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Monday, August 15, 2022

Syrian Officer Convicted of Crimes Against Humanity in Landmark Verdict

BERLIN—A senior Syrian officer was convicted of crimes against humanity by a German court, the highest-ranking official to be found guilty for the government’s actions during the country’s civil war in a decision that could pave the way for similar prosecutions.

A former commander in a secret service-run prison in Damascus, Col. Anwar Raslan was sentenced by a court in the city of Koblenz to life imprisonment for his roles in crimes committed by President

Bashar al-Assad’s


The charges included 27 counts of murder, as well as the torture and rape of prisoners at the al-Khatib detention center of the Syrian intelligence service between 2011 and 2012.

Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws allow its courts to prosecute crimes against humanity committed outside its borders. Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Mr. Raslan, 58, lived in Germany as a refugee.

The verdict comes after several members of Islamic State were sentenced for crimes against humanity perpetrated against members of the Yazidi religious minority in Syria and Iraq, and reinforces Germany’s role as the country where legal precedents are set over crimes committed during the Syrian and other Middle Eastern conflicts.

Several other cases involving similar charges, both against Assad officials and insurgents, are being heard in German courts.

During the Koblenz trial, witnesses told the court how inmates were brutally beaten, raped and tortured with electric shocks under Mr. Raslan’s command.

“This verdict is important for all Syrians who have suffered and are still suffering from the Assad regime’s crimes,” said Ruham Hawash, a survivor of the al-Khatib detention center and joint plaintiff in the case against Mr. Raslan.

The United Nations estimated last year that at least 350,209 people had been killed in 10 years of war in Syria, although officials cautioned that the figure, which includes only victims whose identity has been established, was an underestimation.

The defendant, former Syrian intelligence officer Anwar Raslan, holds his headphones in the courtroom.


thomas frey/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Initiatives to set up an international tribunal for Syria have failed so far, and Western attempts to use a U.N. court for prosecuting crimes related to the civil war were vetoed by Russia and China.

“More than 10 years after the violations were committed in Syria, the German court’s verdict is a long-awaited beacon of hope that justice can and will in the end prevail,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Other countries should follow Germany’s lead, and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”

The same court last year sentenced a junior officer to more than four years in prison for abetting torture against civilians.

Representatives of some of the plaintiffs complained that the trial was marred by inadequate witness protection safeguards, poor translation services and the court’s decision to ban the recording of the proceedings.

“As the first trial to establish that crimes against humanity were committed in Syria, this trial is a cornerstone for international justice,” said Anna Oehmichen, trial lawyer and representative of five joint plaintiffs with the Open Society Justice Initiative, a nongovernmental organization.

“As such, it is a missed opportunity that the court denied the recording of this trial for academic and historical purposes, so that there is no official documentation of what has actually been said. This is a loss for future courts and academics world-wide.”

Write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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