Branch 251/
S1E3: The Two Anwars


How did the Branch 251 trial actually come about?

Your hosts Karam and Fritz talked to someone who played an important role in transforming the terrible stories of these crimes into legal cases: Anwar Al Bunni. He has been instrumental in building the case and kick-starting this first criminal trial against Syrian officials.

He was also imprisoned himself simply because he was doing his job as a human rights lawyer defending political prisoners in Syria. Eight years ago, he was detained in Branch 251 and was face to face with the main accused Anwar R. who slapped him in the face. But then, he saw him again, years later. In a refugee center in Berlin. And now, once more, in a court of law.

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Some additional sources on this episode and the trial here:


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Episode Transcript


Fritz Streiff: Welcome back, listeners. This is the third 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.

Karam Shoumali: I'm Karam Shoumali.

Fritz Streiff: Karam, what is this episode going to be all about? There was still no court this week. Last time, we talked a lot about the stories that survivors told us, the people who were tortured in Branch 251. Our listeners have an impression now of what went on in that prison in Branch 251 and the kind of terrible stuff that is still happening there at this very moment and in other branches of the Syrian torture apparatus.

Karam Shoumali: Right. Today, we will look at how these terrible stories of crimes actually get transformed into a legal case like the one we are seeing in Koblenz now. I went to see Syrian human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, in his office in Berlin this week. He used to be a prominent human rights lawyer in Syria for decades before fleeing in 2014. He's also a victim himself and a survivor of Branch 251. Now, he's central to much of the case building that has happened in Germany in Europe.

Fritz Streiff: It wasn't easy to get to talk to him, you said.

Karam Shoumali: Yes, this man is super busy. He's working day and night in this case, and a lot of people are interested in his personal story in relation to the case and Branch 251 right now.

Fritz Streiff: Right.

Karam Shoumali: Let's start from the beginning.

Fritz Streiff: : Just note listeners, Karam and Anwar had their conversation in their mother tongue, Arabic, so there will be a voiceover in English.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: I am Anwar al-Bunni. I was born in Syria, in Hama, actually in 1959. I'm from a family that's truly active in politics, my brothers especially. That's the reason we were arrested.

Karam Shoumali: How many brothers? How many arrests?

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: The first arrest in my family was in 1977. It was my oldest brother. Then, in 1978, my other two brothers and my sister were also detained.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: Around those days, I was also detained at Branch 251 for eight days.

Karam Shoumali: I believe that was your first interaction with Branch 251?

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: Yes, and that's why I decided to become a lawyer, not only for my brothers. I also had friends who were detained. I decided to become a lawyer to defend the people that were detained and thrown in jails without trials or accusations just because they had political opinion that doesn't suit the Syrian state or the regime, to be precise.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language].

Karam Shoumali: Did you get the chance to work in your brother's case?

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: Yes, I actually submitted the defense statement for my brothers, and I remember back in the day, there weren't any computers, and we had to type on a typing machine.

Fritz Streiff: Anwar al-Bunni studied law in Damascus and used the limited body of rights of defendants and prisoners that the Syrian legislation offered at the time as best as he could. He went on to spend years defending prisoners of conscience for free out of a belief in human rights and justice. To make ends meet, he worked for paying clients doing regular cases in criminal and civil law, and all that time, he would go to see his brothers in jail as often as he could, and they remain detained in prison for almost 15 years.

Karam Shoumali: Fast forward to 2006, Anwar al-Bunni has really made a name for himself as a human rights lawyer in Syria, but the intelligence services had been following his activity all along, and eventually, he had to pay a high price.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: In 2006, the European Commission for human rights funded a center for training human rights activists, and I was the director of that center without permission or license from the regime.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: At the opening, many media outlets came. It struck the regime that 12 ambassadors attended in person.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Fritz Streiff: Okay, so that was Damascus in 2006, 5 years before the uprising, 14 years ago now. Anwar al-Bunni was almost sort of center in stage of the human rights movement in Syria with international support from embassies and donors and attention from international media outlets, and that rubbed the government the wrong way.

Karam Shoumali: Right. You could say that. It was not before long actually that he was arrested again, and this time it's not only for eight days.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: In fact, I was going to my car to leave for the office at 6:00 in the evening. A white car was driving fast towards me and stopped near me. Two people held me and threw me in the backseat where you put your feet, and they sat over me.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: They blindfolded me, and the car drove away. I started screaming, asking, "What is this? What did I do?" One man answered, "You don't know what you did? You are a killer. You are a rapist."

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Karam Shoumali: After he was taken to detention, he had to appear in court the next morning, and that is when he identifies the man who arrested him the day before.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: When we entered the court, I saw the man next to me. He was the head of the patrol. The police at the court knew me. I dealt with them daily. I asked the officer, "Who brought me here?"

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: He said he was Anwar from the State Security branch.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Fritz Streiff: On that day in 2006, Anwar al-Bunni was kidnapped and arrested in front of his house and slapped in his face on the way to prison. The man who slapped him is the same man that is now accused in Koblenz, Anwar R. How long did he have to stay in prison this time around?

Karam Shoumali: Five years in total, from 2006 until 2011.

Fritz Streiff: During that time in prison, Anwar al-Bunni actually received the human rights award from the German Association of Judges. He obviously couldn't attend the award ceremony as he was in prison in Damascus, but one of his brothers went in his name.

Karam Shoumali: Yes.

Fritz Streiff: Then, he was released just when the uprising was happening, huh?

Karam Shoumali: Right, in 2011, a few months after the uprising started. You might think that after spending five years in jail, he would be intimidated enough to stop his work as a human rights lawyer, but actually, he continued. He started defending and representing people who were involved in the uprising, political demonstrators, and even people who were detained at Branch 251, but by 2014, many of his colleagues had been arrested and disappeared. The whole situation has got a lot worse, and being arrested was not the same as before.

By 2014, many of his colleagues had been arrested and disappeared. The whole situation got a lot worse. Prisons are very crowded, and it was hard to locate where someone is being detained, and of course, the torture and all the torture stories and leaked photos of torture. You don't want to risk that. He got aware that there was an arrest warrant out for him, so he decided to leave Syria and eventually ended up in Germany.

Fritz Streiff: That is where he lives and works today and still does what he can to work for human rights for Syrians from a distance now from Berlin. He also really tries to push for accountability for these terrible crimes committed in Syria.

Karam Shoumali: Right, and he's been really very active in his capacity of a Syrian lawyer in Germany. He has a big network here, so he connects organizations and authorities investigating human rights abuses with victims and witnesses.

Fritz Streiff: One day, about eight years after Anwar R. arrested him and slapped him in the face, he saw him again.

Karam Shoumali: Yes.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: I thought I knew this guy. His face didn't look strange, and he seemed like he knew me. He looked back. I told my wife, "I think I know him."

Karam Shoumali: That's the day he recognized Anwar R. at the refugee center here in Berlin.

Fritz Streiff: Then, Anwar al-Bunni saw Anwar R. again in a store when he went to buy some furniture. He started talking to his friends about him, and after a few days, he says he was sure he had seen the guy that arrested him all those years ago. Thousands of kilometers away from Damascus in his new home in Berlin, he saw the man who ran Branch 251.

Karam Shoumali: Yes. What are the chances? When the police asked him whether he knew Anwar R., of course, he had a lot more to tell them.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: His reputation is that he was vicious. He was one of the officers who tortured people the most. If a detainee challenged him or gave an answer that annoyed him, he would personally beat them.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: I gave my testimony at the general prosecutor's office. He asked me if we know victims from Branch 251. I said, "Of course." I started looking to contact victims that I knew made it to Europe.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: I know those victims because I represented them when they were detained. I know they were at Branch 251, and I defended them after they were sent to court. For us, he was at Branch 251.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Karam Shoumali: How did you know the victims, the survivors who could be witnesses in this trial?

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: It wasn't difficult. I know them, and I had already defended them. I just needed to find ways to contact them, those who made it to Europe. No one hesitated to testify. The general prosecutor built the case and got enough witnesses to testify and accordingly issued an arrest warrant for him in 2019.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Karam Shoumali: How could you be sure that they were at Branch 251?

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: I know that they were a Branch 251. Also, the interrogator takes the details of the room. When you go to the toilet, where do you go, left, right? Where are the toilets? How many steps do you ascend or descend, and such details that you wouldn't know if you weren't at this branch.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Karam Shoumali: He went on to describe the meticulous process, the question of victims and going through their accounts over and over again, just to make sure that they would be valuable witnesses. Anwar al-Bunni has helped many of the witnesses in this process.

Fritz Streiff: He really is an important factor in getting this case to trial so specifically. He's so personally involved and invested, of course, because he's a victim himself. He's even a direct victim of the main accused, of Anwar R., but still, Anwar al-Bunnie says this case is not about personal revenge. It's about justice, he says.

Karam Shoumali: Yes, right. For him, being able to play this part in a legal procedure like this, after all these decades of fighting for human rights for Syrians, it really means a lot to him. I recall towards the end of our conversation, we talked about him testifying at the prosecutor's office. He actually testified for 15 hours over two days. At the end, Anwar remembered with passion, that one prosecutor made the following remark to the other prosecutor.

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Interpreter: He answered him saying, "Didn't that Anwar spent all of his life waiting for this moment to give his testimony?"

Anwar al-Bunni: [Arabic language]

Fritz Streiff: That was the Syrian human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, in his office in Berlin where Karam went to see him. Thank you very much for your contribution to our podcast, Anwar, we really appreciate it.

Karam Shoumali: Okay. We also had some questions coming in this past week from listeners who's been in touch with us, Fritz.

Fritz Streiff: Yes, we had a couple, including from Julie from Australia, and Lawrence from the Netherlands. Thank you, both guys, for listening and for your questions.

Karam Shoumali: Julie, she asked, "What, if any, corporation Germany is getting from Syria in prosecuting this case? Has Germany asked for any formal cooperation? If so, what response did they get?"

Fritz Streiff: That's an excellent lawyer question. I'll take that one.

Karam Shoumali: You go for it.

Fritz Streiff: Obviously, I cannot be sure, but from everything we know, this is highly unlikely, and we haven't seen anything official I like this. You could probably say that it's not just unlikely but impossible. Germany and Syria broke off diplomatic relations in 2012 and mutual legal assistance. That usually takes place in those diplomatic spheres, and it would also just be paradoxical. In a way, even though this case is against two individual accused, that's what this case is about. Let's not forget that the trial is against two individuals, but obviously, it is also about the wider, the bigger Syrian torture apparatus. That context will also play a big part in this trial.

Karam Shoumali: Maybe you saw when the Syrian President Assad was asked about the Branch 251 trial in Koblenz, he was being interviewed by Russia Today, I believe. He just flatly denied that torture even exist in Syria.

Fritz Streiff: Exactly. All that makes any type of cooperation very unlikely. All right. Lawrence wondered after listening to last episode and the descriptions of the inside of Branch 251, and what detainees have to go through there. We know what Eyad A. had as a role as far as the prosecution is concerned. He rounded up and arrested demonstrators and bust them to the branch, but what about Anwar? Where does he fit into the journey into the building of Branch 251 that we made last episode?

Karam Shoumali: That's from what we know from survivors, Anwar R was the boss, he ran the place. The prosecutor also said that in his opening statement, he ran the place full stop, and the acquisition is clear. Anwar R. directed the torture at Branch 251. Survivors also have told us that he had an office on the first floor and would interrogate prominent activists himself often and also sometimes beating them with his own hands. One survivor actually recalled an inmate telling him that his mother came to try to beg Anwar R. to release her son. He brought her son to his office and tortured him in her presence.

Fritz Streiff: That is how Anwar R. himself fits into the stories we heard and told in the last episode. It kind of completes the picture in a way.

Karam Shoumali: Right, yes.

Fritz Streiff: Thanks again for your questions, Julie and Lawrence. Again, if anyone else has any questions about the trial, about the case, about the investigation, then do send them over and we'll try to answer as many as we can.

Karam Shoumali: Thank you, guys. Now, we're coming towards the end of our third episode.

Fritz Streiff: Towards the end of court recess.

Karam Shoumali: Yes. Next week, there will be court again. What can we expect, Fritz? I'm hearing it's supposed to be a big moment.

Fritz Streiff: There is a chance that it could get pretty exciting. Anwar R.'s lawyer announced at the beginning of the trial that his client would soon make a statement, or he would read a statement on behalf of his client.

Karam Shoumali: That hasn't happened yet. Will it next week?

Fritz Streiff: That's what we're hearing, and that's what everybody is kind of expecting. If he does, we could learn quite some interesting things about the defense strategy. Will the defense contest all charges, or maybe even offer some type of cooperation with the court? What kind of counter-evidence is the defense planning to bring? What about the other defendant? Will he also, at some point, make a statement? All those questions might at least partially be answered next week, so it'll be exciting to follow.

Karam Shoumali: That's the thing to watch out for next week when the court is back in session, and we'll be there for you, listeners, and update you right from the courtroom.

Fritz Streiff: Until then, thank you for listening. If you like this podcast, do subscribe so that the episodes come to you automatically every week, and tell your friends and colleagues, spread the word.

Karam Shoumali: You can support this podcast by following the link in the show notes or clicking on the support this podcast button on our website. A special thank you to those who have already been so generous, we really appreciate it.

Fritz Streiff: Yes. Thank you very much. Branch 251 is produced and hosted by the two of us. The voiceover you heard today came from David Tafett, and we got very valuable production feedback from Maarten van Doormalen. Again, I am Fritz Streiff.

Karam Shoumali: I'm Karam Shoumali. See you next time in Branch 251.

Fritz Streiff: See you then.