Branch 251/
S1E6: Abu Ayoub


Eyad A. is the second defendant in the trial. The smaller fish. The less interesting accused. Or is he? Karam and Fritz go on a journey to find answers to this question.

We talked to friends, family, a colleague of his from Branch 251, and a court reporter to find out more. And we discovered some pretty interesting insights and contradictions in the various versions of events.

When did Eyad A. really join Branch 251? Did he fight with the rebels before he left Syria? Is justice going after the wrong guy? And how does he come across in the courtroom now that he is facing charges of crimes against humanity?

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Follow us on Twitter and @KaramShoumali and @Fritz_Streiff.

Some additional sources on this episode and the trial here:

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Episode Transcript


Karam: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the sixth episode of Branch 251. Karam Shoumali here.

Fritz: And Fritz Streiff. Today on the podcast, we'll talk about Eyad A, the second accused in this trial. He has been in the shadow of the main accused, Anwar R, because on the face of it, he just looks like the less interesting story, the less interesting profile. We went on a trip to find answers to the question whether that's really the case. I think we found some pretty interesting insights and some contradictions in the different versions of events, and of his story, that we want to share with you on today's episode.

Karam: Yes, I talked to many people who knew him back in Syria and also in Germany. It was not easy, I can tell you that. Today, we'll get to know Eyad A a bit better from two perspectives. First, based on what I learned from his friends, family, and former colleagues, their side of the story. One of them was ready to be on the podcast today, a former colleague who goes way back with Eyad A. He actually worked at Branch 251 and has a strong opinion about this trial in Koblenz. We will hear that conversation I had with him in a bit. Then we will hear from someone who has been in the public gallery in Koblenz every single day of the trial so far. She has been able to observe Eyad A from that perspective, Eyad A as an accused in court, as the person that is facing allegations of crimes against humanity, and at least 30 counts of torture.

Fritz: Let's start. What do we know about Eyad A's background and history?

Karam: I spoke to more than 15 people who know him like family members, childhood friends and former colleagues. Eyad A was born in 1976. He grew up in Muhasan, it's a tribal, small town in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, where most of the locals mainly work in agriculture. He grew up in a very rural environment. Many of the local youth at some point move either to Deir ez-Zor city or the capital, Damascus. That's for better opportunities. The town has seen a lot of fighting and misery in the past years. First, the rebels took control. Then Al Qaeda followed. Later on came ISIS. Now it's controlled by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. That's why many of Eyad A's family ended up in Europe as refugees.

From what we know, Eyad A had a simple childhood. His father was a farmer and he died when Eyad A was still a child. He and his siblings, cousins, and friends would play outside a lot like most children do. They were all obsessed with football. They are big fans of Barcelona Football Club. Nothing much special really in terms of growing up. After he left high school in 1996, he was about 20. He first joined the intelligence services. The people I talked to told me that for the longest part of his career in intelligence, he was just an instructor teaching new recruits, training them. He would do sports and drill training with them, and was not part of any political or other sensitive work really.

Fritz: That is also what you learned from his former colleague that you talked to, right? Let's listen to your guys' conversation.

Karam: Yes. I talked to a former colleague of his, he worked with him in the Syrian Security Services, and also defected. His name is Fahid Al Hamid. Here's what he told me.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: My name is Fahid Al Hamid. I served in the state security branch at Intelligence Directorate in Branch 251. I worked in the interrogation department, and I defected in the beginning of 2013. Now I'm living in Turkey with my family.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: Eyad and I were colleagues for 10 years. We've known each other longer. We come from the same region.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: Eyad and I go way back to our days in Deir ez-Zor. We became close after we both enrolled together at the state security of the Intelligence Directorate in 1996. We enrolled for financial reasons after secondary school. We come from farm families, and we couldn't afford to continue our education.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: Those who are physically fit with the best grades in training were chosen as trainers. Amongst them were Eyad and I. We were assigned to train new recruits for the next 10 years, until 2006. That is when we were re-assigned to the internal security branch.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: How did he end up at Branch 251 in Damascus?

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: In 2006, the internal security branch needed more recruits.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: They chose 20 to 30 members from Branch 295 and they were sent to Branch 251.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: They asked for the best and those of the best physical build, so Eyad and I were chosen. We didn't want to. I tried to go back to my position as a trainer.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: Eyad also wanted to go back. When I got to Branch 251, I requested to be transferred back but my request was rejected.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: Our transfers were compulsory, not voluntary, in both our cases, Eyad and mine.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: Eyad was posted to the 40th section in an emergency force in the guards' team. When the protests started, he was assigned to the team that gathered field intelligence. At that point, we were in different divisions and talked less.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: I saw Eyad every now and then when he would occasionally come to Branch 251 when he, for example, would come to collect his paychecks.

Karam: What happened then? How did Eyad end up defecting?

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: Hafez Makhlouf, the head of the 40th branch, took it upon himself to raid neighborhoods and disperse demonstrators. He would take his men to go to demonstrations, he would request support from the Republican Guards and Fourth Division.

Karam: In this case in Germany now the police asked Eyad why he did not refuse the orders, he didn't agree with them. Why did he not say no?

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: You can't say, "No, I don't want to join" because you'll be taken to jail right away. You'll be considered a traitor and agent, and things like that. If you oppose, you'll be executed or eliminated. I was in touch with Eyad, and I knew that he had made up his mind to defect, especially after Hafez Makhlouf ordered raids on what they called hotspots, such as Harasta, Duma, and Zabadani. He deployed his men and the Republican Guards, and Fourth Division, he even brought in cleaning workers and gave them firearms and batons.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Karam: Have you been following the trial in Germany? What's your reaction to it?

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: This is a case of injustice. It is wronging against Eyad al-Gharib. He was one of the first to defect, and he helped people. He didn't agree to be part of this killing machine, and he suffered for it. Had he been captured while defecting or before reaching safety, he would have been executed. When you defect, you're endangering yourself, your life, your children, and your family.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: This is the reward while the real criminals are in Damascus and other countries? The regime men who committed crimes against Syria and Syrians?

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: This is injustice, not justice.

Fahid: [speaks Arabic]

Interpreter: I hope that this trial is fair and just.

Karam: That was my conversation with Fahid Al Hamid.

Fritz: Interesting. That former colleague of Eyad A says they both got caught up in an environment that they did not agree with, and that they wanted to get transferred back to their instructor post that they had before, and got out and defected as soon as they could. Like Anwar R's story from weeks ago. He also says that this whole trial against Eyad A is just a disgrace.

Karam: Yes, he thinks Eyad A is a hero. He's a hero for refusing to continue his career in the security services and he's hero for risking his life and defecting.

Fritz: I find this interesting because Eyad A's own story is pretty much the same from what we know. It is very similar but there are some interesting contradictions. We know that because Eyad A told the German migration and refugee authorities very openly about his past after he arrived in Germany. The court in Koblenz went through this information when I was there. I took really detailed notes. When I compare those, this is where it gets a little bit muddy, I think. When he applied for asylum in Germany, he told the German migration and refugee authorities that he joined Branch 251 only in 2010. That is at least four years later than what his former colleague is saying here. Eyad A. said he worked for their religious department where he gathered intelligence on religious leaders about what was said and preached in mosques. He told the German authorities that he was just a desk officer, he would write reports on what he could find out, and nothing more than that. He also told the German migration authorities that he only a bit after that joined subdivision 40.

Karam: This is not really what his former colleague told me. He said earlier that they both joined Branch 251 in 2006. They were transferred after working as trainers, both of them 14 years. In 2006, they were posted, and Eyad was sent to subsection fourth immediately.

Fritz: That is where those versions of events are contradicting. The timelines just don't really match. If what the former colleague is saying is correct, then it seems that Eyad A might be trying to minimize or shorten the time that he actually worked at Branch 251 and at the notorious subsection 40 by at least four years.

Karam: Who knows, his former colleague might be getting his timeline wrong or confused things in other ways. For now it's just another version of events.

Fritz: All right. Back to what Eyad A told the German authorities in 2018. He said during his asylum interview then that during this time at subsection 40, in his version of events, only after 2010, he was told to kill civilians, to arrest members of opposition just for protesting, he was told to shoot at protesters, and that there was an incident when his boss, Hafez Makhlouf, that we just mentioned, turned up at a protest himself and told him and his colleagues, "If you love the president, you shoot the traitors."

Karam: This is one of the moments his former colleague also described to me. My sources mentioned this as well. They say this is a key moment for Eyad A. It's like the moment he contemplated the victim or decided to defect, he had no other choice but to follow orders and shoot. I was told that he actually did shoot but tried not to hit any protesters.

Fritz: Yes, that's also his story during the interview with the German migration and refugee authorities that I listened to when the court went through that. It seems that is the reason eventually that he defected. That moment was the final straw for him to make that decision. Eyad A told the Germans that after defecting he went into hiding for a few months. He pretended to have to travel to a family funeral and took his family, and never came back to his post after that. Then he left Syria for Turkey and Greece to eventually make it to Germany but it looks like he left out some pretty important stuff in the meantime.

Karam: Yes. From what I understand Eyad A left his post in late 2012, went into hiding for a bit in his home area. He might have changed couple of homes back and forth, but he wasn't hiding. Then a couple of my sources told me that he was a member of the local military council, which was at that time a rebel body that was mainly formed of defected officers and soldiers. Eyad A wanted, apparently, to apply his experience and expertise to help the revolution. While I was researching him, I found a very important opposition media activist in an interview. He talked about Eyad A's activities with the Syrian rebels. He refers to him using his rebel alias, Abu Ayoub.

Fritz: Abu Ayoub. Eyad A was Abu Ayoub in the rebel lingo?

Karam: Yes. This source would give the interview as one of the people who defend Eyad and say he's innocent.

Fritz: We'll link to that interview, it's on the internet. We'll link to that in the show notes. That's another point that is not clear at all from what he told German authorities later during his asylum interview in 2018. At least from what I myself heard in Koblenz in court when they went through his statement to the German migration and refugee authorities, he never mentioned that he was an active member of the armed opposition between defecting and leaving Syria. Maybe that was just not part of his statement at that time, and maybe he told the police later on. I don't know if that's possible.

Karam: I'm not sure why he would hide the fact that he became a rebel. Seems strange given that hundreds, if not thousands of former rebel fighters and defected officers are now refugees in Germany and in Europe. Maybe he mentioned it in later interviews, maybe it has not come up yet. We will see.

Fritz: In any case, from what he told the German authorities he just went into hiding after defecting. Then he eventually left Syria in the beginning of 2013 and went on a pretty long trip. They stayed in Turkey, he and his family for three years, and then in Greece for another two years. He then only arrived in Germany in 2018. That was a five-year long trip. He applied for asylum. When the migration and refugee officer noticed in the interview that he started mentioning international crimes that were committed in his environment in what he was recounting, that interview, the transcript, and his case file was transferred to the police.

Karam: He became a witness, and the police wanted to get information from him on Branch 251 and subdivision 40. Then the investigators put one and one together, and they concluded that he worked for subdivision 40, which did the arresting and transferring work for Branch 251. He went from asylum-seeker to witness to accused, and they invited and arrested him.

Fritz: We have a better picture now of Eyad A's background and how he got to where he is now in court as an accused. Let's get another take on Eyad A from a different perspective. I talked to Hannah El-Hitami this week. Hannah is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, focusing on Arab countries and migration. She is following the trial very closely and has been at every single court session. She knows Eyad A from the perspective of looking at him in court as an accused. She says she has had eye contact with him multiple times. I talked with her on the phone this week. Here is what I asked her about Eyad A.

[phone ringing]

Hannah: Hello.

Fritz: Hi, Hannah.

Hannah: Hi, Fritz.

Fritz: Hi. How are you doing?

Hannah: How are you?

Fritz: Good. How are you?

Hannah: I'm good.

Fritz: Thank you so much for talking to us today, Hannah. We really appreciate it. Something we are very curious about for this week's episode is the question of the person of Eyad A.

Hannah: What he usually does is just he would comes in his magenta red sweatsuit and he sits there with his face mask, and sometimes chats with his translator, look around. He actually looks to the audience quite a lot. Maybe he is just bored or he wants to see who's there. Some of the Syrians who are there as spectators. For example, Mazen Darwish who is very, very famous. I don't know about Eyad A, but I'm almost a hundred percent sure that Anwar R would know this guy. I often wonder how these people feel, sitting there and looking into the audience and seeing those Syrian activists looking back at them and watching every word they say. I can only imagine what it must feel like.

Fritz: Interesting. Anwar R doesn't look over at all?

Hannah: He does. I definitely have had eye contact with both of them more than once. I would say that Eyad A looks maybe to the audience a bit more often. My personal impression of Eyad A is very mixed. On the one hand, we have really had a chance to learn more about this person through documents that form a puzzle of who this person might be. There are some things that really make you feel sympathetic towards him. Like there was one document that stated the health problems of his daughter. He has a daughter who's in a wheelchair. For him, the most important thing is that his daughter in Germany now can receive proper treatment for her disease. This make you feel sympathetic towards him, a human being. Then the next document is presented, and it says that there was a criminal complaint against Eyad A a while ago when he was still in a refugee camp in Germany where he slapped a boy. Then he threatened that boy's father to chop off the head and the hand-

Fritz: Oh wow.

Hannah: -of the boy. He also got into a fight with some other refugees from the home. Then you think, "Oh well, he's also capable of that." In the end, you have many ideas about that person. I'm just glad that I don't have to jump who he is. The job of the court is to find out what he did. I guess who he is as a human being should not influence that decision. I also have some more thoughts about what's the difference between him and Anwar R.

Fritz: That would be very interesting.

Hannah: I think it's very obvious how different they are, because even on the very first day they both were brought in, Anwar R did not hide his face, and that's why we have seen pictures of him in the media, whereas Eyad A, he was always-- In the first day he was hiding behind this really big hooded jacket. Since then he has always been coming in with holding a paper in front of his face. Even, he often wears a face mask. Maybe he also feels more comfortable behind it. I noticed that often when certain texts are read out about the torture practice and what they did in Syria, he's almost sinking into his hands. He has his face in his hands and goes further and further behind them.

I don't know if he's just tired or if he's just feeling horrible about it. I don't know. The impression of him is that he's really not very confident. I think maybe this is also because we also found out that he, as opposed to Anwar R, is not very educated. Anwar R, he studied law or legal studies before becoming a police officer, and then a secret service employee. Whereas Eyad A, he didn't even graduate from high school, then directly started working at the police. During one of the interrogations, he was asked whether torture was legal in Syria. Eyad A said, "It's legal everywhere, isn't it?" I was like, "Oh wow. This man really does not have a lot of insight into things that happen outside his smaller world, maybe really is not very educated about the rest of the world."

Another thing is also that Anwar R came to Germany very easily. He got a visa from the embassy in Jordan, from the German embassy in Jordan, and he came by plane with his family. Eyad A took 5 years, 2 months, and 13 days by airplane, on foot, on mini-bus, and on rubber boat. Even his journey reflects that he's from a whole different class, I guess, than Anwar R. When you start comparing them then easily, you will see Anwar R is the main guy, and Eyad A is like this not very important foot soldier or something. That's also dangerous because I think someone committed a crime, and just because another one committed maybe even a bigger crime or maybe not, it doesn't mean that he's not important. I don't want to say that Eyad A is this poor, innocent guy who was dragged into something and he couldn't help it. He just seems way less confident than Anwar R, definitely.

Fritz: Interesting. Thank you so much, Hannah. This has been really great. Thank you for your insights from the courtroom and for your thoughts on Eyad A as a person. We'll speak to you soon again.

Hannah: Sure. Thank you.

Karam: That was the journalist, Hannah El-Hitami. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Hannah.

Fritz: We learned quite a bit about Eyad A by now. How would you summarize what you learned about him this week, Karam?

Karam: From the friends, family members, and colleagues I talked to, I got a pretty clear straightforward message, and clearly painted picture. Things are not that black and white as they make it seem at the prosecution. Justice should not be black and white, this is what they say. Eyad is a hero in their eyes. He's not a criminal because he risked his life and his family's safety to leave his post and come to the good side, what they think is the good side.

He should be treated as a crown witness because he told the truth before there was even a court case against him. The Syrian context at that stage, when Eyad A was still in his position, was very complicated and multi-layered. The accusations now do not reflect that. They see it as a problem, and they insist it's a complicated context and should be taken into consideration by this court. At that stage, the Syrian people wanted guys like Eyad A to defect from the regime. Thousands did. They listened to the people, including Eyad. You can't go after them for the orders that they had to follow before they defected.

I think the situation where he was ordered to shoot at protesters sums up what friends and families say to defend Eyad. They say if he had not followed that order to shoot, he would have gotten a bullet in his own head. What is his choice here? To shoot or get shot. When the German interrogators asked Eyad A why he did not stop the crimes around him or disobeyed the orders and told his colleagues not to shoot, the people I talked to, they were outraged at that suggestion. They said, "This is a ridiculous question. Eyad had no choice."

Fritz: What's your take on that Karam?

Karam: They say the court in Koblenz really needs to develop a better understanding of the Syrian context at that time. That is ludicrous to say he could have acted differently in situations like the one in which Hafez Makhlouf, he described when he ordered to shoot, "If you love the president then shoot." There is some truth to that. During our reporting on Syria, we have come across many stories of defectors who did decide to disobey orders to do what they thought was the right thing. Many of them ended up dead, shot right there after facing a court in the field. It takes a matter of minutes. Many of them, if they were not killed right on the spot, they've been thrown in jail maybe until this day.

Fritz: Obviously that is a very tough situation to find yourself in. I can't say that I can imagine how that must be. At the same time, I want to say you don't just end up in a place like that and then cannot get out anymore. There are choices that one makes that lead up to a situation like this. It's not a singular moment in time where you find yourself in a context where you might not have a choice anymore. There's years and years and years and choices that lead to a moment like that.

Karam: Especially in Eyad A's case, he enrolled voluntarily in 1996.

Fritz: Let's just circle back to what the court is dealing with in Koblenz. That is the accusations and indictment. That is what the court is looking at here. If Eyad A says he did not have a choice but to obey orders in a situation like that, then the judges will hear him out and take that into account, and his later choices as well. Those might be mitigating circumstances that that is also part of what this trial is about. If the prosecutor can prove the crimes that are alleged in the indictment, then he will have to answer for those.

We are just at the start of this trial still. We are far away from a moment of guilty or not guilty. His side seems to be saying, "Eyad A did not have a choice when he was put in situations that turned ugly, that turned criminal. What choice did he have in a context like that?" It sounds a bit like what in law is called a defense of superior orders, where a subordinate, in this case Eyad A, argues that he should be relieved from criminal responsibility, that he should not be held criminally responsible for these acts because he had no choice but to obey superior orders.

Generally though, international customary law says that these kinds of defenses are not accepted when the subordinate, in this case Eyad A, knew that the act that he was ordered to execute was unlawful, or at least should have known that because of how clearly unlawful the superior order seemed. That's what the international customary law rule says. How the German court will look at this, we'll, we'll have to see.

Karam: From what we learned from Hannah, maybe Eyad A was not even aware of the illegality of some of the crimes he's accused of, when he told German interrogators that he thought torture was legal everywhere.

Fritz: That just shows again that Eyad A's story and Eyad A's profile is indeed more interesting than on the face of it. It'll be interesting, not just Anwar R's case in this trial, but also Eyad A's. We'll see.

Karam: There's so much more to say and discuss on this point. We will revisit that defense of superior orders in a future episode, along with other interesting topics of international law on philosophical and ethical dilemmas that play a role in this case.

We're slowly coming towards the end of this week's episode. Before we go, we wanted to let you know that this week the court was in session from Wednesday to Friday. It is still ongoing as we record. What we can already tell you, it was a special week, because for the first time Syrian victims and survivors actually testified as witnesses. We will dedicate next week's episode to what they said in court and what their testimonies mean for this trial.

Female speaker: It was hard to hear because showed a lot of painful details, but also it was important because it showed also the regime's methodology in torture.

Karam: Until then, thank you for listening, and thank you to those who have already been very supportive of this podcast. As you know, we are listener-supported, so you can help us by either sharing this podcast with your colleagues and family and friends, or by visiting our website and hit on the "donate" button.

Fritz: Thank you very much for those that have already done that. Branch 251 is produced and hosted by the two of us. Thanks again to Maarten van Doornmalen for his production feedback.

Karam: Thank you, Ransom, for helping with the voiceover. I'm Karam Shoumali.

Fritz: I'm Fritz Streiff. We'll see you next time on Branch 251.

Karam: Until then. Bye.