Eyad A.'s case may set a legal precedent that could inspire other countries and jurisdictions to also start convicting Syrian war criminals | Photo: Matthias von Hein/DW
Eyad A.'s case may set a legal precedent that could inspire other countries and jurisdictions to also start convicting Syrian war criminals | Photo: Matthias von Hein/DW

He presented himself as a refugee fleeing the violence of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's violent regime. While he may have been a defector, Eyad A.'s trangressions are beyond redemption, a court in Koblenz found.

A German court on Wednesday sentenced former Syrian secret service agent Eyad A. to four-and-a-half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. Prosecutors had originally sought a five-and-a-half-year sentence.

The 44-year-old is accused of rounding up people following anti-government demonstrations in the Syrian city of Douma in 2011 and delivering them to a detention center where they were tortured. Prosecutors alleged that Eyad A. had taken at least 30 anti-government protesters to a secret prison near Damascus known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251, to be tortured that year.

The grave consequences of the Arab spring uprising in Syria ten years ago reverberate until this day and have contributed as a major factor to the massive rise in migration to Europe of people escaping the war-torn country.

Read more: Syrians seek justice for war crimes in Europe's courts

Setting a legal precedent

The verdict in the western German city of Koblenz marks the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on state-sponsored torture by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Human rights campaigners hope the decision will set a precedent for other cases.

"This momentous decision, through the efforts of incredible Syrians, is the beginning of a path to fuller justice in Syria," said Sara Kayyali, Syrian researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In bringing the case, German prosecutors invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction of international law, which allows war crimes committed by foreigners to be prosecuted in other countries – especially if they present as refugees themselves abroad.

DW reporter Matthias von Hein reported from the courtroom in Koblenz, highlighting that this "is the first time that a court has ruled that the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity, and that President Bashar Assad's regime is conducting an offensive against the population that involves kidnapping, torture and murder."

The German Foreign Office, meanwhile, also stressed the symbolic importance of the trial's outcome.

Only taking orders?

Eyad A.'s defense team, meanwhile, had pleaded for acquittal, arguing that the accused could have been killed had he not followed orders. The defense also said that while Eyad A. had helped detain people protesting against the Syrian regime, he did not ultimately carry out his superior's orders to shoot them.

DW's Matthias von Hein said that "Eyad was only a cog in the machine. Moreover, he turned away from the Assad regime at an early stage, which was considered a mitigating factor by the court -- as was the fact that the charges were largely based on his own testimony."

Von Hein stressed, however, that it was clear from the beginning that the case was not just about Eyad A. The judge presiding over the trial, Anne Kerber, "talked at great length about the system of torture in Syria as a system of oppression, the system that Bashar Assad had installed to keep his iron grip on the country," von Hein said. That system, to this day, continues to displace tens of thousands of people each year, driving many more to migrate towards Europe.

Read more: German joins lawsuits against Syrian torture regime in legal first

Fritz Streiff, a human rights lawyer and legal advisor at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, told DW that the court decision was a "small but very important step towards justice for the massive and structural crimes committed in Syria."

Why did the trial take place in Germany?

Eyad A. had defected in 2012 and fled Syria a year later. After spending time in Turkey and Greece, he arrived in Germany in 2018 where he was recognized by his alleged victims, several of whom had come to Germany as refugees.

He was arrested in 2019, along with a more senior ex-Syrian official, Anwar R., who is also on trial in Koblenz. The trial of the 58-year-old, who allegedly was one of Eyad A.'s superiors, is still ongoing and is expected to last until October. Anwar R. is facing charges of crimes against humanity for supervising the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners, resulting in the deaths of at least 58 people.

The trial was closely followed by members of the Syrian community in Germany. A number of witnesses testified about the severe abuse they experienced themselves at the hands of the prison guards under Eyad A.'s orders. But there were also expert testimonies to represent those whose voices have forever been silenced.

Read more: Refugees in Germany: Fleeing Syria and Bashar Assad's henchmen

Tens of thousands of torture victims murdered

Some of the most harrowing details about the conditions inside Syria during the early years of the civil war, which started in 2011, were shared in candid detail in the Koblenz courtroom: A former employee of the Damascus cemetery administration described how, for several years before his escape, he was forced by the intelligence service to transport bodies and bury them in mass graves.

He had to do this several times a week, several hundred bodies each time. According to the man, many bodies showed signs of severe abuse.

A Syrian military photographer was also brought in as an expert witness. He recounted how for two years, he had to take pictures of people killed in custody for the state's death bureaucracy. He had secretly made copies of the photographs and had smuggled them out of the country, handing them over to the German federal prosecutor's office.

During the trial, tens of thousands of such images of people tortured and starved to death were analyzed in Koblenz. They highlighted the industrial scale of the torture and death machinery in place in Bashar Assad's Syria that still pushes people to leave their homeland, seeking safety elsewhere.

DW reporter Matthias von Hein, meanwhile, commented that the "evidence presented will have an impact on future cases. The process of coming to terms with crimes against humanity in Syria has begun and is far from over."

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 88,000 civilians have died of torture in government-run prisons since 2011.

Bigger picture looks bleak

One activist said that the sentence signals that "the time of impunity is over," however, there are also obvious reasons why further progress in prosecuting the henchmen of the Assad regime might take a lot more time and effort:

  • As Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute which underpins the International Criminal Court (ICC), it would be extremely difficult to have the legal basis for prosecuting war criminals there.
  • Human rights lawyers around the world have been collecting evidence against Assad and his accomplices for a decade now, without an obvious forum in which to present it in a comprehensive fashion.
  • The ICC might have fulfill the requirements to qualify as such a forum even despite Syria's refusal to sign the Rome Statute, however, the UN Security Council would have had to approve this, which is unlikely to happen as Russia – Assad's most powerful ally – has a veto power on the council.

*Editor's note: InfoMigrants follows the German press code, which encourages protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and refraining from publishing full names in such cases.

This article was written based on a number of DW reports on the trial in Koblenz. It is largely based on reporting by Matthias von Hein and the DW newsroom team.


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