Start of Main Content

Sparks of Accountability for Syria?

Refugees displaced by the violence in Syria make their way to a transit center in Jordan for trucks that will take them to the Zaatari refugee camp. February 2014. Lucian Perkins for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

On April 23, 2020, the trial of Anwar R. and Eyad A. opened before the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany.1 It was a milestone moment: the first prosecution of Syrian government officials for crimes against humanity allegedly committed after March 2011, when the country began its descent into civil unrest and conflict. The charges relate to violations—including murder, torture and sexual violence—allegedly committed inside Branch 251, a interrogation and detention facility in Damascus run by the General Intelligence Directorate, one of the four Syrian Government intelligence agencies. 

"Since the start of the conflict in Syria, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has sounded the alarm for policymakers and the public about atrocities being committed against men, women, and children held in Syrian government detention," said Naomi Kikoler, Director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. In 2014, the Museum hosted and exhibited photos from "Caesar," a former military photographer who defected and smuggled out thousands of photos of systematic torture and killing in the Assad regime’s prisons. In 2019 and 2020, our exhibition "Syria: Please Don't Forget Us" placed a spotlight on the torture of Syrian detainees by their government. 

The case

Branch 251, also known as Al Khatib branch, is notorious for the torture and ill-treatment of detainees. It was one of the places of detention singled out by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in its February 2016 report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The prosecution alleges that Anwar R. was a senior intelligence officer, and the head of the investigations section at Branch 251. In that capacity, the prosecution posits, Anwar R. oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 people, including with beatings and electric shocks, resulting in 58 known deaths. He is charged with the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, and deprivation of liberty, and with sexual assault as an offence under the German criminal code. He faces a sentence of life imprisonment if convicted. 

Eyad A. is accused of being a lower-ranking official who detained anti-government protesters and transferred them to Branch 251, where they were tortured. He is charged with aiding and abetting the crime against humanity of torture, and faces a sentence of up to 15 years' imprisonment.

Both men reportedly defected in 2012. German authorities said that Anwar R. and Eyad A. entered Germany as asylum seekers in July 2014 and April 2018, respectively. While living in Germany, they made no attempt to conceal their identities. They were arrested by the German authorities in February 2019. 

On May 18, 2020, in a statement made through his lawyer, Anwar R. denied all the charges, saying he had "never acted inhumanely." He claimed he had "helped to free" many of the detainees, and referenced his support for the opposition and his participation in a 2014 peace conference in Geneva. Eyad A. has made no statement to date.

A trial in Germany

The trial is possible because Germany's laws recognize universal jurisdiction over the most serious crimes under international law, allowing for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes no matter where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims.

The path to justice at an international level has been effectively closed off. With Syria not party to the Rome Statute, the only viable path to the International Criminal Court is through a UN Security Council referral. In May 2014, 13 of 15 Security Council members supported a draft resolution that would have made such a referral, but Russia and China exercised their veto.2 The idea of establishing some variation of an ad hoc tribunal for Syria has never made it to a serious debate: it, too, would require Security Council consensus. 

Consequently, universal jurisdiction cases in national courts are an increasingly important part of efforts to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable, provide justice to victims who have nowhere else to turn, deter future crimes, and help ensure that countries do not become safe havens for human rights abusers. 

The pivotal role of Syrian survivors, activists and organisations

The Branch 251 trial stands as the first opportunity for Syrian survivors of government violations to face those they believe to be their attackers in court, and to have the harm they suffered acknowledged within a system of justice. 

This landmark trial is the result of efforts, both independent and collaborative, to document crimes committed in Syria—and in Branch 251 specifically—and the work done to identify and build cases. This is a testament not simply to the unflagging pursuit of justice but also to the range of actors—two national authorities, the UN, international NGOs, strategic litigation groups, Syrian lawyers and activists, and of course, survivors, their families, and the families of the victims—involved in bringing us to this moment.

Former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp, a senior fellow at the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center, said, "For Syrian victims and their families, who have waited years for their torturers to be held to account, this trial shows that justice is possible. For perpetrators of atrocities, it serves as a warning for the rest of their lives that they face the risk of trial and punishment. For the international community, and in particular states and other donors, it demonstrates the importance of supporting efforts to document criminal responsibility so that justice can be achieved for Syrians." 

The very fact of the trial is to be lauded. Yet, we stand in 2020, with the Syrian conflict stretching into its tenth year, starting the first trial against Syrian government officials. The ongoing proceedings should serve as an important reminder that more is needed to ensure accountability for victims of this brutal conflict.

1The full names of the accused have been withheld by German officials in line with national privacy laws.

2One draft resolution, put forward by France in May 2014, sought to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC but was vetoed by the Russian Federation and China. With similar vetoes a near-certainty, there have been no other attempts to refer Syria to the ICC or to establish an ad hoc tribunal for Syria. See, UN Meeting Coverage, ‘Referral of Syria to International Criminal Court Fails as Negative Votes Prevent Security Council from Adopting Draft Resolution’, May 22, 2014.