A Historic Verdict, and a New Front in the Global Fight for Human Rights
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On the night of July 20, 2021, Ruham Hawash lay awake unsure of where she was, mistaking her hotel bed in Koblenz, Germany, for the cramped and filthy cell in Damascus where, in 2012, she was detained and brutalized. The next day, in a German court, she would see and testify against the Syrian colonel who oversaw her torture.
The trial was history-making. Two Syrian state-security officers had been arrested and charged in Germany for crimes against humanity, including torture, murder and sexual assault. It was the first time anyone from the Syrian regime would be tried for its crimes.
In Arabic, they are called the mukhabarat, four security bodies that have for decades carried out the Syrian regime’s surveillance and repression of its people. Without them, the regime, under both the current ruler, Bashar al-Assad, and his father, Hafez, before him, would never have been able to maintain its rule over more than half a century. In that time, they have crushed any dissent and opposition from several generations of Syrians. The two defendants — like Hawash herself, and over half a million other Syrians — had sought refuge in Germany. Both men readily admitted to working for the mukhabarat, as if their defections would absolve them of their pasts. But if they thought they would disappear into the flood of Syrians arriving in Europe, cleansed and free to start new lives, they failed to account for two things. First, their fellow Syrian exiles were determined that those responsible for the unraveling of Syria would not enjoy absolute impunity. Second, they landed in a nation that had grappled with its own legacy of war crimes and was now increasingly committed to pursuing war criminals operating far beyond Germany’s borders.
In the days leading up to her testimony, Hawash, 34, agonized over her decision to participate. Much had changed since 2019, when she decided not only to be a witness in the German state’s case but also to join it as a named plaintiff. When the trial started amid the pandemic in April 2020, the international news media covered it, and some Syrian proponents of the trial promised that Syrians would finally have justice. But attendance quickly dwindled, partly because Koblenz is far from where many Syrian activists now live in Berlin, but also because the court didn’t provide access to the in-court Arabic translation for the public, leading some Syrians to wonder who the trial was for.
Other Syrians derided a trial against two mere individuals — who had defected — while the system and leadership that they served remained intact and in power. If Europeans really cared about justice in Syria, those critics argued, they would end al-Assad’s rule. As details from individuals’ testimonies became public, Syrians scrutinized their content and — sometimes aggressively — contested witnesses’ credibility, on social media, in the Arabic-language press and among themselves. After all, the regime had its supporters and the opposition had its detractors, and debates around what had happened in Syria over the past 10 years, as civilian protests gave way to civil war, could be nearly as heated as the armed conflict itself.
Some Syrians who agreed to testify in Koblenz were threatened, or their family members were, and told to keep silent. Some pulled out of the case entirely. Even as Syrians have fled the country in the past decade, the mukhabarat have kept tabs on them abroad. Although Hawash knew it was possible for the Syrian regime to harm her in Germany, where she would soon become a citizen, what she feared more was what the memories might do to her.
Two close girlfriends — Syrians who, like her, were active in the uprising against the regime and now lived in Berlin — accompanied her to Koblenz. She wanted people in the courtroom who knew her from Syria, who would relate to what she would say and know that she wasn’t making it up. As much as there were Syrians who didn’t want to believe what she would share, she also worried that the Germans might be unable to fathom it — the Syrian reality was just so different from contemporary Germany, if not its past: The days of the Stasi were long ago, the Gestapo even longer. And though Koblenz itself had once known war and loss, as it was mostly destroyed in the world wars, there were few still-visible scars in this scenic city built on the banks of both the Rhine and Moselle Rivers.
While she took comfort in her friends’ presence, Hawash was wary of recounting in open court details they didn’t know, that she had never spoken about. Both of her friends had also been detained, but in Syria — given that tens of thousands of others had suffered physically debilitating torture, or been tortured longer, or never made it out of the detention system that so many just disappeared into — those who survived tended to simply say, “Liffuha”: Wrap it up. Hawash felt embarrassed to appear to be elevating her own experience above others’. She was also determined that two months of detention not define her entire life. It was just a drop in the sea, she insisted. So she had buried what happened to her and never spoken about the particulars. None of them had.
Lying in the hotel bed, she felt as if the room’s sloping ceiling was pressing down on her, squeezing her back into her cell in Damascus. Again, she asked herself the same questions: Did her participation matter? Did any of this really matter?
Patrick Kroker, Ruham Hawash and Wolfgang Kaleck walking along the Rhine on their way to court.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times
Over the last decade, more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed and more than half the country’s population has been displaced, both within and outside Syria’s borders. What began in 2011 as a popular and peaceful movement calling for the regime — in power undemocratically since 1970 — to reform and to end its corruption has turned into a brutal civil and proxy war.
Throughout, the Syrian people have been victims of and witnesses to countless crimes against humanity. While armed opponents of the regime, like ISIS, also committed such offenses — more often capturing the world’s horrified if fleeting attention — the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has, by far, perpetrated most of the violence. To stay in power, al-Assad has unleashed conventional and chemical weapons, aerial bombardment, siege, starvation and expulsion, mostly against civilians. This destruction remains nakedly visible across the country. But behind the closed doors of its opaque detention system, the regime has also carried out the much more hidden but no less lethal violence of mass disappearances, mass torture and mass executions.
When some atrocities have garnered international scrutiny, the regime has either denied its involvement, claimed that the victims are actually terrorists or accused their enemies of staging these attacks. But the regime’s culpability has been well documented, not only by civilians, journalists, activists and human rights organizations — both Syrian and international — but also by the regime itself.
Perhaps most famous are the pictures taken by a former Syrian military police forensic photographer, code-named Caesar, who defected in 2013. The images he smuggled out show at least 6,627 dead Syrians, an estimated two-thirds of whom died from torture between May 2011 and August 2013, either in detention or after their transfer to a military hospital. (Another third are Syrian military casualties from battles with armed opponents.) The corpses are, remarkably, tagged with the number of the mukhabarat facility where they died.
In addition, two organizations, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, have become repositories for verified regime documents that reveal its own policies and directives since 2011. What the documents described came as no surprise to the Syria Justice and Accountability Center’s executive director, Mohammad al Abdallah. He still remembers the daily “morning warning” his mother would give before he went to school in Syria, to not repeat out loud anything he heard the adults say at home. Otherwise, she said, “people will come and take Baba” — his father — “and we won’t see him again.” Later, as an adult, al Abdallah would experience firsthand what it meant to be taken.
What did shock him, though, was how unconcerned the authors were that such documents could ever be used against them. “You’d expect them to try to hide things,” he says. “But no, they still signed with their names, rank and in their own handwriting. They believed 100 percent they could write what they want and behave the way they want.”
The Syrian regime’s brutality was infamous long before 2011. During the early years of the fight against terrorism, the U.S. government and others relied on it, using “extraordinary rendition” to send individuals to Syria to carry out interrogations using torture methods the C.I.A. doesn’t allow itself. When the United States captured and rendered a German citizen of Syrian origin who had known the Sept. 11 hijackers in Hamburg, the German government coordinated with the Syrian regime to allow German investigators to interrogate their citizen in Syria. But for decades, the Syrian regime has used torture and enforced disappearances — the arrest, detention or abduction of a person, as well as the refusal to acknowledge that person’s fate — primarily to terrorize the Syrian people, effectively deterring generations from ever challenging its rule. (Today, approximately 100,000 disappeared remain unaccounted for.)
The agents of this terror have been the mukhabarat — their name derived from the verb khabbara: to notify or inform — and have been for so long that for many Syrians it has always been this way. Though the mukhabarat came to Syria under Gamal Abdel Nasser when Syria and Egypt briefly merged as the United Arabic Republic in 1958, their ranks and activities expanded under Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970 by coup. The mukhabarat are a much less refined version of the Stasi, who at different points in history trained the Syrians in methods. (During the Cold War, Syria was mostly aligned with the Soviet Union.) Since 1962, these security agencies have operated above the law, protected by an emergency decree that was partly justified based on supposed external threats, allowing them to collect intelligence and suspend civil liberties and rights. When the Arab Spring looked as if it might disrupt the status quo, the regime dispatched the mukhabarat. In blaming a foreign conspiracy for the 2011 popular uprising, the regime was simultaneously saying that its security apparatus was remarkably ineffective in pre-empting, let alone containing, these “external threats” that were essential to their professed raison d’être, and for which Syrians had sacrificed decades of rights.
Mukhabarat violence is often eerily invisible, if ever-present. Rather than occupy buildings in remote parts of town, mukhabarat branches have long been placed within residential neighborhoods — there are at least 20 in Damascus alone — so that Syrians pass them as they go about their daily lives. Their presence, and the awareness of what unspeakable things are being committed inside, have kept Syrians actively threatened and in line. So when European Union nations declare that Syrian refugees should be sent back because in regime-controlled parts of the country warfare has stopped and so it must be safe, such policies’ opponents believe that the proponents are revealing a profound (and perhaps willful) misreading of the situation.
Syrians have never been able to challenge the Assad regime’s violations of their human rights in their own country. But they also have virtually no legal recourse against the Syrian state in any international legal forum. The most appropriate such forum, the International Criminal Court, remains unreachable to Syrians. Created to investigate and prosecute four core international crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression — in situations where states are “unable” or “unwilling” to do so themselves, the I.C.C. has jurisdiction only over states that are party to the 1998 Rome Statute that created it. (Along with Syria, nonparties include the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.) Alternatively, the U.N. Security Council may refer states to the I.C.C., but the Security Council members Russia and China vetoed referring the Syrian regime in May 2014. Ad hoc tribunals, like those established for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, also require Security Council backing.
For Syrians looking to pursue legal remedies against those who violated their rights, what is left are national courts in countries that recognize universal jurisdiction. Such jurisdiction allows for the prosecution of those core international crimes no matter where they were committed, and irrespective of the location or nationality of the defendant or plaintiff involved. The underlying idea is that these crimes affect the entire international community. Universal jurisdiction is enshrined in the law of many E.U. countries, where more than a million displaced Syrians have sought refuge in the past decade. This includes Germany, host to nearly 60 percent of the Syrians in the European Union.
While Syria is far from Germany, thousands of potential witnesses and victims — and, undoubtedly, perpetrators as well — now find themselves together in Germany. Among them are key Syrian human rights lawyers and activists who lost no time — even in the pain and discombobulation of displacement and exile — in trying to stop further offenses in Syria, as well as seeking some morsel of justice for victims and accountability for the perpetrators. They have found willing partners in German civil society and the German federal public prosecutor general’s office, which handles cases relating to international war crimes.
When it comes to its own war crimes, Germany has made a point of prosecuting Nazi perpetrators no matter how long it takes or how old the accused become. That commitment has nonetheless been an evolution, and before the country was unified, one that differed between East and West. While the former East Germany repudiated its Nazi past and would embrace the Nuremberg Trials, West Germany was much more hostile to the idea, seeing them as “victors’ justice.” That would shift as the West began to try former Nazis in large-scale trials from the late 1950s onward. And by the 1990s, according to Klaus Rackwitz, the director of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy, “there was the more general perception that crimes committed by a government or a regime need to be prosecuted and tried.”
After reunification, Germany redefined itself for a new era. Reluctant to engage militarily, “Germany likes to think of itself as a kind of middle power that tries to influence global policy with respect to international human rights standards,” says Boris Burghardt, a professor of international criminal law and contemporary legal history at Humboldt University of Berlin. Germany signed the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, and incorporated it into its domestic criminal law the day before the treaty went into effect in 2002. The federal prosecutor’s office established a war-crimes unit in 2008, and by 2011 it was putting universal jurisdiction to the test by trying two Rwandan rebel leaders for aiding and abetting war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo — all from their homes in Germany. The unit also monitored global events so that, should a connection to Germany arise, it would be able to act.
As disturbing reports emerged from Syria in 2011, the unit took note but not much action. Then, that September, it was alerted by news reports about a German citizen of Syrian origin who in 2010 flew to Aleppo to visit his sick mother, only to disappear once he landed. In Germany, prosecutors must investigate when a German is involved as a victim or a perpetrator, even if the crime’s site is not in Germany. Based on reasonable grounds that the Syrian regime was committing crimes, the prosecutors thus began a “structural investigation” into who was specifically responsible.
They interviewed their first witness that October. While watching a frühstücksfernsehen — a breakfast infotainment show — someone in the office happened to catch a segment featuring a newly defected Syrian Army soldier passing through Germany before leaving the country to join the opposition. After a hurried call to the TV station, they had him in by noon for an interview.
Not much came of it, but the road to Koblenz had begun — culminating in a trial that Germany’s federal prosecutor general, Peter Frank, today hails as “the best example that international criminal law works,” fulfilling the Nuremberg promise that Germany not be a safe haven for war criminals while signaling that the country will continue to prosecute such crimes in the future: “We owe that to the victims and humanity.”
Like other children in Syria, Hawash knew, without having to be told, that she lived in a police state. She understood that even a child’s indiscretions could damn her entire family. When Hawash was young, her family would spread state-newspaper pages to cover the kitchen table before meals. In a country where portraits of President Hafez al-Assad were ubiquitous — in taxis, in offices, draped down the sides of buildings several stories high — the newspaper frequently featured pictures of him. In their haste to set the table and eat, the family of five sometimes would notice only after they finished that they had accidentally used the leader’s face as a place mat, desecrating it with stains. They would then have to carefully discard the page to leave no trace in their rubbish of their disrespect. But sometimes his face took up a whole page. “So however you crumple it,” Hawash says, “you are going to see his face thrown in the trash.” They would shred it by hand so that no one could inform on them.
When Bashar al-Assad — an ophthalmologist whose colleagues in a London hospital where he trained remembered him as humble, with a kind bedside manner — inherited power after his father’s death in 2000, he positioned himself as a reformer, and a kind of openness did begin to flourish, known as the Damascus Spring. Syrians started informal salons where participants discussed reforms. Some political prisoners were released, and the infamous prison in Tadmor was symbolically closed. But within a year, the regime rearrested several activists and shut down the salons. (It reopened the Tadmor prison in 2011.) While the regime did undertake reforms that liberalized investment and trade and gave an appearance of economic progress after decades of pseudosocialist restrictions, it was so rife with cronyism that only a select class of Syrians were enriched, and others suffered.
Hawash was an adolescent in those early years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule; the change that she noticed was that Whiskas, the cat food she usually ordered from Beirut, was finally available in Syria. But in 2011, she was 23, a university graduate in economics working on a master’s and an information officer in the higher education development program for the E.U. delegation in Damascus. With Egypt, Libya and Tunisia already engulfed by their own revolutions, the Syrian regime made clear to Syrians not to imagine that their country was next. Simple candlelight vigils in front of the Egyptian and Libyan Embassies were broken up by the mukhabarat, who beat and arrested attendees.
That February, schoolchildren in the southern city of Dara’a scrawled graffiti repeating the slogans being chanted in those Arab countries revolting against their rulers. The mukhabarat arrested the boys, ages 10 to 15. When the devastated parents went to the mukhabarat asking for their children, they would recall, they were told: “Forget your children. If you want children, make more children. If you don’t know how, bring us your women, and we will make them for you.”
The arrest of the boys and the response by the mukhabarat sparked protests in the city. Security forces opened fire on them. A high-ranking delegation of government officials assured elders that al-Assad was committed to bringing those who opened fire to justice, and the children were released. The mukhabarat, however, had beaten them, burned their bodies and pulled out their fingernails. The protests spread across Syria, and within three months, more than 1,000 Syrians were already dead, with an estimated 10,000 more in prison.
Hawash was staying out of it; as someone born in Syria to Palestinian refugees (which meant that none of them were Syrian citizens), the dream of returning to their homeland was the political struggle that defined her life. But then at the office, she saw a university professor she worked with weeping. He was originally from Dara’a and was distraught about getting food to his relatives after the regime imposed a blockade on the entire city as punishment for the demonstrations. Hawash, indignant at the injustice, began to get involved with what she saw as a revolution, meeting activists, attending protests and disseminating pamphlets.
Nearly a year later, in March 2012, she was detained during a campaign of arrests of peaceful activists that many believed was meant to deprive the movement of secular and civil-society-minded Syrians. Her interrogation and torture would occur over the course of nearly two months.
When she was released, Hawash never considered leaving the country. “In that time, I really understood how much I love Syria,” she says. “The thawra” — the revolution — “did that.”
Her parents had moved to the United Arab Emirates and pleaded for her to join them. Only after months did she agree to what she thought would be a short visit. But within weeks, the Syrian Army was bombarding Yarmouk, where she lived. Before the end of the year, a MiG decimated her block and destroyed her house. “These were terrible days,” Hawash says. “You are out, leaving a place you don’t want to leave, watching by the hour how things are being destroyed. Your friends are being taken, and people are dying.”
A German friend offered to host Hawash in Hamburg. She arrived in December 2012, eventually securing a six-month visa. She didn’t unpack her suitcase, instead opening it in the morning to take what she needed but always reclosing it at night, in case the next day was the day the regime fell and she could return to Syria.
As for what happened to her in that cell, she wasn’t thinking about justice. What she thought was simply, “Hamdillah, I’m still alive.”
On Aug. 25, 2015, a single tweet by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees bound the immediate future of the country with that of hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing their own. The tweet announced that, specifically in the case of Syrians, Germany was suspending the requirement under the Dublin Regulation that individuals seeking asylum in the European Union must be processed in the country where they first arrived. This meant, in effect, that Germany was open to those Syrians who had risked crossing the Mediterranean Sea by raft. Six days later at a news conference, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who would justify the decision on humanitarian and moral grounds, encouraged the German people to embrace the policy by declaring, “We can do this.”
By the end of 2015, nearly 400,000 Syrians had arrived in Germany, adding to the 125,000 who arrived in 2014 and the nearly 50,000 in 2013. The prosecutors quickly understood that Merkel’s policy would change everything. If they wanted to investigate war crimes in Syria, they now had over half a million Syrians in Germany.
Critically, Germany, particularly Berlin, had also welcomed key Syrian figures, many of whom the German government had helped relocate (as far back as 2011) — longtime opposition leaders, activists and human rights lawyers. They were keen to use whatever legal means were available to hold the regime and any others who had committed crimes in Syria accountable. Central among them were the lawyers Anwar al-Bunni, who founded the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, and Mazen Darwish, who founded the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. The regime had detained and tortured each of them, and their family members, in Syria. Al-Bunni, 62, chain-smokes and chain-drinks coffee — somehow, despite all he has endured, perpetually smiling. The more reserved Darwish, 47, smokes even more than al-Bunni does. They arrived in Berlin in 2014 and 2015 and went right to work.
Bridging the Syrians and the federal prosecutors was the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, founded by the German human rights lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck in 2007. “Universal jurisdiction is in the DNA of E.C.C.H.R.,” Kaleck says. He had already tested the limits of Germany’s commitment to prosecuting international crimes by filing a complaint against Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials, not once but twice, based on revelations about American soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay. (The federal prosecutor declined to pursue charges the first time on the grounds that the United States had its own tribunals that could hold any wrongdoers accountable; the second time was because it was unlikely that Germany would be able to properly investigate.) Kaleck’s group had already been meeting with Syrians arriving in Europe and, where appropriate, sharing their testimonies about their detention with the prosecutors.
Neither al-Bunni nor Darwish prioritized accountability for those who had personally tortured them or justice for themselves as individuals. They wanted to go after the top of the regime — those who were still disappearing Syrians and terrorizing Syrians collectively. The German lawyer Patrick Kroker, who joined Kaleck’s organization in 2015 to oversee the Syria file in its International Crimes and Accountability program, agreed.
Until that point, though, the federal prosecutor hadn’t publicly indicated a willingness to investigate high-level perpetrators outside Germany, known as a “global enforcer” approach, instead having taken a more conservative “no safe haven” stance, looking at (usually lower-level) suspects who were actually in the country. But then it became public that the prosecutors had direct access to the Caesar photos, which purported to provide evidence of grave crimes committed at specific mukhabarat facilities. Access to the original files meant the prosecutors could do their own verification and forensic analysis of them, eventually deeming them credible under evidentiary standards of criminal law. The Syrian attorneys and the E.C.C.H.R. began working to tie the photos to the highest levels of the Syrian regime by spending the next year finding and screening Syrians, now strewn across Europe as refugees, who had been detained and tortured at those specific branches, with the assistance of colleagues who were also themselves refugees. Their goal was to present a detailed complaint to the federal prosecutors against key regime figures, because in Germany, such a complaint can trigger a duty for the federal prosecutors to carry out a comprehensive investigation.
That work culminated in 2017, when the E.C.C.H.R., al-Bunni and Darwish and the Caesar Files Group filed the first of four complaints with the federal prosecutor. In 2018, Germany issued an arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence (arguably the most powerful of the mukhabarat bodies). When Kaleck called Darwish to tell him the news, Darwish, in the supermarket at the time, began to cause such a scene screaming and dancing that his wife quickly escorted him outside as shoppers looked on. Germany requested Hassan’s extradition from Lebanon, where he was reportedly receiving medical care. Though Lebanon denied that Hassan was in the country and the warrant went unexecuted, it was a shot across the bow. (Other warrants against other Syrian regime members have also been issued.)
Buoyed by that momentum, the Syrian lawyers and the E.C.C.H.R. continued to crisscross Europe with the goal of filing similar complaints in other nations. On one of those trips in February 2018, al-Bunni and Kroker interviewed a Syrian in Scandinavia who knew the name of the person who ordered their torture: “Anwar Raslan.” It was the first time Kroker had heard the name. But al-Bunni knew him: Raslan arrested al-Bunni in 2006 by kidnapping him off the street. Al-Bunni had also seen Raslan since coming to Germany. To Kroker’s astonishment, al-Bunni casually said, “He’s in Berlin.”
Raslan, a trained lawyer and a colonel who oversaw investigations at Branch 251 of the mukhabarat, was already on German prosecutors’ radar. With fears of Germany becoming a safe haven for war criminals turned refugees, the prosecutors had begun investigating another Syrian refugee and in the course of that investigation were given Raslan’s name as someone who could provide useful information. But Raslan’s demeanor raised prosecutors’ suspicions. When he openly acknowledged that before his defection he was a senior leader at Branch 251, which was represented in the Caesar photos, he became a target.
As they investigated Raslan, they interviewed another mukhabarat defector, Eyad al-Gharib. He, too, worked at Branch 251. Based on his self-incriminating statements, the prosecutors had to treat al-Gharib as a suspect. In October 2019, they indicted both men on charges of crimes against humanity. German prosecutors accused Raslan of overseeing the torture of some 4,000 people over a period of around 500 days early in the uprising, leading to the death of at least 58 prisoners. They charged al-Gharib with complicity to torture in at least 30 cases.
By 2019, Hawash had been in Germany for six years. She had tried to move to northern Syria, like other activists, via the shared border with Turkey. But at the airport in Istanbul, she was denied entry (while her German journalist friend was welcomed), because, as a Palestinian, she had no passport. She was stateless, a loose end of a history that linked Germany’s own Nazi war crimes, the founding of Israel and Palestinian dispossession. As Hawash recalls it, the customs officer, who barely spoke English, barked an explanation, pointing to each of them in turn: “You are German. I am Turkish. She is nothing.” Convinced that citizenship was not a luxury, she asked Germany for asylum, receiving it within months.
She learned German and went about building the life she had wanted in Syria, earning a master’s degree in disarmament and arms control. She helped found a nongovernmental organization that produces policy-oriented research on Syrian civil society, and so she was aware of the ongoing work of the Syrian lawyers. But she never thought what happened to her was significant enough to share. It was only when she saw in the German press that a trial would occur, centered on the same branch where she was detained, that she changed her mind.
With German law allowing victims or their surviving family to join criminal cases as joint plaintiffs, the E.C.C.H.R. and the Syrian lawyers had turned to finding Syrians to participate in the trial. “The main objective was to have survivors and their interests represented,” Kroker says, “to bridge the gap between what the federal prosecutor in Germany is doing and what people might want.”
Hawash arranged to meet Kroker. At that meeting, Kroker immediately understood that Hawash wouldn’t need as much explanation or convincing as other potential plaintiffs. For her part, Hawash felt that with Kroker, “it was clear that it’s not about him,” she says. “It’s about me.”
But Kroker did have personal reasons for doing this work. He remembers a car ride with his grandfather when he was 8. His grandfather stopped the car, turned to him and said, “Whatever happens, I want you to know I never killed anyone or hurt anyone personally.” Kroker only made sense of the incident years later. “My grandfather had been high up in the Hitler Youth. But he wasn’t young,” Kroker says, explaining his grandfather’s role as “poisoning minds.” “I think I know emotionally why I am doing this. It’s intergenerational trauma — perpetrators’ trauma. Or guilt.”
The trial was in its 16th month by the time Hawash arrived to testify in Koblenz last summer. Overseeing the case was a judicial panel headed by Judge Anne Kerber. Kerber had exhibited a remarkable fluency about Syrian geography, Damascus streets and mukhabarat branches, as had the prosecutors, even though none of them had ever been there. In Kerber’s questioning of witnesses who had experienced torture, her manner was as calm, patient and empathetic as it was stern, procedural and even short when she would reprimand any of the lawyers. Like most German judges, Kerber had no previous experience in cases of war crimes or crimes against humanity; this trial was in her court simply because al-Gharib had been apprehended in her state.
The court had already heard from a wide range of witnesses, including victims, experts, forensic doctors and other Syrians who had been part of the mukhabarat apparatus but were not involved in the torture. What emerged was a picture of a nightmarish constellation of dungeonlike prisons, each its own fief yet also part of a greater coordinated whole. They imprisoned people who were taken extrajudicially for a variety of reasons — simply being from a part of the country considered rebellious, peacefully demonstrating, delivering humanitarian aid to besieged Syrians, being the wrong ethnicity or sect. Most were tortured while interrogated, though securing information, other than the names of other Syrians who might be critical of the government, seemed at best secondary to punishing and terrorizing people.
Former detainees independently yet consistently described several shared experiences. Most were held in their undergarments in overcrowded underground cells, where they could only fit if they all stood or if they sat with knees drawn to chest. They slept in shifts on their sides like sardines. There was no natural light to count the days, and they were usually forced to drink from a hose in the cell’s toilet. When food was tossed into their cells, it was often stale and never sufficient. Many reported children being held with them. When they weren’t being interrogated themselves, they were forced to hear others cry in agony.
The methods also seemed to be standard, with names like dulab (tire), shabh (ghost), flying carpet and “the German chair,” where prisoners are strapped to the back of a chair and stretched to breaking point, a method that reportedly came to Syria with the Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, who lived out his years in Damascus. The mukhabarat delivered blows with metal poles and used fingernail removal and electric shocks. They sexually assaulted both male and female detainees and threatened that relatives would be brought before detainees to be violated in front of them.
Some witnesses cried while giving their testimony. An elderly man who testified in the weeks before Hawash told the court that he started to wonder: “Are those who tortured me human beings?” He recounted befriending a cockroach in his cell, in recognition that “she” had never done anything to him, unlike the “beasts” outside his cell.
Witnesses also talked about their lives after release, marred by long-lasting physical pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia. At the end of their testimonies, many asked to speak. They wanted to thank the court.
The differences between Raslan and al-Gharib, as defendants, seemed notable. Raslan, 58, was in a position of authority at Branch 251. The lower-ranking al-Gharib, 45, went to work for the mukhabarat without finishing high school and, by his own admission, transported detainees to Branch 251. Al-Gharib took years to arrive in Germany, traveling over sea and land, spending two years in limbo in Greece. Raslan arrived quickly and by plane, on a visa supported by the Syrian opposition, who hoped Raslan might hand over useful information. As they sat side by side in court, the differences were accentuated. Al-Gharib slouched with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled down over his eyes, often using an open folder to block his face; Raslan sat upright and undisguised, attentively taking notes.
In Germany, defendants aren’t required to enter a plea. But at the trial’s start, Raslan gave a written statement arguing that he had done nothing wrong, that while others mistreated prisoners, he was unable to stop it. He claimed to have helped individual prisoners and to have been eventually demoted to doing office work. Much of this would be contradicted in the trial, not only by experts and photographic and written documentation but also by former detainees who were brought before Raslan and recognized him.
Al-Gharib gave no such statement. His counsel maintained that his indictment, which was based on his own voluntary interview during the Raslan investigation, was inadmissible because he had been summoned as a witness, not a suspect. But about nine months into the trial, after the Caesar photos were shown as evidence, he did submit a letter, read aloud in court. Al-Gharib wrote that he had been moved to tears and thanked Caesar for making the photographs public. He claimed that he looked for his own missing and imprisoned family members among them. He explained that as a Sunni, he was already suspect with his superiors and had no choice but to follow orders or be killed. While he could have fled the country immediately, it would have meant leaving behind his family — which includes a sick daughter — so he waited for when they could flee together. He thanked the court and the lawyers, but especially the witnesses. He condemned the regime. He never mentioned his own role.
The Prosecution of Syrian Officials in Germany
A leading force. Germany has emerged at the forefront of an effort to hold accountable those who committed war crimes during nearly 11 years of civil war in Syria. Here’s what to know:
The setting. Germany is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Owing partly to its own history in World War II, it has become a go-to venue for prosecuting crimes against humanity, even if committed outside its own borders.
The first conviction. Eyad al-Gharib was the first Syrial official to be sentenced, to four and a half years, for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. He had arrested and transported to anti-Assad protesters an interrogation center known for torture.
A landmark trial. In the first trial in the world to prosecute state-sponsored torture in Syria, Anwar Raslan, an officer accused of overseeing the torture and killings of several people, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison.
Another case. The trial of Alaa Mousa, a doctor accused of torturing opponents of the Assad regime in military hospitals, is expected to shed further light on the abuses perpetrated by the Syrian government.
Al-Gharib’s counsel chose not to present a defense, so the court never heard any evidence of duress, but in delivering its verdict last February, it dismissed the idea that he had no choice but to obey orders. Finding al-Gharib guilty of crimes against humanity in 30 cases of aiding and abetting torture and aggravated deprivation of liberty, it sentenced him to four and a half years in prison. In determining his sentence, which could have been as long as 15 years, the court cited favorable factors, including his relatively early defection. But it cited as aggravating circumstances his voluntary employment with the mukhabarat for 15 years before 2011. Al-Gharib is appealing, mostly on procedural grounds regarding his statement’s admissibility.
Al-Gharib’s conviction stirred controversy among Syrians, stoked partly by his relatives in Germany, who publicly contested his prosecution. On Facebook and Clubhouse, Syrians voiced criticisms: How was it a priority or even fair to prosecute al-Gharib and Raslan — who each eventually defected from the regime — when those at the highest levels were still in power, still killing Syrians? Also, both men are Sunnis, like a majority of Syrians, and Sunnis represented the highest numbers of the harmed, while the regime’s core leadership is, like al-Assad, mostly Alawite.
In response, other Syrians argued that while a defection might mitigate punishment — which the German court considered in al-Gharib’s case — it didn’t absolve individuals of the crimes they did commit. As for the sectarian argument, people responded that the suffering caused to the victims by these violations was what mattered, not the sect of the person who meted it out. Moreover, the regime was by no means exclusively Alawite.
Al-Bunni, too, has come in for criticism for overpromising what Koblenz can deliver. But it’s not that he sees the glass as half full, he says: “It’s only a quarter full. But I have the ability to make it half, to make it three-quarters full. I don’t want to leave it three-quarters empty and be in despair.”
If al-Bunni is operating from a place of optimism, Darwish is about the pragmatic. “All the trials are not justice,” he says. “It’s our alternative strategy to keep the question of justice on the table and to not permit the regime, the princes of war, the U.N., the regional powers and the main players to reach a political agreement that doesn’t preserve the rights of victims.”
But for those whose loved ones are still vanished, playing the long strategic game can’t satisfy their sense of urgency. On several occasions, the political refugee and activist Wafa Mustafa, 31, traveled from Berlin to Koblenz to keep vigil outside the courthouse. With her were the framed pictures of some of the taken, including her father, disappeared since 2013. At the start of the trial, she was hopeful, seeing it as a step toward justice and accountability. Now she’s less sure. “Before, for years, we said, ‘We want freedom, justice and democracy.’ But we didn’t question what that means, what justice is,” she says. “The only thing I am sure of is that I don’t really know what justice is. But I know what justice isn’t.”
What it isn’t, she says, is trials as a replacement for a comprehensive solution in Syria. “What’s going on in Syria is still going; simply, my dad is still detained,” she says. “I definitely want everyone who committed crimes to be prosecuted. But, sorry, I want my dad back, alive and safe.”
On the day of her testimony last summer, Hawash wore a mustard-colored blouse, black pants and a black blazer, an outfit she chose specifically because there was nothing special about it. Around her neck was the custom-made gold peace pendant she had worn every day since 2007. Her usually close-cropped hair needed a trim, but she had chosen to wait until after she testified. You get your hair fixed for happy occasions.
She walked in the sunshine to the courthouse, which faces Koblenz’s small memorial to the Nazis’ victims. A sightseeing train drives tourists past it. She had managed to put aside questions of whether her testimony mattered to the trial. With millions of Syrians being denied any justice as a people, many individual Syrians had discounted their right, let alone acknowledged any need, to find some justice for themselves.
Her attorneys, Patrick Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer, waited to escort her through security, the former in blue high-top Chucks, the latter in black Doc Martens. As she entered the courtroom, Hawash couldn’t help reflecting on how surreal it all felt: “Here I am in Germany, joining my government in prosecuting someone who tortured me in Syria.”
Then she saw him. Raslan was standing in the courtroom, chatting with people around him, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. She noticed his clean clothes — a pair of jeans and a gray sweatshirt, its Polo logo visible. She saw that he was neither blindfolded nor bound, as she had been during her interrogations. He had clearly not been beaten either. She tensed up, thinking, At any minute, he could do something to me. But as she walked past one of her friends who was already seated in the gallery, Hawash saw her smile and reach toward her, grazing her fingertips. With that light touch, she felt anchored.
When Hawash took her seat at the witness table in front of the judges, with Kroker by her side, she kept her eyes on Kerber. Raslan was only a few feet away, and when she removed her mask, he studied her. Hawash had decided to testify in German because she didn’t want to recreate the dynamics that defined her and Raslan in Syria — where she was a victim, and he had power. She was adamant: “I am not a victim today.” Speaking in German also allowed her, not the translator, to choose her words.
Kerber began by prompting Hawash to introduce herself and state what happened to her. Hawash took a long drink of water and avoided looking at Raslan, focusing on Kerber, as if it were a one-on-one conversation.
At a regime checkpoint outside Damascus, she told the court, the mukhabarat confiscated her ID and possessions. If she wanted them back, they said, she must turn herself in at Branch 251. Without an ID in Syria, life is impossible. She agonized and even went into hiding, she said, terrified of entering the notorious facility. Finally, she had no choice but to go. She didn’t mention torture. Only that at some point, the interrogation was no longer “friendly.” Eventually she was let go, she said, without her ID. She was issued a one-way travel permit and told to leave Syria and never come back.
The judges’ questioning then began, aimed at soliciting specifics regarding dates and times, about torture and whether she was sexually assaulted. As they had done with other witnesses, they referred to Hawash’s statement to the police given the year before. Hawash bristled; did they doubt her?
Reluctantly, she recounted how her investigator became impatient with her, telling her he could better refresh her memory in another room. She was then bound, blindfolded and taken underground — she could tell from the dank smell. But she was generally allowed to see, and what she saw were implements of torture and walls filthy with dirt and blood. She testified to being beaten — sometimes seated, sometimes standing with her arms bound above her head and suspended from the ceiling — on her head, neck, ears and face. Under judges’ questioning, she specified that her torturers applied electric devices to her knees and fingertips, then her shoulders and chest. She recalled how she had no sense of time: “I didn’t know if it was day or night.”
Yes, she answered the judges, she could hear others crying and screaming.
After an hour, Hawash asked for a break, and the court went into a 15-minute recess. Seeing that Hawash had nearly finished her bottle of water, Kerber asked a court aide to bring a new one. Hawash rose from the table, visibly flustered. Would people now see her differently? As someone weak? She hated Kerber for asking for details. As she made her way to the exit, her friends surrounded her, escorting her outdoors to the nearby riverfront.
The courtroom had begun to empty when the aide returned with the water. Kerber came down off the dais, took it and walked over to where Hawash had been seated, switching out the bottles herself.
When Hawash returned, she felt ready again. She had thought about it, and she realized that she didn’t see others who were tortured as weak. She answered all the remaining questions, from the prosecutors, defense counsel and her own lawyers. In less than an hour, Kerber thanked her. It was over.
Before court was dismissed, Kerber added 10 counts of murder to Raslan’s charges, based on testimony presented the previous month. As Kerber read out the names of the witnesses, Hawash was astounded to recognize many of them. How small is the world? she thought. It turned and turned, and those who felt we had no power — you wanted to silence us. Those of us who survived, we are the ones judging you.
On Jan. 13, the day the verdict would be announced, spectators who wanted a coveted seat in the courtroom began lining up at 3 a.m. outside the courthouse doors, which wouldn’t open until 8. In the darkness, with temperatures below freezing, people camped out with snacks and thermoses of hot coffee, happily sharing with strangers. Syrians had come from across Germany, Europe and beyond. There were several joyful reunions.
But any sense of excitement or satisfaction with what was expected to be a guilty verdict was tempered by frustration over just how small the day’s justice would be and how blatantly ongoing the Syrian regime’s impunity is. Shortly after 6 a.m., several Syrian women from Families for Freedom, an organization campaigning to end enforced disappearances and political detention, walked out of the line to the plaza in front of the courthouse, facing away from those waiting. With photos of their loved ones scattered behind them, and led by a co-founder of the organization, Fadwa Mahmoud, they stood silently, holding signs that demanded more. Mahmoud’s read: “WHERE ARE THEY?”
The Syrians held vigil as camera crews filmed them. Two women pushed a window open from still-dark offices across the way and leaned out to take a picture. It was the court clerk and one of the judges, their faces illuminated by the light of their cellphones.
Once the doors opened, only a few were able to enter. After security checks, it would take another two hours to seat everyone in the small gallery. When Raslan was brought in, in handcuffs, people stood to see him. “What a sight!” someone said in Arabic. “U’bal m’almak,” Mahmoud said. May your boss be next. Mazen Darwish, one of the Syrian lawyers who helped bring the case to fruition, sighed: “I wish it were in Damascus. How different it would be.”
As the judges climbed the dais, everyone quieted down, waiting for Kerber to signal they could sit. Hawash was seated at the front with the other joint plaintiffs. Her hair was freshly cut in a high fade.
She had come back to Koblenz twice before. On Dec. 8, she gave her closing statement. In her prepared remarks, she told the court that she had participated for herself, but also out of a “sense of responsibility” toward all the others who had been through “a similar painful experience” — but who didn’t have any legal recourse. She emphasized that she felt a “sense of duty” to those still detained, “those who do not know that we are standing here today and may never know.”
She also returned on Jan. 6 to hear Raslan’s final words, though she had few expectations. And he said nothing inconsistent with what he maintained all along. What she felt then, she says, is best expressed with a German word: Gleichgültig. Indifferent. But today, she thought, “is the last time I enter this room, and I will exit it different.”
The judges took their seats. Kerber held in her hands the judgment that she would read out loud, pausing regularly to allow the Arabic interpreters to translate. It would take more than five hours, with a few 10-minute breaks and none for lunch. She announced the verdict and sentence first.
Findingin the form of killing, torture, serious deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault in combination with murder in 27 cases, the court sentenced him to life imprisonment. But the court allowed that the sentence could be suspended on probation after 15 years, taking into consideration that, among other things, Raslan had defected. He did not appear to react.
As it had in the al-Gharib verdict, the court stated that the evidence had clearly shown that the Syrian regime is engaged in widespread and systematic use of torture against its people, a finding that is of strategic importance to those hoping eventually to hold higher echelons of the regime accountable. While such a finding can’t enjoin the German government or any German entity from engaging with the regime (by, say, opening an embassy or winning reconstruction contracts), it can, proponents argue, make it considerably more publicly fraught. After all, these are not the findings of Syrian activists or human rights advocates but of an impartial high-level German court, which in a public forum heard evidence that was subjected to the challenge of a defense and rigorous judicial inquiry.
“We cannot stop the momentum of normalization,” admits Kroker, referring to what appears to be the likely international rehabilitation of al-Assad’s regime. “But we can slow it down, or put a dent in it.”
Speaking to the news media after the verdict, Jasper Klinge, the main prosecutor in the Raslan case, said, “We will do everything in our power to ensure that such crimes continue to be punished in the future, in close cooperation with our partners abroad.” (The German government’s next case, against a Syrian doctor accused of war crimes on the regime’s behalf, would begin in Frankfurt the following week.)
In and around the courthouse, Syrians granted news interviews in Arabic, English and German, reflecting on what it all might mean. Al-Bunni had tears in his eyes but also said Raslan should never be given the chance to leave prison. Off camera, some wondered just what exactly Raslan was still taking notes on in court, while others laughed wryly at how his own lawyer bailed after the first hour, overheard saying that his partner lawyer “would have to just go through with this on his own.”
Hawash didn’t particularly care how much prison time Raslan received. What was important to her were the broader findings about the nature of the regime, she says, which she believes will lay the groundwork for the road ahead, no matter how long it takes.
But her composure crumbled later in the afternoon when, in Kerber’s summation of the testimony, the judge recounted the specifics of the plaintiffs’ detentions, by name. She cried silently as Kerber described the conditions of Hawash’s torture in German, which were even more excruciating to her as the interpreter repeated them in Arabic. Sitting in the German courtroom where this victory was won, Hawash suffered flashbacks to her Syrian cell. In comparison to the day she testified, she felt even more exposed in the now-packed courtroom. She again feared being seen as weak.
But she knew now that she was not. It had been almost two years since she joined the case. “I can leave it here,” she said. “I can start something new.”
All she wanted now was to walk out of the building and call her parents. Syria’s unraveling had flung her family far apart, but she was always thinking of them, especially that day. She wanted to hear her parents’ voices and tell them, “It’s done.”
Alia Malek is the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria” and is the daughter of Syrian immigrants living in Baltimore. She directs the international reporting concentration at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She previously wrote for the magazine about Syrians who traveled across the Mediterranean to Europe to rebuild their lives. Lena Mucha is a Berlin-based photographer and frequent contributor to The New York Times. She often works in Latin America focusing on youth culture and Indigenous communities.