Branch 251/
S3E8: Anwar Who?, Part 2


The verdict in the groundbreaking case against Anwar R. is expected to be delivered soon. Join us on a special two-part journey into Anwar R.'s road to Koblenz, as well as all the possible roads that might lay ahead. On part 2 of this episode, we're joined by legal investigator Mariana Karkoutly.

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

Mariana Karkoutly, Legal Consultant at CJA, Project Manager at Adopt a Revolution, Chairwoman of Gemeinsamer Horizont e.V.

Antonia Klein of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR)

Listen back to our episode on Anwar R. from the beginning of the trial and the podcast “S1E5: Colonel, Defector, Defendant”, during which we talk with Der Spiegel journalist Christoph Reuter who interviewed Anwar R. for two full days in Jordan in 2013:

On Raslan's initial statement

On personal encounters between prisoners and Raslan

On Raslan's paranoia after defecting

ECCHR trial reports

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre's monitoring of the trial

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

Music by Kevin McLeod and 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


Noor Hamadeh: This is part two of a special episode in preparation of the upcoming verdict in the case against Anwar R. If you've not listened to the first part, you should do that before continuing. You can find it in the same place where you found this one.


Fritz Streiff: Noor, picking up from the first part, when we consider everything we discussed with Hannah, and what we have seen during the trial, the many conversations we've had with people that have followed it, and that are directly or indirectly affected by it, how would you characterize Anwar R?

Noor: To me, Anwar R, is a typical desk criminal. Someone who's responsible for atrocious crimes, but doesn't get his own hands dirty. At the same time, he didn't only engage in paperwork, he also allegedly directly ordered others to commit act of torture and arbitrary detention. Based on some survivor testimonies, we also heard from Hannah in the first part of the episode, Anwar R seemed to give a false sense of safety to detainees at Branch 251 before ripping it away.

Fritz: He's an active desk criminal?

Noor: I think so. I also think it's interesting that Anwar R thinks that defecting will have saved him from being viewed as a criminal, because before that defection, and even before the revolution in 2011, he was still the Head of Investigations in a Syrian regime intelligence branch. While it might not have been as widespread, people were still arbitrarily detained and tortured at Branch 251 prior 2011. What about you?

Fritz: What strikes me most about him is, how he seems to have thought that the crimes he committed, assuming here that he will be convicted, that those crimes would be somehow erased from his biography, from his record, by defecting, by changing sides, and being invited to a new country. You could almost call it a naiveté that was fully focused on the future and disregarded the past, the alleged criminal past. I think that would probably be too easy on him.

I think there's more to it, perhaps, he didn't think that the crimes would be forgotten, but rather, he is actually convinced that he did not commit any. That would, in turn, mean that he at some point just lost his moral compass, if he ever had one, because even if you don't have blood on your own hands, if you hear the screams, if you order torture even indirectly, and if you are knowingly part of a criminal regime for decades, I think every human being just feels that that's not right, that it goes against some basic principle of humanity.

I think you feel that, but yes, perhaps, I don't know, he did not feel that. That's almost tragic, committing crimes against humanity without knowing it, without realizing it, or even worse, knowing it and perceiving it as somehow normal. In that way, I think his case, his biography, is in fact quite illustrative for the criminal Syrian regime, as a whole.


Noor: Let's turn back to the upcoming verdict. We heard from Antonia Klein of the ECCHR in part one, about the pretty wide range of conviction possibilities. What about the unthinkable? Is there a chance that Anwar R could actually get acquitted?

Fritz: In our conversation with her, we pressed Antonia quite hard on this. Just because it wouldn't be the first time that legal proceedings and verdicts would surprise the general public, or that the legal truth would be not in line with the actual facts, but Antonia was very clear. According to her, and based on the wealth and depth of evidence presented, and certain hints that court has given during the course of the trial, an acquittal is unlikely, and apparently, not even the defense seems to be steering towards arguing for an acquittal.

Noor: That's her as a lawyer speaking. She's not excluding the possibility of acquittal in absolute terms.

Fritz: You're right. It's her lawyer's way of saying, "It's not going to happen."

Noor: Takes one to know one.

Fritz: Says the lawyer, you're a lawyer yourself. About that, Noor, about that, "Takes one to know one," you're a Syrian American yourself, and we've been discussing this question together for many weeks and months now. The question of, what this verdict, what this trial actually means, especially, for Syrians? We know from our Syrian colleagues that the trial is a legal milestone, and symbolically significant, but it's not justice for Syria, as a whole, far from it. That it's only a tiny symbolic step in that direction.

Noor: I think like with Eyad A, there's not one opinion on this case. In fact, from what I have heard and seen, there's a pretty wide range of feelings about it. On the one hand, many are really looking forward to seeing a regime perpetrator held to account. This case will truly go down in history, not just because it's the first crimes against humanity trial, against a Syrian regime perpetrator, but also because it's an official record that documents witness testimony, and if he's convicted, demonstrates an official legitimization of the experiences of Syrian survivors of Syrian government crimes against humanity and oppression.

On the other hand though, prosecuting Anwar R doesn't change the experiences that survivors of detention and disappearance in Syria and their family members faced. It doesn't take back what happened. For some Syrians, the trial isn't really addressing their needs

Fritz: Right. This is also what we heard from Mariana Karkoutly, a Syrian legal investigator and human rights activist based in Berlin. We spoke with her about the value and significance of the upcoming verdict.

Mariana Karkoutly: It proves again that everything that survivors and victims have been speaking about getting out of those detention centers and being tortured, and having faced a lot of violations to their rights, it's a proof that this happened. For me, personally, I didn't need this trial for it to be approved. I've seen a lot of my friends getting out of detention centers, and I've seen how what kind of torture marks were on their bodies.

I've seen them getting 20 kilos thinner or 30 kilos thinner because they were starved in detention centers, but from a perspective of someone who's just looking at the matter from a distance, it's a proof. It proves that those crimes happened against unarmed protestors, who were appealing for their rights of freedom, dignity, and justice. Those particular individuals have been talking about those crimes since 2011, even since before Syrian human rights lawyers have been talking about what happens in these detention centers, and writing in reports. Those reports were sent to international organizations.

This was always the case. The trial did not bring to light any new facts. It brought a proof within a judicial system in saying, "Look, hopefully, after the verdict of Anwar R, and after the verdict of Eyad A at the time, February 2021, we can now say with proof and with clear investigation that these crimes happened and these crimes are still happening.

Noor: What Mariana shared with us here is her view on how a verdict, a judicial decision can serve as proof, concrete proof that these structural crimes in fact happened, and are still happening. Going beyond that, Mariana also shared her thoughts with us on a deeper, less legal, and more philosophical level.

Mariana: Not even thinking about the verdict, in a sense of its details, but being still under shock, or being still in the whole process of, "This is happening." To be honest, I mean the biggest weight of this trial that I see, is the very idea that Syrian's behavior, or let's say, the very idea that Syrians are today being able to discuss a justice scenario in which it is not imagined. In which, that it can be applied. For me, this is the biggest weight of this trial.

Of course, all what you've said as well is huge and is very important. Creating a legal precedent will help us, as well in the future when we work on such cases, and we raise them up to the Syrian authorities, of course, it'll be very helpful. It has already built up a detailed description of how the Syrian regime systematically works and functions. Definitely, for me, it's the way it lays, and building up the understanding of what justice is for me. I can appeal for it for the first time in my life. This is wonderful.

Fritz: That's what I really took away from our talk with her. That sense of how a fair criminal trial, a clean justice process can mean so much more than a search for legal proof, for accountability for pure punishment. I find that quite encouraging, that fair and equal justice has that potential power, can provide that platform to be empowered, to have a voice, and to be heard. [music]

Fritz: On the other hand, the talk with Mariana left me with a pessimistic sense that is so well known to many in this field.


Noor: I know what you're referring to, Fritz, especially, now in the context of the so-called normalization that's been happening.

Mariana: We've been pushing for that. We've been pushing saying that the Koblenz trial is taking place currently in Germany, at the same time, the German interior ministers are meeting every six months to decide whether Syria is a safe country for Syrians to return to or not, and this is absurd. This is absolutely absurd, as long as Assad's regime stays there. Of course, those two verdicts have, theoretically, to play a role in any decision that is made by any European government at the time of deporting Syrians or sending them back to their countries.

I'm not sure it will ever be, because the arguments that we were always faced with is that, "Yes, well, there are a lot of Syrians who can go back to Syria, and they will not be prosecuted because they're not politically involved," which reflects a very less, least understanding of how the Assad regime even works, and even functions. Although, within a trial, such as Koblenz trial, this is reflected.

We see that civilians, not only protesters, were taken to the detention centers in Syria and being tortured. Sometimes, people were taking to detention centers just because they belong to certain areas. In the areas in cities, such as Daraa or Homs, or Syria, Damascus, or Aleppo, because they belong to those areas, which protested against the regime. Sometimes, people were taken from the checkpoints on this particular basis.

These kind of arguments reflects no understanding of how the Syrian regime functions. Of course, I hope that the trial will-- It will definitely offer a precedent of a case that other cases that are related to Syrian war criminals can be built upon, especially, to detention centers. I'm not sure it will have a big role to play politically, when it comes to Syrians being deported to Syria.

This is exactly also where the fear of a lot of witnesses lays. I don't want a witness in a case, where I would think that I would potentially be sent to Syria, and then I will be tortured for this particular reason. This is something that we can never ensure with this. We can never say, "No, give your testimony, and we will ensure you that you will not be deported to the country you came from."

Fritz: The uphill battle that so many Syrian activists, survivors, and families of victims, and the disappeared have fought for way too many years. The current climate of so-called normalization, and politically stoke fear of being sent back to Syria, despite everything that has been known for such a long time already, since before the revolution even started, it is disheartening.

Noor: That, plus, I think some Syrians are in the end, just not primarily interested in criminal trials in some German town, but have other things on their minds. Next to the daily needs of those who are still in Syria, whether in regime-controlled areas or outside of them, their thoughts are more concerned with long-term solutions, sustainable justice and peace in Syria, reparations, and remedies for families of survivors and so on.

Fritz: This trial in Koblenz, Eyad A, Anwar R, they are tiny in the larger context. At the end of the day, we too ask ourselves, does it really matter who Anwar R is?


Noor: This is part two of a special episode in anticipation of the verdict in the case against Anwar R. We'll be back with an update from our court reporter Hannah in two weeks. She'll tell us all about the final pleas of the prosecutor and the defense lawyers. Until then, take care.

Fritz: Thank you for listening. See you soon.


Pauline: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcasts production. Today's second part of this episode was hosted by Noor Hamadeh and Fritz Streiff. It was written and produced by Fritz Streiff with editorial help from Saleem Salameh, Hannah El-Hitami, Naya Skaf, Noor Hamadeh, and me, Pauline Peek. Editing and mixing by myself.

A special thanks to Mariana Karkoutly for sharing her thoughts and opinions with us in anticipation of the upcoming verdict. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by IFA's zivik Funding Programme.