Germany: the life sentence of Syrian Anwar Raslan opens the debate on universal jurisdiction for war crimes and terrorism

Anwar Raslan (Thomas Lohnes/Pool via REUTERS/File) (POOL New/)

This week, the German Ministry of Justice confirmed the criminal responsibility of the former intelligence officer of the Syrian army anwar raslan, convicted in that country at the request of the prosecution for war crimes committed in the early years of the Syrian civil conflict. Former Colonel Raslan had been sentenced by a German court to life imprisonment on January 13 last.

As confirmed to Infobae According to a source from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, last Thursday German judicial officials from the justice ministry confirmed the life sentence of Raslan, who until his defection was a confidant of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for serve as number 2 of the mukhabarat al-shaish (army intelligence service).

The former colonel had a reputation for extreme brutality within the army and was convicted of murder, repeated sexual abuse, torture and unlawful coercion of detainees (mostly from the Sunni sect and opponents of the Assad clan’s Alawite regime). The official ratification of the ruling makes res judicata and is the first life sentence of a high-ranking official of the regime for the atrocities committed during the Syrian civil war in a European court.

The sentence on Raslan, known as “the executioner of al-Khatib”, referring to the detention center that he commanded for 2 years in a neighborhood of Damascus, opened the way for human rights organizations so that other regime officials who fled to Europe are tried and punished for their crimes. German judicial and political authorities declared after the sentence that Germany will never be a haven for war criminals of any nationality. The confirmation of the life sentence not only brings justice to the barbarity and crimes committed by the Syrian military, it is also a big step towards the Syrian regime reforming, asking for forgiveness and normalizing itself.

Since the years in which Haffez al-Assad (the father of the current dictator Bachar al-Assad) ruled the country with an iron fist, many were the crimes against humanity that the regime committed in the local political sphere as well as in Lebanese territory during the years of the civil war in the country of the cedars (1975-1999). According to the German authorities, who have said they are aware of these crimes, accountability is necessary to propose changes in Syria that place the country in the face of a new time in the region and the world.

During the years of the Syrian civil war, kidnappings, enforced disappearances, torture, robbery and mass murder were commonplace against anyone who manifested the slightest differences with the regime. Unfortunately, impunity for these crimes still exists inside Syria. However, Raslan’s life sentence – without the benefit of serving the sentence outside German jurisdiction – sets a clear message for the murderers who collaborated with the regime’s atrocities. In that address, the German Ministry of Justice released a document indicating that the murderers must know that Europe will never be a place of refuge for them and that they will be prosecuted for their crimes (declared imprescriptible) wherever they are found and regardless of the time that has elapsed since they were committed.

Anwar Raslan, had escaped from Syria in 2012 and was sentenced for ordering the shooting of between 25 and 30 civilians in the detention center he commanded, he was also accused of the forced kidnapping and transfer to Syrian prisons of 298 Lebanese civilians who disappeared without being heard from again when he served as a young Syrian intelligence officer in Lebanon, many years before the Syrian conflict began. On the other hand, he was accused of torturing some 4,000 people between 2010 and 2011. The evidence was unappealable, Arslan is one of several officers portrayed in hundreds of photographs taken in the detention center and surreptitiously removed from Syria through Turkey to be handed over to German justice by a Syrian deserter in what became known as “the Caesar case.”

Anwar Raslan - Condemnation - Syria - Germany - Human Rights
The German Ministry of Justice confirmed the criminal responsibility of former Syrian army intelligence officer Anwar Raslan (Thomas Frey / POOL / AFP) (THOMAS FREY /)

Despite the exemplary sentence against Raslan, hundreds of murderers like him continue to reside in Europe; most have committed aberrant crimes that must necessarily be punished after a legal process by European justice. Arslan’s conviction led in December to the flight from Europe of Rifaat al-Assad, a former vice president and commander of the army at the time. Rifaat is the uncle of dictator Bachar al-Assad and quickly returned to Syria before the end of 2021.

After deserting in 1984, when he failed in his attempt to unseat his brother Haffez as president of the country. Rifaat escaped to Switzerland to go into exile in Europe and avoid being shot by his brother, then he alternated his European stay between London and Marbella, but established several real estate companies and registered an approximate wealth of 1,100 million dollars in France. His military record places him as responsible for the massacre of the city of Hama, where some 40,000 Sunni civilians were killed in 1981, after Rifaat besieged the city and ordered its indiscriminate bombing for 11 days..

Rifaat al-Assad’s flight to Syria occurred within the framework of a process that a Paris Court of Appeal confirmed in early September 2021 a sentence against him to 4 years in prison for fraudulent financial operations and tax evasion within from France for more than 80 million euros. The court concluded that the 85-year-old former Syrian vice president, exiled in Europe since 1984, is criminally responsible for money laundering, fraud and aggravated tax evasion, but expressly mentioned in his ruling that he should also be investigated for the infamous massacre of Hama from the year 1981 in Syria. This situation prompted the criminal al-Assad to quickly speak with the dictator Bachar in Damascus and immediately travel secretly seeking refuge provided by his nephew’s regime. Before the escape, France is preparing the documentation for the opening of a new process against him for the criminal acts of Hama and has asked the Interpol office for help to find the fugitive since last week.

Justice, truth and accountability are elements that cannot be lacking for societies to overcome their bloody stages. That aspect should not be omitted in the Syrian case, even less so if Bashar al-Assad’s regime genuinely wants peace and stability, declared the French prosecutor’s office for crimes related to war crimes.

The judicial task of Germany and its leadership role in seeking justice for the crimes committed, has made it clear that the officers who fled Syria and requested asylum, although many did so with false identities, will be found and brought to justice. That has been the declaration of the Office of Legal Affairs of the European Union (EU) to which Germany adhered, ratifying that all criminals who escaped from Syria will be put on trial in the coming months to do justice for the crimes of the regime.

Anwar Raslan - Condemnation - Syria - Germany - Human Rights
Anwar Raslan (Thomas Lohnes / POOL / AFP) (THOMAS LOHNES/)

Two Syrian lawyers, Mazen Darwich and Anwar Bunni have been very important in the process against Raslan and also work in the case of Rifaat al-Assad, both of them investigated putting their lives at risk for the last 4 years, Darwich stated that he and his colleagues The Germans have done what was right and that the true heroes of this story are the Syrian victims and their families, those who live under threat to prevent them from testifying in the ongoing proceedings, but who still provided abundant and real evidence that helped in Anwar Raslan’s sentence. He also added that further investigations are at different stages of the process in Germany and will continue despite rejection by Russia, Iran and other allies of Bashar al-Assad. According to Darwich, the conviction of Raslan opens up an optimistic future in terms of punishment for war criminals of this time.

The other intervening lawyer, Anwar Bunni, stressed that the sentence was possible given the determination and spirit of the survivors and the efforts of investigators, prosecutors and NGOs that collaborated in the process. In addition, he said that it is a shining example of what can be achieved by an investigative unit on war crimes and terrorism dedicated entirely to investigating with seriousness and resources. Meanwhile, the Association of Syrian Lawyers in Exile said in a statement on Thursday that if this experience and modality continues, not only in Germany, but in other judicial systems with the capacity to try crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, the world will be a better place.

For the German press, the ruling should be an invitation to international judicial powers to investigate the role of other states that favor terrorism, such as Iran, Assad’s ally in terms of violence and terrorist attacks in the world. And in this, the Islamic Republic of Iran and several of its officials must give explanations in various latitudes of the globe, among them, in the Argentine Republic for the terrorist attacks on its soil in 1992 and 1994. In this direction, to prosecute For these crimes, states should ensure that domestic legal impediments that conspire against investigations are removed and survivors encouraged to come forward to give testimony, providing them, prosecutors and judges with the necessary support and protection. It is a serious mistake to believe that the supposed normalization with the Bachar al-Assad regime that a large part of the international community is talking about can erase the crimes he committed.

To repair the damage, justice is the most important thing; but it is not a substitute for preventing them. In particular in crimes of forced disappearances such as those in which Anwar Raslan participated as a member of the regime. Energy and resources must be invested in national investigation units for this type of crime and those caused by terrorism. In this regard, local and supranational powers must act without conditions, independently and impartially.

The sentence against Raslan is undoubtedly a great historical decision. However, it shows the serious lack of accountability in the Syrian conflict. The fact that a colonel (who was neither a central figure in the regime nor a key decision maker beyond his closeness to the Syrian president and his family) is the highest-ranking official facing prosecution in a conflict that showed the bloodiest atrocities in modern history shows a certain failure of international law, human rights and justice itself. On the other hand, considering that Raslan defected in 2012, in the first part of the conflict, it is difficult to measure the scope and depravity of the war crimes that were committed after that moment, since to date, there are reliably more than 110,000 missing Syrians with little or no chance of knowing their fate.

Extensive reports, testimonies and photographic documentation reveal the widespread use of torture, sexual violence and murder among many other crimes committed by the Syrian regime. Therefore, the court’s verdict on Raslan should be a reminder that this conflict is far from being a “humanitarian conflict” as many Western governments think. What happened in Syria has been nothing more than a planned genocide carried out without any respect for human life by the regime and its allies.


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