Justice Initiative and CEHRI Call on Austria to Accelerate Prosecution of Syrian War Crimes
VIENNA/LONDON—In light of recent public revelations that Austria has provided a safe haven to a former chief of Syrian intelligence since 2015, the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Centre for the Enforcement of Human Rights International (CEHRI) call on the Austrian government to expedite its efforts to investigate and prosecute suspects for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Syrian conflict.
The Justice Initiative and CEHRI urge the Austrian Ministry of Justice to provide adequate support for these investigations by providing necessary resources and sufficient personnel to complete a prompt and effective investigation. The groups also call on Austria to begin a process to establish a specialized prosecutorial unit to investigate and prosecute crimes under international law in order to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of those suspected to have committed grave crimes.
Former Syrian Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi has been accused by victims and human rights groups of supervising crimes against prisoners while overseeing a Raqqa detention facility. Halabi served as head of the Syrian state security branch in Raqqa from 2009 until 2013. Media reports have indicated that he left Syria for France before entering Austria in 2015.
“The Austrian justice system remains slow to join the global fight to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes under international law, even though it has the legal tools to do so,” said CEHRI board member Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek. “The complexity of these crimes means that, despite the dedicated work of individual prosecutors, understaffing and underfunding inevitably leads to delays.”
“The slow pace of progress of Austrian investigations into Syrian suspects takes a tremendous toll on the survivors we represent and undermines the hopes of Syrians that their efforts to achieve justice are supported by European governments,” said Steve Kostas, a senior lawyer at the Justice Initiative. “The Austrian government should immediately take steps to ensure the investigations have the required resources and support to be concluded promptly and effectively.”
Over the past two years, the Justice Initiative has worked with Syrian and international investigators to build criminal cases against former Syrian government officials, including those in Austria. This is part of ongoing work since 2017 to identify and investigate former Syrian officials in Europe and refer dossiers of evidence to prosecutors, in collaboration with Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA).
In the case of Halabi, the Justice Initiative has partnered with CEHRI to support more than a dozen victims and witnesses who wish to take part in ongoing investigations. CEHRI uses strategic human rights litigation to advance the prosecution of international crimes before national courts, and has filed several criminal complaints for torture, crimes against humanity, and war crimes on behalf of Syrian torture survivors in Austria since 2017.