Noor Hamadeh: We're in the final stages of the trial in Koblenz. It even looks like we have a date for the verdict even though the court still has not 100% confirmed it yet. You never know what might still happen, especially with the worsening public health situation surrounding the coronavirus.
Naya Skaf: If everything goes according to plan from now on, the final verdict in the trial will be announced by the court on Thursday, 13th January. You can at least pencil that into your calendars now.
Noor: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. I'm Noor Hamadeh.
Naya: I am Naya Skaf.
Noor: In our last episode, we tried to find answers to the question, who the main defendant, who Anwar R really is. I guess we can say that even though we really tried hard, we still don't really know, or at least it just seems possible for everyone to have a slightly or massively different view on him and his character.
Naya: He is just so hard to read. That's what we also heard again from our court reporter, Hannah El-Hitami, who attended the court sessions in the past weeks as usual. We asked her how Anwar R reacted to the final pleas by the prosecution, and the joint plaintiffs, the victims officially participating in the trial.
Noor: Stone-faced and no visible reaction to what were at times quite emotional statements.
Naya: Diligently taking notes, documenting his own trial.
Noor: An investigator in his own case. I think we've all seen that side of him throughout the trial.
Naya: What did Anwar R and the judges hear from the prosecution and the joint plaintiffs?
Noor: On today's episode, we'll hear from Hannah who came back from the Koblenz Court with this report on these final pleas.
Hannah El-Hitami: After 103 days of trial, the collection of evidence was finally closed on the 1st of December, and the day after the prosecutors, Jasper Klinge and Mrs Polz started with their final arguments. It took around four and a half hours altogether, so it was a really long day. On top of that, the heater in the courtroom was broken, so, everybody was just freezing and wearing all their jackets. That's just on the side note. More importantly, let's get to the contents of the pleas. Mr. Klinge started with a quote by an Austrian Jewish poet who had been persecuted by the Nazis, that goes like this, "Whoever is subjected to torture cannot feel at home in this world anymore."
Mr. Klinge said that all the survivor witnesses in this courtroom had really made clear how devastating their experiences in Al-Khatib Branch had been and how that had really changed their lives forever. He said that he hoped that this trial had helped them to feel a little bit at home again in this world. He added that trials like these are also necessary to enable a peaceful coexistence of peoples in the world. Also, he acknowledged that testifying in a trial like this can be really hard, and even re-traumatizing for victims and that the state has to do everything possible to make them feel safe.
I guess he was reacting to some criticism that there had been about the lack of witness protection, and how many witnesses had said that they were unwilling or reluctant to talk because of their families who are still living in Syria. Regarding the crimes themselves, the prosecutors did not spend that much time defining the circumstances in which they were committed because they could just refer to the judgment in the case of Eyad A, which was in February. There, the judges had already defined the Syrian regime's actions as a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, which means crimes against humanity.
Hannah: Then the prosecutors quoted several witnesses to describe the general prison conditions and the general experience in Branch 251. How the prisoners received a so-called welcome party when they arrived, how they were beaten and tortured. How they heard other inmates' screams day and night. How they suffered from lack of hygiene, air, medical care, and food. How they were permanently fearing for their lives. He said that from what the witnesses had said, it became clear that apart from the physical torture the prisoners experience, the mere stay in the branch was torture.
Many had said that hearing the screams and constantly fearing for their lives was actually worse than physical abuse.
Hannah: The prosecutors took a very long time to argue against the defendant's statement because, as you might remember, Anwar R had given a statement in May 2020, where he had said that all his authority was taken from him after he had helped so many prisoners, and he was seen as disloyal by his superiors. This was his excuse for what happened and his argument why he was not responsible for the crimes. The prosecutors argued that he had never mentioned this version of the events before the beginning of this trial, even though he had had many opportunities to talk about that.
For example, during his asylum procedure, or when he went to file a complaint with the police in Berlin, but he never said that. He only started saying that when he was accused in this courtroom. They also quoted witnesses who knew that Anwar R was present at important meetings with the highest-ranking officers, even with Ali Mamlouk, until a very late point, even in 2012. Their point was that he would never have been invited to those if he had been seen as disloyal. They also mentioned several prisoners who met Anwar R during their detention in Branch 251 and who saw him give orders or who saw him make decisions.
The ironic thing is that Anwar R argued that he helped a lot of prisoners, but the prosecutors argued that even if he made decisions to help prisoners, that would still mean that he had authority. Another part of the plea dealt with the number of victims that had been subjected to torture in the branch. The prosecution calculated several numbers that witness had mentioned at different points of the trial. Because of the principle, innocent, until proven guilty, they always had to assume the lowest possible number. Finally, they assumed that 4,000 cases of torture had actually been proven throughout the trial, which is the same number that Anwar R had been indicted for at the beginning of the trial.
That didn't change. They didn't change their assessment of the number of torture, but with regard to the number of deaths, in the beginning, they had accused him of 58 deaths, but now they only saw that 30 deaths had been proven throughout the trial. They calculated them by adding up all the dead bodies mentioned by witnesses, but they only counted those that they considered certain. Of course, they had to consider that prisoners who were in the branch at the same time, might have seen the same corpses, and therefore, they did not count them twice.
By the way, 11 deaths were counted due to the testimony of Eyad A because he had told the German police, as a witness, before he became a defendant, he had told him that he saw 11 dead bodies while working in the branch in 2011. This was, by the way, not the only time that the prosecutors quoted the testimony of Eyad A as evidence for the crimes of Anwar R. The prosecutors also argued that the prisoners did not die from natural causes in the branch. They said that they were killed actively, and not just killed passively by not being provided medical assistance or nutrition, but yes, killed actively through violence, through torture by the prison guards.
Finally, they also talked about the crimes of rape and sexual assault that they saw proven in three cases, so, one case of rape and two of assault. Altogether, they concluded that Anwar R had committed a crime against humanity. It's just one crime against humanity, but it includes torture, rape, sexual assault, and severe deprivation of liberty. On top of that, they found proof for dangerous bodily harm in 26 cases and also taking of hostages in two cases. Based on that, they requested a lifelong imprisonment for the defendant, and they argued that the special severity of his guilt should be acknowledged by the court.
This would mean that Anwar R cannot request early release after 15 years as is usually possible with lifelong prison sentences in Germany. This week and last week, it was then the joint plaintiffs turned to speak. Just a quick reminder, joint plaintiffs are survivors or family members of victims, so, 26 individuals altogether in this trial, who have joined execution as civil parties. They're also represented by lawyers, so, there were statements by seven lawyers and by six of the plaintiffs themselves. A lot was said, so, I'll just try to summarize some of the points that I found most interesting.
There was a very poetic and powerful statement by a plaintiff, Hussein Ghrer, a Syrian blogger, and former detainee. He talked about the experience of being disappeared in Syria, and the experience that he described as vanishing behind the sun, where not even the blue flies can find you.
Hannah: He talked about how the disappeared person becomes like Schrödinger's Cat, so nobody knows whether they are alive or not. Even the detainees themselves don't really know whether they're going to be alive a moment from now or not. I think one reason why he used his statement to talk about that experience of being disappeared was because the crime of enforced disappearance was not part of the indictment.
The joint plaintiffs had actually requested that it should be included in the indictment, but the court rejected that. I guess every Syrian and everybody who knows a bit about Syria knows that enforced disappearance is used systematically by the regime to terrorize the population. That it is actually one of the most painful experiences for friends and family because they never know what happened to their loved ones. They keep hoping, they can never really find closure. That's why he was actually not the only one who mentioned that crime. It was also pointed out by several of the lawyers.
It wasn't just Hussein Ghrer, who mentioned that. It was also pointed out by the plaintiff lawyers in some of their statements. They used their statements, on the one hand, to give an overview of their client's stories, but also to criticize some aspects of the trial. For example, the fact about the enforced disappearances not being indicted, as I've just mentioned, but also the fact that the court did not provide translation for the public, and that it refused to record the hearings or even the final pleas because, as it had argued, it did not consider this trial of historical importance for Germany.
Another point that was criticized was that there were no sufficient possibilities for witness protection in this trial, but also, in general, when international trials are held in a German court. One of the lawyers argued that the shortcomings of this trial were actually important learning points, so they should be mentioned and discussed because there will be more similar trials, and it would be good to change those problems in the future. Of course, there wasn't only criticism. One point that was mentioned by a plaintiff, Ruham Hawash, was how the trial had helped her win back her dignity even though it had been very difficult for her to participate at first.
She said that she had always told people her story about how she had been detained, and how her rights had been abused, but that now, that story continued. Now she could talk about how she had helped hold one of the perpetrators accountable. That had really been a great experience for her. Another plaintiff, psychiatrist and former detainee, compared the trial even to psychotherapy. He said that one needs to find meaning in suffering in order to survive. For this plaintiff, the trial had done just that, given him meaning. By helping to uncover the Syrian regime's torture machinery, he was able to deal better with his own painful experiences.
He said that he hoped that he had supported the Syrian people's quest for freedom and that he hoped that no people would ever suffer again like the Syrians had. What really stuck in my mind as well is how one plaintiff said that he could have forgiven Anwar R if the defendant had shown remorse and taken responsibility for what happened, but yes, he didn't. The lawyers added to this by addressing Anwar R directly and telling him that he could have and should have supported international investigations by providing all the inside information he had on the secret services.
All of the lawyers addressed him saying that it was not too late. He still has his last words, and he can still break his silence and really start talking. One of the lawyers, himself a Muslim, appealed to Anwar R even on religious grounds, told him to show remorse in order to be forgiven and not to carry his guilt into the afterlife. Yes, as I said, the defendant has the last word, and he'll be able to speak in January right after his lawyer's final pleas. I heard that he might have quite a lot to say, so, let's see what happens after the Christmas break.
Noor: I think having listened to Hannah's report from the courtroom, there are a few things that stick out from the final pleas by the prosecution and the joint plaintiffs. As a lawyer, my attention was caught by the way that the prosecution arrived at the final counts of proven crimes based on the core fair trial principle of innocent until proven guilty, and only counting those crimes that they can confidently say were in fact, individual events or bodies.
Naya: Most striking to me in that regard, is that they lowered the number of murders from the originally indicted 58 counts to 30. During the trial, the number had actually increased to 68, but now they say that conclusively proven, according to the prosecution, are only 30. "In relative terms, as in the larger picture, that seems like a pretty low number also in comparison with 4,000 counts of torture that were originally indicted and now also proven," said the prosecutor. But yes, I get what you mean, Noor. It's that fair trial principle. Honestly, it's one of the elements of this trial experience that had made a difference to me and many others. That this is fair justice based on the rule of law and not some sort of sham trial.
Noor: At the same time, the prosecution did definitely go for the highest possible sentence with life imprisonment and the special severity of guilt, which would make early parole after 15 years impossible if the court accepts this.
Naya: These legal technicalities are, of course, important, but I think for many of the followers of the trial, another point the prosecutor made was important. He stressed the central role of victims in this case, and they are just asking this court for a form of justice, a part of justice, or a step towards justice, without which there will never be peaceful coexistence between people.
Noor: He acknowledged that right at the start of his statement, and in a way, reminded the court that it has a pretty huge responsibility.
Naya: The higher regional court in Koblenz will speak the final verdict in the worldwide first criminal trial against former Syrian regime officials. A big responsibility indeed.
Noor: Speaking of the central role of victims in this trial, what did you think of the statements by the joint plaintiffs, the participating civil parties?
Naya: There are a few different aspects here. I was very touched by the language, the style of some of it. Hussein Ghrer used poetry to get across how difficult it is to explain his personal experience in Branch 251. That likely resonates with the experiences of many others. It's interesting the prosecutor also referred to poetry. He quoted a survivor of the Holocaust, and he too used poetry to describe the indescribable.
Noor: I also think we need to make mention here of the bravery it would take to take part in a trial like this as a witness. For survivors to expose themselves to this procedure, potentially putting themselves in the regime spotlight for a year and a half, that must have taken its toll I'm sure. I'm glad that some of them told the judges that this experience, participating in a justice process like this, has helped them win back their sense of dignity.
Despite all the criticism of this trial, the lack of translation and outreach, the failure of including enforced disappearances in the indicted crimes, they mentioned those points too, but eventually, it helped as well the trial. It served a positive human experience.
Naya: One person that has not, at least until now, used the trial to turn the experience into something positive it seems, is the main accused Anwar R. One of the survivors who joined the case as a joint plaintiff talked about forgiveness. That Anwar R, so far, has missed a chance. He could have helped the case. He could have, but he hasn't, and so it seems he has forfeited the chance of forgiveness.
Noor: And the chance for a lower sentence, or at least for being released earlier. The lawyers made that point, and that it's not too late. Who knows? Maybe Anwar R will make the turnaround and surprise everyone when he has the last word before the trial ends.
Naya: I remember a few weeks ago there was talk that the final verdict in the trial could be next week on the 22nd, but the court decided to stretch things out a little bit longer, perhaps also to give everyone some time to breathe around the holidays.
Noor: The court hasn't heard all the final arguments yet. There will be one more session in the new year, on the 6th, and perhaps the 7th of January before the judges will announce their decision probably a week later on the 13th.
Naya: The last session on the 6th and perhaps 7th, will be all about the defense team's final arguments. I'm very curious to find out what Anwar R and his lawyers will tell the court. We have heard that Anwar R might speak himself and is preparing a lengthy statement. That makes me wonder if it will be just more of what we have heard so far, and what we have discussed during the last episode, Anwar Who? Maybe he still has something surprising, like an ace up his sleeve.
Noor: We'll hear all about that from Hannah during our last and final episode before the verdict. Until then, happy holidays.
Naya: And a happy and a just New Year.
Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcasts production. Today's episode was hosted by Noor Hamadeh and Naya Skaf. It was written and produced by Fritz Streiff and Hannah El-Hitami, with editorial help from Naya Skaf, Noor Hamadeh, and myself, Pauline Peek. Mixing and editing by myself. A quick note for those of you who have not seen it yet, our new website is online. The address is branch251podcast.com, and it has all of our episodes and their transcripts, plus some background on the podcast and on our team. Have a look if you want.
We will put the link into the show notes. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by IFA's zivik Funding Programme.