Global perspective Human stories

Conviction of top Syrian intelligence official ‘a landmark leap forward’

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (file photo)
UN Photo/Laura Jarriel
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (file photo)

Conviction of top Syrian intelligence official ‘a landmark leap forward’

Human Rights

UN human rights officials have welcomed the “historic” conviction on Thursday by a German court of a former senior Syrian intelligence officer, for crimes against humanity. 

The man, known as Anwar R, was charged with complicity in the torture of thousands of people between 2011 and 2012 in the Al-Khatib Branch of Syrian General Intelligence in the capital, Damascus.  

Tweet URL

Renewed spotlight on atrocities 

UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet said his trial cast a much-needed renewed spotlight on the torture and inhuman treatment countless Syrians suffered in detention facilities. 

“It is a landmark leap forward in the pursuit of truth, justice and reparations for the serious human rights violations perpetrated in Syria over more than a decade,” she said.  

The verdict should also help push forward “all efforts to widen the net of accountability for all perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes that have characterised this brutal conflict,” she added. 

Perpetrators now on notice 

The Higher Regional Court in the German city of Koblenz sentenced Anwar R, 58, to life in prison for crimes that include torture, killings, serious deprivation of liberty, rape, sexual assault and hostage-taking. 

Germany adopted a Code of Crimes against International Law in 2002, which allows courts there to try crimes against international law committed in other countries where neither the perpetrator nor the victim is a German national. 

The Code also excludes the statute of limitations for these crimes. 

“This conviction has put State authorities on notice – no matter where you are or how senior you may be, if you perpetrate torture or other serious human rights violations, you will be held accountable sooner or later, at home or abroad,” said the UN human rights chief. 

Anwar R was a supervisor of Eyad al-Gharib, a Syrian intelligence officer who was convicted by the same court last February for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. 

“This is a clear example of how national courts can and should fill accountability gaps for such crimes wherever they were committed, through fair and independent investigations and trials carried out in line with international human rights laws and standards,” said Ms. Bachelet. “This serves as a powerful deterrent and helps prevent future atrocities.” 

Progress towards justice 

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria also welcomed Thursday’s verdict, though emphasizing the need to achieve justice for victims and survivors.  

Three of the Commission’s reports were read into evidence during the trial.  

“Verdicts such as today’s represent much-needed progress towards achieving justice for victims and survivors of war crimes in Syria - despite the fact that pathways to accountability remain curtailed in Syria and at the UN Security Council,” said Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the Commission’s chair.   

Fellow Commissioner Hanny Megally commented that the outcome would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of victims and family associations. 

“If Member States want to achieve justice for Syrians, it is the meaningful participation of those Syrian voices that must be supported,” he said.  

The UN Human Rights Office, OHCHR, noted that there have been several other criminal and civil cases against former officials and members of non-State armed groups accused of crimes in Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and other jurisdictions. 

A number of proceedings are currently pending in national courts. 

OHCHR said action at national levels is particularly important in Syria. 

The country is not a party to the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), which tries cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, adding “and the UN Security Council has repeatedly failed to refer the situation to the ICC Prosecutor.” 

Universal jurisdiction critical

The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, has also welcomed the verdict, which she said "provides a measure of justice for Syrian survivors who have waited so long to see the individuals responsible be brought to account for their crimes against humanity in a court of law.”

Ms. Patten further called on governments to use all forms of jurisdiction to provide survivors access to justice for crimes of conflict-related sexual violence in Syria and elsewhere.

“Impunity for conflict-related sexual violence does not have to be the rule," she said.  "When national governments are unwilling or unable to prosecute conflict-related sexual violence domestically, universal jurisdiction becomes one of the critical tools so that perpetrators of these crimes do not go unpunished.” 

The UN official also commended civil society and victims’ groups for their advocacy to ensure that crimes of sexual violence were prosecuted. Ms. Patten also stressed the importance of ensuring that no individual is stigmatized for being held in Syrian detention centres. 

“Justice for crimes of conflict-related sexual violence and other international crimes in Syria has been very delayed, but we will remain committed that justice will not be denied,” she said.