A landmark first prosecution for war crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime

By | December 12, 2020

Emma Graham-Harrison reports:

Anwar al-Bunni had only been in Germany a couple of months when he walked into a shop and found himself face to face with the man he believes had interrogated and jailed him nearly a decade earlier. Both men were buying groceries in a Turkish shop near the gates of Marienfelde, the Berlin refugee camp they now called home. There was a vague flicker of recognition, but Bunni couldn’t quite place the other man.

It was 2014, a year before Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees drew more than a million people fleeing war and hardship to the country. Even so, thousands of Syrians had already found their way to Berlin. Bunni, a human rights lawyer with more than three decades’ experience fighting the Syrian regime in the courts, and several years spent inside its jails for his trouble, was part of a large network of colleagues, clients, friends and former opponents.

“I was with my wife, and I said to her, ‘I know this man’ but I couldn’t remember who he was,” he recalls. “Then, after a few days, one of my friends said, ‘Did you know Anwar Raslan is in Marienfelde with you?’ And then I realised.”

The two Anwars, born four years apart, had both studied law, but chose to use it on opposite sides of Syria’s authoritarian political system. Raslan became a police officer, before transferring to the intelligence services, where he would help detain Bunni.

At the time, Bunni thought little more of the meeting, settling back to his legal files, pursuing at a distance the same struggle against the Syrian state and its abusers that had consumed him for decades. “I don’t hate him as a person,” Bunni says of Raslan. “I know the problem is the system. So I didn’t feel anything, in fact.”

Yet within four years, the two men’s paths would cross again, their former positions reversed, as Germany prepared a landmark court case. This time Bunni was working with the authorities, assisting German prosecutors, while the other Anwar faced prison.

Nearly a decade into Syria’s civil war, Raslan has become the first person to face trial – anywhere in the world – over the state-sponsored torture and murder of civilians during the conflict. Bunni, once a thorn in the side of Damascus officials, helped find witnesses willing to testify.

Raslan, a former colonel in the intelligence services, has been charged with crimes against humanity, committed in the early years of the conflict, before he defected in 2012. In that time, he worked for military intelligence, allegedly leading an investigative unit under the notorious Branch 251, which had its own prison. There, prosecutors claim, Raslan oversaw a reign of terror, with prisoners subjected to torture including electric shocks, beatings and sexual assault over a period of 16 months. His charge sheet alleges that more than 4,000 people were tortured there during that time, and that 58 detainees died.

Raslan’s trial began on 23 April in Koblenz, a historic city on the banks of the Rhine between Frankfurt and Cologne, before a panel of three judges. It is expected to last well over a year. Alongside him was Eyad al-Gharib, who is alleged to have served in a low-level role under Raslan in Damascus. It was a landmark moment for countless Syrians who had survived government torture chambers or lost loved ones to them. If found guilty, Raslan faces life in jail. [Continue reading…]