Christoph Reuter: Obviously, he believed in his deeds before being erased from the record of guilt by switching sides. He is a very multifaceted, interesting case.
Fritz Streiff: Welcome back to the podcast, listeners. This is the fifth 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, and for those who are tuning in for the first time, I'm a human rights lawyer based in Paris. My work focus is for a large part in recent years on accountability for international crimes committed in Syria.
Karam Shoumali: I'm Karam Shoumali. I'm a Syrian journalist based in Berlin. I have been covering the war in Syria for the past eight years.
Fritz: Today on the podcast, we will pick up where we left off last week about the main accused Anwar R. We're having a guest on the podcast today, and our guest has met Anwar R. personally, and so he really knows him quite well.
Karam: Yes, that's right. We are very happy to have Christoph Reuter on the podcast today. He has been covering the Syrian war for the German weekly Der Spiegel since the very beginning. He first arrived in Syria in 1989. He traveled there to study Arabic. He covered the Iraq war and the crisis that followed in the region, and since 2011, the Syrian uprising and the civil war, and pretty much everything that has to do with it.
Fritz: Then in the second part of the episode, after our conversation with Christoph Reuter, we'll give you a short court update. The court was in session from Monday until Friday, and we're recording this podcast and as the court is still in session, so we'll update you on anything interesting and important that might still happen after recording next week. Now, first to our conversation with Christoph Reuter. We started by asking him what his specific interest in this case is and in the person Anwar.
Christoph: It's two folded. First of all, of course, he is the first high-ranking member of one the Syrian intelligence services standing trial in Germany. The second is that I met him for two full days in 2013 when he had just defected a few months earlier. For me, he represents a multilayered case of people who pursue a career within a dictatorship who have their own red lines, which we don't see, don't understand because we would, from our comfortable perspective, we would judge his whole existence as it's wrong. You can't be a henchman in such a system. You have many reasons for people to start a career, not to know other options to defect, and so he is a very multifaceted, interesting case.
Karam: How did you come across him? You were in Jordan. Why did you decide to interview him over two days? What was the interest back then?
Christoph: Everybody we talked to said, "If you really want to know the details of the intelligence system and how the apparatus worked, talk to Anwar Raslan. He's an encyclopedic memory, extremely analytical."
Karam: What kind of man did you talk to? How did he come across? Describe him as a person.
Christoph: First, a bit shy or reluctant because he had never talked to Western journalists about the most secretive details of his work, so it was kind of unusual. Obviously, he believed in his deeds before being erased from the record of guilt by switching sides. He never made a secret of his previous role, his position, even his testimony or his statement, which was read in court, he had signed with his last official ring as Colonel.
Fritz: In 2020? In May 2020?
Fritz: Just now.
Christoph: He is in a way framed in the belief that, "It can't have all been wrong what I did. My career was right. In terms of my rank I received and what was wrong should not count anymore since I switched to the right side." Once he had started, and we were asking very detailed questions about specific bombings, specific groups, he liked it. He became interested in speaking out about what had happened and displayed an enormous memory and enormous understanding for details which mattered. We talked with him for two days through the functioning of the intelligence system. It was an extremely interesting subject, and Anwar Raslan was spilling the beans.
Fritz: Sounds a little bit like what he did last week in Koblenz in terms of detail and in terms of the willingness to describe his side of the story.
Christoph: What I found interesting when we talked to him in Amman was that whatever we could double-check certain scenes where we found a second witness proved to be precise, proved to be correct from what he said in 2013. We didn't find any reason to believe that he was faking anything or exaggerating. What he told us was, of course, enormously damaging to the efforts of the regime.
Karam: That kind of information he shared with you, the elite, and the Syrian secret service would have access to in a way. Do you agree on this?
Christoph: A very, very small circle, even within the intelligence services. This is why we were so interested. It was extremely difficult to find people who would know the internal details. Even him, he said, "I have this and this indication," but he was not part of the very, very small inner circle who took this decision, but he was close enough to have witnessed the specific details. From what he told us, why he had defected, it was a mix that may sound strange for outsiders.
First, he was morally appalled by the mass killing which started early 2012. The other thing, which was as important to him as the moral issue, was that he was professionally offended by the regime. He said he did not mind to interrogate people with torture before if they were suspicious of something. He was a complacent henchman before that. He played the rules of the regime that people get beaten up, get tortured to confess.
Then he said, "They brought people I knew they hadn't participated in anything. They had done nothing and we were told they are 200 terrorist suspects, so deal with them, treat them." He still believed that as an investigator, as being head of the department of investigation, he should investigate something, but there wasn't nothing to be investigated anymore. It was just about mass punishment deterrence. Again and again, over the hours we talked, he reiterated that his work had been ridiculed.
Fritz: You're already hinting at it just now. If you were to describe what he told you guys at the time, what his role was before defecting and before he started disagreeing with what was happening.
Christoph: He was more talking about the time since the uprising had begun, but not because he-- I don't know if he wanted to hide what he had done before. You have to take into consideration the time we met, early 2013. Everybody was expecting the downfall of the regime sooner or later. He may simply have thought I should switch sides because the regime will go down and I should be on the right side of history. I don't have full evidence for everything because-- At least he didn't tell us, "Yes, I'm an opportunist. I always stick out my finger and wait where the wind blows from."
Fritz: Then fast forward from 2013 to 2020. Last week, when we were in Koblenz, you saw him again, this time, him sitting there as a defendant. When you talked to him in 2013, he was a defector in a very different context. Now, he is a defendant in court. If you try to compare the two, how did he come across to you now? Did your impression change much? What kind of man did you meet this time?
Cristoph: I think he had various options how to defend himself. I was not surprised that he chose to accept the court, accept the proceedings, and go into the details of what was his precise responsibility at that time, when, how he allegedly was dismissed. He goes into the details and probably, he thinks he is better than the witnesses who accuse him in terms of details, memory, what happened where.
It's a very formal way, a formal approach. His last words, "I'm very sorry for what happened under regime, et cetera, et cetera," didn't come very fully-hearted. What I saw as extension from the time I met him on a different circumstances was his pride of his professionalism that no matter if he is investigator, investigating alleged crimes against the regime, if he is investigating how he was used as a tool in an absurd plot, a very successful one, to claim that there's a big foreign-funded Jihadi danger, or if he is investigator in his own case to destruct the version of the prosecutor.
Fritz: Now he has become an investigator in his own case. It seemed to me also that-- We've seen these kinds of defense strategies in other very complex international criminal cases, where the defendants take on their own case as a full-time job. I'm personally really curious to see whether he confirms that going forward in the months to come.
Another thing that we wanted to ask you is-- You wrote in one of your articles on the trial for Der Spiegel about the fact that in Syria, regime sympathizers are actually celebrating this trial in Koblenz because it's a defector or two defectors, two traitors in their eyes on trial. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Cristoph: Yes. What I find dangerous is this early triumph that we have brought one of the henchmen, one of the main perpetrators to justice, because you could only arrest Anwar Raslan because he defected. You have this implication. The main culprits, they all still are in Syria. Anwar Raslan is easy prey.
Fritz: Yes. He was freely walking around the city, the refugee center, knowing that he would or he might be identified by other Syrians that might know him from earlier. How is it possible that he would not even consider that he might, at some point, trip and be faced with justice, and what is more, going to the police in Berlin and asking for support and security and protection from the German authorities? This contrast between feeling entitled to being protected by the German state and on the other hand, potentially, quite potentially being identified by others that may see themselves as the victim of his earlier actions, how do you reconcile that in his case?
Cristoph: The incident that finally led to the investigation against him and to the arrest is the perfect nutshell to explain him and his mindset that he probably was followed or under surveillance by people because he is professional to see if the same people are following him, watching him. [chuckles] He goes to the German police and tells them, "The regime wants to kill me because I was head of the investigation department," and then, then, then.
This is perfect to explain his error, his misjudgment. He came here with a visa. He didn't have to walk through Albania and Serbia and through the dusty plains of southern Hungary, no. He could fly in on a visa issued by a German embassy because one of the most honest, prominent, opposition members had vetted for him.
He had all reason to believe that with his change, with his defection, he is a bonus point now for the opposition. He worked for years for the opposition. He flew to Geneva, to the conference on an official delegation. The public mood has changed. In 2014, '15, Anwar Raslan walking the streets? Yes. So what? He is in Berlin. He is a member of the opposition now.
If the regime, if Assad would have come down in 2013, probably, he would be one of the new leaders of a maybe not too democratic system where nobody would ask for his past if you have thousands of people or hundreds of high-ranking officers who have done much worse than him. But now, he is available. I think he didn't understand that the public mood, the perception has changed.
Fritz: When he finally tripped, so to say, he went to the police and started talking about what he did. It's not that they hunted him down, is it?
Cristoph: No. No, the opposite. No, [chuckles] he stumbled into this fundamental misunderstanding that when he speaks about his former role, his position, that this will not lead to the German government offering him protection but to German prosecutors opening a file against him. This is the most perfect example to understand how he ticks. ‘He did the right thing’, so he should be accepted in the other camp.
He probably knows and he would fully understand that Assad's regime would cut him into little pieces if they get him, but he did not understand that although he did the right thing, he is still brought to justice for what he did, or what happened under his responsibility in 2012.
Fritz: He must be squarely confused at this point.
Cristoph: I guess so. Probably he feels that he is made a scapegoat for something he doesn't want to be a responsibility for, but again, I think it's extremely important that this case, that the system of Syria is brought to trial. Only, we should not exaggerate the success, "We have done so much, and we have brought the system to justice." No, we have not and we should not give up for the bigger cases.
Fritz: No. This is also what we understand from a lot of the victims and survivors who are saying this is just one small step for accountability for Syria, and we are not there yet, by far.
Karam: This is more symbolic than actually achieving justice for Syria and Syrians.
Cristoph: Yes, in a way, it's a symbolic case. [chuckles] It sounds odd, but it is.
Fritz: Thank you so much, Cristoph, for shedding light, I think, on a number of the complexities of this case, of this trial, and of the person, Anwar R. I'm pretty sure that our listeners are going to appreciate your insights very much, so thank you for that
Karam: Thank you so much.
Cristoph: Let's hope, yes. Good luck.
Karam: That was our conversation with Cristoph Reuter of Der Spiegel. You can read his articles on Syria and the trial on their website, spiegel.de, including, of course, on the international section with his articles in English, not only in German. We'll be linking to his articles on his book in all show notes.
All right. Now, let's go to the second part of today's episode and namely, what happened at court this week, Fritz?
Fritz: The court was in session, again, this week for three days. We did not go out there ourselves, but from what we understand, this is what happened. On Wednesday, the judges heard three witnesses about the statement that Eyad A., the second defendant, gave to federal police in 2018, before he was arrested. In that statement, he provided a description of Branch 251 and other branches of the Syrian security services that he worked for. It really sounded like he was telling the investigators everything he knew, including the crimes that were committed there, and the structural nature of all of that.
The thing was, he provided this account at that time as a witness, not as a defendant or an accused. He was heard as a witness. Now, already in pre-trial, before this trial started in Koblenz in April, already then his defense tried to dismiss this information, this testimony as inadmissible evidence. Already in the pre-trial proceedings, that motion was rejected. This week, the court heard the police interrogator from the first police interview with Eyad A., and it looks like admitted it into evidence.
Karam: We learned that in his 2018 statement, Eyad A. confirmed the use of torture at Branch 251, including before 2011, which contradicts what Anwar R. claimed last week. He mentioned that they use the specific torture method before 2011, which is using boiled water on detainees. He said that in May 2011, which was two months after the uprising, about 10 bodies were transported from Branch 251 to be buried. According to his statement, those were bodies of detainees who died under torture.
Fritz: If you look at the time here, he's mentioning that this happened in May 2011. That means that that happened after the beginning of the indictment period, which was April 2011 and before early June 2011, which is when Anwar R. says he was degraded in the hierarchy. This is evidence both against Anwar R. and Eyad A. that fits in the indictment filed by the prosecutor.
Karam: We also heard from survivors who were in the court. They were there before the trial this week. To them, the details of his statement were really gut-wrenching. Eyad A. said that one old man was hit on the head upon arrival at the Branch and dropped dead right away before even entering the facility.
Fritz: Then we understand that in this 2018 statement that the court looked at, Eyad A. also confirmed Anwar R.'s role as the head of investigations at Branch 251, generally speaking. He also said that Anwar R., being a Sunni, was not in a position to be able to punish the officers who used torture during interrogation, even if he had wanted to. That's alluding to the shift in hierarchy and loyalty that Christopher Reuter was also describing in our talk earlier today on the podcast.
That's interesting because it also partly plays into what Anwar R. was saying about himself last week.
Karam: At this stage, Fritz, what does this tell you as a lawyer about Eyad A. and his strategy in this trial?
Fritz: In terms of strategy for this trial, not much. I think early strategy of Eyad A.'s defense was to get that 2018 statement dismissed. That was rejected already pre-trial and was introduced as evidence in court this week. For the coming months of this trial, we don't really know. I talked to one of his defense lawyers last week who confirmed to me that for now, they're not planning to give a statement on his behalf. He's not planning on talking himself. They're not planning on talking to media.
Yes, it looks like he will wait and see for now, see what presented evidence in court will bring. Who knows, maybe he'll talk later or stay silent until the end of a trial. It's possible. For more information on the court sessions this week, you can check the trial reports that we'll link in the show notes that are prepared by various different organizations.
What's on the schedule for next week, Karam?
Karam: There'll be court next week before it will take a break again, and from what we know, Anwar Al-Bunni will testify at the court as an expert witness. He is the Syrian human rights lawyer we talked to on the third episode of this podcast. We will report back to you, and we will tell you what he will be telling the judges.
Fritz: We'll give you some more background on the second defendant, in this case, the so-called smaller fish. We have heard a lot about the main accused Anwar R., but Eyad A.'s story is also an interesting one, and we want to share some insights with you about that. The thing about Eyad A. is, it looks like one could say he might have just been one of those characters that were at the wrong place at the wrong time, but there might just also be much more to his story as there's much more to Anwar R.'s story. We will talk to someone on next week's episode, family member of Eyad A.'s, who will help us find out more about that.
Until then, thank you very much for listening. Have a good weekend. As always, if you like this podcast, subscribe to have the episodes come to you automatically every week, and do tell your friends and colleagues and help us raise awareness for this important trial and the bigger story of accountability for Syria.
Karam: To our listeners who have already been supportive of this podcast, a big thank you. If you feel like donating, you can click the link in the show notes or click the Support This Podcast button on our website.
Fritz: Branch 251 is listener-supported. It is produced and hosted by the two of us. Thanks again to Maarten van Doornnalen for this week's production feedback. I am Fritz Streiff.
Karam: I'm Karam Shoumali. Have a great weekend, and see you next time on Branch 251.
Fritz: See you then.
Christoph: Raslan is not a total exception. You have people with this mindset, their personal moral frame. They believe in the law. They believe in the idea of law and justice in the system of total unjustice.