Trial of Austrian Agents for Harboring Alleged Syrian War Criminal to Shed Light on Victims’ Suffering, say Human Rights Groups
VIENNA—Austria-based advocacy group CEHRI, the Center for Enforcement of Human Rights International, and the Open Society Justice Initiative welcome the start of a trial against five officials from Austria’s civilian security-intelligence agency after an investigation revealed that they executed a plan to conceal a former senior Syrian official suspected of crimes against humanity in Austria.
The groups argue that the court should provide victims of Syrian state-sponsored torture with the opportunity to testify on the harm caused by officials at the agency then known as the BVT—now Austria’s Directorate of State Security and Intelligence—accused of transporting and providing protection to former Syrian Brigadier Khaled Al-Halabi and obstructing the criminal investigation into his crimes.
Halabi, who arrived in Austria in 2015, is currently under investigation by the Vienna Public Prosecutor for crimes against humanity but has not yet been indicted. He has been accused of supervising torture and other crimes while overseeing a detention facility in Raqqa from 2009 until 2013 and is the highest-ranking former Syrian intelligence officer known to be in Europe. CEHRI and the Justice Initiative jointly represent 18 Syrian victims of torture in the criminal investigation into Halabi and have called on the Austrian government to expedite its efforts to prosecute suspects for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Syrian conflict.
“Germany’s indictment of Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian official who oversaw torture, was a landmark victory for Syrian victims of torture last year,” said Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek, a lawyer and member of CEHRI. “Now France is following in Germany’s footsteps by putting three other former Syrian officials on trial for crimes against humanity. Yet the Austrian justice system remains slow to join the global fight to hold individuals who perpetrated torture under the Assad regime accountable, even though it has the legal tools to do so.”
“The actions of these intelligence officials to harbor an alleged war criminal, and attempt to thwart a criminal investigation, means that crimes of the Syrian government have continued to be swept under the rug,” said Steve Kostas, a lawyer at the Justice Initiative. “The fact that Halabi himself continues to walk freely without answering for his crimes, years after his whereabouts in Austria have become known, has taken a tremendous toll on his victims. In addition to this trial, Austria must make every effort to swiftly indict Halabi.”
In addition to receiving support from the BVT, Halabi reportedly also received significant support from French and Israeli intelligence services to migrate to Europe.
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