By Tamara Qiblawi and Jomana Karadsheh, CNN
Photographs by Christian Streib, CNN
Updated 0901 GMT (1701 HKT) January 15, 2022
Koblenz, Germany (CNN)When Anwar Raslan was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, he appeared nonplussed. Elsewhere in the courtroom, the former Syrian colonel’s victims rejoiced. Amid cheers, they shook hands and embraced. Social distancing rules were briefly forgotten. Raslan, a bespectacled 58-year-old, barely flinched.
The court in Koblenz delivered this historic verdict on Thursday morning. And scores of Syrian activists — mostly relatives of people who have been forcibly disappeared or killed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — poured into this tiny German city to witness it.
The ruling concluded a nearly two-year trial, the first to hold a member of Assad’s regime accountable for crimes against humanity. As part of the same trial, Eyad al-Gharib, a more junior officer, was convicted last February of aiding and abetting torture and deprivation of liberty as crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. Raslan — who defected from the regime at the end of 2012 and fled to Germany — has denied all the charges against him.
Outside the court on Thursday, a group of women held a vigil for their disappeared relatives as they waited for Raslan’s sentencing. News of the judgment then arrived through a German activist who read out a text message from inside the courthouse: The panel of judges had found that Raslan was complicit in at least 4,000 cases of torture, 27 murders and two cases of sexual violence.
A pregnant pause hung in the air as the news sank in. Some activists started to quietly weep.
“I cry because of my relationship with the survivors,” said Joumana Seif, a Syrian lawyer, human rights activist and part of the legal team that represented 17 plaintiffs at the trial. “The Syrians deserve justice. We deserve so much more than the situation we are in.”
The courthouse is perched on the banks of the junction where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet. It’s a world away from the notorious Damascus detention facility at the center of the trial, where Raslan headed the intelligence division from 2011 to 2012.
Former prisoners of Branch 251, as it is known, recounted how they were in overcrowded cells and took turns sleeping because of the lack of space. They were deprived of adequate food and medicine, and were tortured. Some were raped and sexually assaulted. Many died.
It was part of the Assad regime’s labyrinth of prison systems where more than 100,000 are believed to have disappeared and tens of thousands have perished since 2011.
“I’m happy because this is a victory for justice,” said Anwar al-Bounni, a Syrian human rights lawyer and former political prisoner, outside the courthouse.
“I’m happy because it’s a victory for the victims sitting inside,” Bounni added, his booming voice choked with emotion as he gestured toward the courthouse. “I’m happy because it’s a victory for Syrians back home who couldn’t come here. It’s also a victory for Syrians who didn’t survive.”
At this bittersweet gathering in Germany, several Syrians repeatedly acknowledged that, for now, accountability could only be delivered far away from their homeland, where the justice system has been thoroughly undermined by the autocratic regime.
Not even the International Criminal Court at The Hague could try the Assad regime for the countless war crimes and crimes against humanity of which it is widely accused, because Syria is not a party to that court. Syria could be investigated by the ICC if the United Nations Security Council refers it, but Assad’s allies — Russia and China — have struck down previous motions to do so.
Closer to home, justice appears ever more remote. Assad’s regional foes — namely the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — have repaired diplomatic ties with the regime, moves that are believed to mark the beginning of the end of the Syrian President’s isolation.
Yet in Koblenz, the torturer and the survivors have traded places. Raslan arrived at court shackled. His victims were free and now driving proceedings against their tormentor and — by extension — against the Assad regime. The court heard the survivors draw on their personal testimonies and copious amounts of incriminating evidence collected by activists and advocates since the start of Syria’s 2011 uprising.
In addition to finding Raslan personally guilty, the court also ruled that the Assad regime “systematically” committed crimes against humanity.
Yet it was a single legal mechanism that made this possible. The Principle of Universal Jurisdiction gives courts jurisdiction over grave violations of international law even if they happened outside of the state to which the court belongs to, and regardless of the nationalities of the parties involved.
As a result, survivors undertook what they said was the first step in a “long road to justice.” More trials are underway against Assad officers who sought refuge in Europe from Syria’s war. Some activists call it a “tactical war,” with the ultimate goal of bringing the Assad government to its knees.
Even if that ambitious goal isn’t met, Thursday’s judgment, they said, will at least let them sleep a little easier.
Wassim Mukdad’s apartment mirrors the way he describes his life in exile. Arab lutes — known as oud — line the walls of an office overlooking a quiet Berlin street. His library is a mix of Arabic and German books.
“One of the good things about living abroad is you can pick and choose what you want to take from Arab culture and from Western culture,” he quipped, his hands draped over his vintage three-piece suit.
Against the backdrop of his new life lurks Mukdad’s dark history in Syria, where he says he was imprisoned for his anti-regime activism three times, and jailed a fourth time by al Qaeda-linked fighters. His second stint in detention was in Branch 251, where he believes Raslan was in the room directing his interrogation sessions. Like all his fellow prisoners, Mukdad was blindfolded throughout his torture.
“(Raslan) ordered directly to a man next to me … ‘making him lay on his belly and raise his feet in the air,'” said Mukdad. “Once my answers didn’t suit (Raslan), the other man on command starts to hit until he says stop.”
Mukdad said he told his interrogator he was a doctor, fearing his torturers would break his fingers if he confessed to being a musician. Syrian cartoonist and dissident, Ali Farzat, had come to mind, Mukdad said. Farzat’s tormentors smashed his fingers. They said it was stop him from drawing political cartoons, Farzat later said.
“It was like hell,” Mukdad says of his imprisonment in Branch 251. “How did humanity come up with this?”
Throughout the trial in Koblenz, Raslan rarely spoke. His statements — in which he tried to present himself as a conscientious objector to the regime’s practices — were read out by his defense team. He spoke only when the judges asked him a question, which rarely happened. When it did, his answers were monosyllabic.
Some Syrian lawyers and plaintiffs speculated that he didn’t want his victims to recognize his voice from their interrogation sessions in detention. Several plaintiffs said they had seen his face previously but, except for one survivor, said they had only seen him in his office. Raslan and his defense team have not explained why the former colonel has refused to speak in the trial and the Raslan defense team has repeatedly declined CNN’s requests for comment.
“Every one of us was blindfolded. They didn’t want us to see, but they cannot prevent us from hearing (the interrogator),” said Mukdad. “But now he has prevented us from hearing him.”
Unlike his co-defendant Gharib, Raslan appeared to make no effort to hide his face during the hearings. “He stood tall and looked arrogant,” recalled Seif. “He would look each of the plaintiffs in the eye, one after the other, as if to say ‘who do you think you are?'”
“Over the past two years in court Raslan has been sitting in his chair doing nothing with his face and writing,” said Human Rights Watch Assistant Counsel Whitney-Martina Nosakhare, who attended all of the trial sessions. “When the judge read out the verdict, he had no reaction in his face.”
“This is an intense moment. Being sentenced to life in prison is a huge deal. It’s not something that you lightly brush off,” Nosakhare added. “But he made us believe it was something that he didn’t care about.”
‘Convicted in lieu of the Syrian regime’
Raslan’s lawyers said they will appeal his sentencing, and experts expect his case to remain in the courts for years to come. After the verdict was read, defense lawyer Yorck Fratzky continued to deny that Raslan was personally guilty of the charges.
“The defense does not make a secret of being discontent with the verdict,” Fratzky said in a press briefing after the trial concluded. “We see that Raslan has been convicted in lieu of the Syrian regime.”
This contention, that Raslan served as a scapegoat, resonates with some Syrians, even those actively opposed to the Assad regime. Some liken the Koblenz trial to crumbs offered by the international community in the absence of political change in Syria.
“My main concern is that politically these trials are used as an alternative for states in the international community to actually do something,” says Berlin-based activist Wafa Mustafa, who says her father — Ali Mustafa — was forcibly disappeared by the regime in 2013.
Wafa still supports the trial, though, and has gone to Koblenz several times, carrying her father’s framed photograph. “I carry him to places I know he would like to go to,” she said, flashing a wide smile of defiant optimism.
“But I fear that they are using this trial as an alternative to their failure to actually deal … with the fact that a war criminal like Assad is still in power after ten years.”
Similar concerns appear to have tempered celebrations in the aftermath of the verdict.
Asked how she feels about the sentencing, Yasmen Almashan gestures to a photo collage of five of her six brothers. All of them, she says, were disappeared or killed. “Wasn’t this the least we could do for them?” she asked.
One of the plaintiffs, Ruham Hawash, looked visibly shaken after she emerged from the hours-long judgment session. The court had read out each of the plaintiffs’ testimonies. Hawash doesn’t want to remember her experience in Branch 251, she said, let alone have it recited aloud.
“I don’t want to speak about my torture, I only want to speak about the trial,” she said.
“In the past I used to say that I was imprisoned and tortured and my freedom was taken away from me and the story had a sad ending,” said Hawash. “Today I can say that I was imprisoned, and tortured and my freedom was taken away from me but that I helped to bring those officials to this trial.
“There’s a big difference between these two stories. It’s no longer a sad story. There was closure.”
Asked what she plans to do now that the trial is over, she shrugged, her feet shifting as she spoke. “I don’t know what’s next. Probably a new phase in my life,” she said. “I’m ready to move on.”