Press release

First-ever Sentence on Syrian Government's Crimes against Humanity Handed Down by German Court

January 13, 2022
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Koblenz—Today, a former Syrian government official has been found guilty of crimes against humanity for torture, and other crimes including murder and sexual violence, and sentenced to life in prison by the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany. This trial against Anwar R., which also resulted in the conviction of another, lower-level official, Eyad A., on February 24, 2021, is the first time a court has convicted Syrian government officials for crimes against humanity for their role in the torture and killing of civilians in government-run prisons as part of President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of peaceful protests in 2011 and the conflict that followed.

As a senior intelligence officer heading the investigations team of the government-run al-Khatib detention center in Damascus, also known as Branch 251, Anwar R. ordered and oversaw the systematic use of torture against peaceful pro-democracy protestors to intimidate the population and coerce false confessions. The indictment concerned Anwar R.’s role overseeing the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners from April 30, 2011 to September 7, 2012. Witnesses attributed 30 deaths to Anwar R. during the trial, although the number of actual deaths under his command is considered to be higher.

“While some of Anwar R.’s victims had a chance to speak about the torture and suffering they experienced, we will never know of the innumerable stories that have not been heard—of those who died, or the 64,000 individuals still detained or missing,” said Eric Witte, senior policy officer at Open Society Justice Initiative. “By ensuring that the testimony and evidence brought forward by survivors contribute to exposing the crimes of Bashar al-Assad’s government, this trial represents an initial step in bringing a measure of justice to all victims of systemic torture in Syria.”

“These crimes were not committed by only one individual. They are state crimes overseen by Bashar al-Assad himself. This trial doesn’t only deal with past events, but it laid bare the systemic atrocities that continue to this day against innocent Syrians,” said Steve Kostas, senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative. “The record established in this trial should stop countries from normalizing relations with the Syrian government and should galvanize governments to ensure that President Assad and the other architects of Syria’s detention and torture program are prosecuted.”  

Witnesses in the case described being subjected to numerous physical and psychological methods to torture, including the beating of prisoners with cables and sticks and hitting their heads against the wall upon their arrival, which officers referred to as a “welcome party”; throwing cold water on detainees and then applying electric shocks; and forcing them to stand in painful positions for hours. Witnesses described the frequent use of the “falaka” torture method, which involved beating detainees on the soles of the feet. Women were subjected to sexual abuse and rape, and even after being released from detention, often faced ostracization and violence as a result. Prison conditions as such, including overcrowding, no hygiene or medical care, scarce food, and bad air circulation also amounted to torture, as the Court previously established in their judgment of February 24, 2021, and reiterated in today’s judgment.

During the trial, observers also highlighted challenges that negatively impacted the ability of victims and other impacted Syrians to participate in and follow the proceedings. These included inadequate witness protection safeguards, insufficient outreach to impacted communities, the absence of translation services, and the lack of court recordings. “As the first trial to establish that crimes against humanity were committed in Syria, this trial is a cornerstone for international justice,” said Dr. Anna Oehmichen, trial lawyer and representative of five joint plaintiffs jointly with the Justice Initiative. “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 worldwide.”

The Justice Initiative represented five survivors of torture from detention and interrogation in the trial.

Last updated 4:33 PM CEST, January 13, 2022.

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