universal jurisdiction inits national law for the most terrible atrocity crimes like crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. That means that German prosecutors can bring those cases even if the crimes were not committed in Germany or byGermans or against Germans, have nothing to do with Germany one could say.Still, the German prosecutors can bring these cases and the German courts can hear those cases. Other countries that are members of the ICC have similar laws, especially other European countries like France or the Netherlands, or many more.

Germany really stands out the last years as a particularly active legal system in terms of investigating crimes committed inSyria. The authorities there have said that this is also in part because there are so many Syrians that now live in Germany like you Karam. How many are there?

Karam: Yes. There are around 800,000 Syrians currently living in Germany, yes.

Fritz: Yes, exactly. The authorities have said that that is one of the reasons that they have a kind of moral obligation to deal with these crimes in German courts because there are so many Syrians in Germany. Which is a very interesting development, and this attitude and this effort is now resulting in a first trial of its kind in Koblenz in Germany.

Karam: Right. Okay. What are we actually talking about? What is the court dealing with? Fritz and I went through an excerpt from the indictment on the court's website and with the exact accusations. Let me just summarize some of them here.

Fritz: Yes, and before you do that, by the way, in the German legal system, they don't mention the last names of defendants due to German privacy law. That might sometimes seem a bit strange just to have the first letter of their lastname.

Karam: Right. Thursday, the 23rd of April, 2020 was the first day in court.During that first day, the prosecutor told the court the details of the allegations. The two defendants allegedly were members of the Syrian GeneralSecret Service in the Syrian capital Damascus. The defendant Anwar R. is alleged to have headed the investigations unit in Branch 251 of the General Intelligence Service.

Fritz: Branch 251, exactly. That's the branch, that's the prison, that's the place, that's the topic that this whole trial is all about and that this podcast is all about.

Karam: That is our podcast, yes. The defendant Anwar R. is accused of crimes against humanity including murder, 58 counts, torture and the deprivation of liberty, rape and severe sexual assault. If he's convicted he could get life imprisonment. The prosecution accuses him of murder and torture under his leadership and also responsibility in the prison of Branch 251. Between the 29th of April,2011 and the 7th of September, 2012, at least 4,000 inmates of Branch 251 were tortured for the entire duration of their imprisonment.

Fritz: 4,000?

Karam: Yes, 4,000. That's within, I guess, 15 months. Yes. They were subjected to brute force by being beaten, kicked, and electro shocked, and subjected to rape and other sexual abuse.

Fritz: Wow. It really was a type of torture prison is what the prosecutor is alleging here. Those are pretty hefty accusations on the first defendant AnwarR. What about the second defendant?

Karam: As for the second defendant Eyad A., he's being accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, including torture and deprivation of liberty, but not sexual violence in his case. He's also only accused of aiding and abetting. If he's convicted, he faces 3 to 15 years in prison.

Fritz: That's a lot less. 3 to 15 years in comparison to life imprisonment.What they're facing, I guess we can say that Eyad A. is the smaller fish of the two.

Karam: Yes, in this case, I guess you can call him the smaller fish, yes. Eyad A. was allegedly an employee of a subdivision of that Branch 251. In autumn,2011, after the violent breakup of a demonstration, he allegedly searched the streets with colleagues for fleeing demonstrators. Finally, he and his colleagues managed to capture and arrest at least 30 people, and they brought them to the prison of Branch 251.

The detainees allegedly were already beaten on the way to the prison, as well as upon arrival. They were then brutally abused and systematically tortured. The prisoners were denied medical care and even personal hygiene. They couldn't really take showers. There was not enough to eat and often the food was just simply inedible. The prison cells were so overcrowded that it was often impossible to sit or lie down and prisoners had actually to sleep standing up.

Fritz: Wow. That's what the prosecutors charged the two defendants with and is sort of the legal accusations and the legal framing that the court published on its website. We also talked to some of the people who were present in the courtroom that first day. They said this was a really hard, but also a really special moment. When the prosecutor read out the charges, he actually went into a lot more detail based on witness and victim stories of what they had to endure in Branch 251.

Karam: Yes. That was a very important day, Fritz. It was the first time the victims came face to face with their torturers in a setting like that, in a court, in a country with a functioning legal system here in Germany where rule of law is highly respected and justice is not some vague concept. The defendants were asked by the prosecutor, literally, "Did you understand what I just said and the charges against you?" They had to listen. Both Eyad and Anwar had to listen and acknowledge it. This is really unheard of in all these years. This is why it was indeed a historic moment.

Fritz: Then the court took a break and came back for the second day. Again, the second day was similarly heavy as the first day. It was really a heavy start of the trial. A federal police officer appeared as a witness. He talked about the investigation, and how the police identified the two accused, and how they collected the evidence against them. He also recounted some of the witness testimonies again. It was again really pretty graphic stuff and included description of torture methods, and how they were called and how they were applied to the victims. It was nothing for the fainthearted.

Karam: No, no, no, no, it's not. I think after those first two days it was good for everyone involved to have a break over the weekend. It was overwhelming, those first two days, and pretty hard, I think. For many, it is like reliving a trauma.

Fritz: Yes.

Karam: Then the third day, the court heard an expert witness and ethnologist.She told the court about Syria's recent history, the politics and society over the past decades, and the origins and the beginning of the conflict that erupted in 2011. She did mention that such torture against political opposition was not a new thing in Syria. It was also used back in the 1970s when the current president Bashar Al Assad's father, Hafez, was still in power.

Fritz: There's some continuity there over the decades and over the different reins of governments and inside the Assad family in restricting freedoms and rights and suppressing opposition by using torture and sometimes by using the same torture techniques.

Karam: Yes, right. Torture and torture techniques are very common in Syria.

Fritz: Yes. Okay. Then, on the fourth day, it became a bit more technical. The court focused on hearing witnesses from German authorities about Anwar R.'s identity and asylum procedure in Germany. Two witnesses really stood out, one from theGerman migration and refugee authority, and the other from the German foreign office. The court learned from them that Anwar received asylum in Germany aspart of a program for particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees on the recommendation of an opposition figure called Riyadh Seif. The authorities' general conclusion was that Anwar played an active role in the opposition at the time of his asylum application. They said that proof of that was his participation in peace talks in Geneva in 2014. The court was also shown foreign office documents from the time and on those documents, it was clearly stated what Anwar's profession had been previously, namely, Colonel in the StateSecurity Administration.

Karam: Wow, so the German authorities took Anwar in as a refugee with special protection needs, and concluded that he was part of the opposition, but then they also showed that before the fact then he was a high ranking Colonel in theSyrian State Security. That is Anwar was a notorious part of a Syrian state,I'm sure the authorities here in Germany knew that.

Fritz: Yes. We are starting to see some interesting shades of gray here, and I think we got a taste of what might become really important in this trial later on. Anwar's role is really complex. There's a lot of more things and details to mention about that. His defense will also focus on these complexities to a large extent. His lawyer was actually going to read a statement from him at this beginning of the trial, but he didn't get to it, so he will probably do that when the court sessions resume. Anwar's background is really fascinating and we'll come back to that in a future episode. That was the first week of the trial and recap.

Karam: Wow, it's indeed an intense week for everyone.

Fritz: Yes, and for you too, I can imagine, how did this first week-- How did that feel for you, Karam?

Karam: This trial is highly symbolic for me and I guess millions of Syrians.This is the first time since the beginning of the Syrian conflict that we seethe victim and the victimizer in the same room for justice to take its course.We also got a reaction about the beginning of this trial from someone who was imprisoned in Branch 251. Her name is Nuran Al Ghamian. I talked to her onThursday and asked her what the start of this trial means to her. This is what she told me.

Nuran Al Ghamian: I am Nuran Al Ghamian, one of the victims of Anwar R. After one year, I was detained in that same Branch, under the command of him. Honestly, I had a mixture of feelings, anger, relief, and hope, all at the same time when I saw Anwar behind bars. I hope justice takes its course and punish this man, and those who, like him, who tortured me and many others.

Fritz: That was Nuran Al Ghamian. Thank you, Nuran, for that comment. I think it is time for a heavy, and deep breath.

Karam: Wow. Yes.

Fritz: This is hard to deal with, and it will be hard. This is going to stretch over, some say two to three years. Yes, we're talking about a torture prison here, Branch 251.

Karam: In times of COVID-19 and social distancing.

Fritz: Social distancing, yes. The court went through with it. Yes, I guess they could--

Karam: Allowing only 15 journalists, I guess.

Fritz: Yes, they really downsized capacity because you need to be respecting social distancing even in the framework of justice.

Karam: Such a big case, yes.

Fritz: Such a big case, and that's why they pushed through this because it's significant. Yes. That's it for this episode of Branch 251.

Karam: Thank you, everyone, for listening. We will be back next week. There'll be no court then. The next session is scheduled, I guess, for the 18th of May, so we will use the court break to take you onto some of the background on this case. We will take you on a journey into Branch 251 itself, the torture prison that this trial is all about. What is Branch 251, and how does it look like?How do survivors describe it?

Fritz: Until then, thank you for listening, everybody. If you like this podcast, you can subscribe. You'll have the episodes coming to you automatically, every week, and you can tell your friends and colleagues about it.

Karam: Yes, please do. You can also support this podcast by following the link in the show notes or clicking on the Support this podcast button on our website.

Fritz: Talking about the show notes, we'll drop some of the most interesting sources and links for further reading and listening if you're interested in those show notes. Branch 251 is produced and hosted by the two of us.I'm Fritz Streiff.

Karam: I am Karam Shoumali. See you next time on Branch 251. Thank you.

Fritz: See you then.