A German court has rendered its first verdict in a historic trial of two former Syrian military officials implicated in crimes against humanity after almost a decade of war in Syria.
Eyad al-Gharib, a 44-year-old former member of Syria's intelligence service, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in jail "for aiding and abetting a crime against humanity in the form of torture and deprivation of liberty," said judge Anne Kerber.
Prosecutors charged that Gharib, the lower ranking of the two officers in the case, rounded up at least 30 anti-government protesters in the Syrian city of Douma in 2011 and delivered them to a notorious detention facility in Damascus, where they were tortured.
"It is right, it is fair," Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer and activist, says about the verdict. Bunni identified Syrian witnesses for the trial, in the western German city of Koblenz, and also served as a witness himself.
He says Gharib made a statement to the court that he supports justice for the victims. "The evidence against him was just his testimony," Bunni says.
Gharib was arrested in Germany in 2019. He had arrived a year earlier and applied for asylum for himself and his family after fleeing Syria in 2013.
Gharib joined the intelligence service in mid-1990, initially as a sports instructor. In 2011, as Syria unraveled during an uprising that evolved into a civil war, Gharib was reassigned to a squad of men who tracked down protesters, arrested them and delivered them to a prison known as al-Khatib, or Branch 251.
He did not hide his past affiliation when he arrived in Germany, as revealed in court testimony. He provided a 30-page document on Branch 251, where he reportedly included the detail that he could hear the daily screams of torture victims, as German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.
His testimony helped prosecutors build a case against his former supervisor, Anwar Raslan, the primary defendant. But soon after Gharib was called as a witness, his status was transformed to a suspect and he was arrested by German police.
"A lot of Syrians are confident, even if this is a little fish, it is the beginning of justice for what happened and what is happening," says journalist Mohamed Amjahid, who reports on Germany's Syrian community.
Lawyers representing Syrian victims welcome the ruling. Steve Kostas, a senior lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which represents four victims in the case, calls it "a tremendous precedent."
Kostas calls on other European prosecutors to move forward urgently, especially where alleged Syrian government perpetrators are known to be residing.
The trial is about more than two Syrian officers. "It's the first criminal trial ever against regime officials," says Fritz Streiff, a human rights lawyer who hosts Branch251, a podcast covering the trial. "After 10 years of criminal impunity, this is an important symbol."
During the trial starting in April, the brutality of the Syrian government has been meticulously documented, with state prosecutors describing the killing and torture in a Syrian prison on an "almost industrial scale," according to the broadcaster DW.
Testimony from more than a dozen Syrian torture survivors on top of official government documents smuggled out of Syria and presented in court showed that systematic repression was ordered by top regime officials, according to Streiff. "This kind of documentation contributed to a growing understanding of the horrors," he says.
There are two key reasons that the case could be tried in Germany. It is home to more than 800,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom were witnesses. Germany has also adopted universal jurisdiction, a legal provision that allows its courts to prosecute crimes against humanity that may have occurred anywhere, even when the perpetrators and plaintiffs are not citizens.
Russia and China, Syrian government allies, have blocked attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria.
Syrian activists who sought asylum in Germany have taken a large role to bring the case to court. Their painstaking fight could have international repercussions. Most world powers have shunned and levied economic sanctions against the Assad government. But after largely defeating the uprising and fighting militant groups, the government is pushing to be readmitted to the international community. The German trial spotlighted heinous wartime criminal acts that could ensure that Assad remains an international pariah, say human rights and foreign affairs experts.
On the final day of his trial last week, DW reported, Gharib wiped away tears as his attorney argued that he had to follow orders in Damascus, a defense strategy known as "necessity as defense." The lawyers argued that Gharib and his family would have been killed if he disobeyed.
Human rights advocates disagree. "At some point, he did have a choice," says rights lawyer Streiff. "He joined years ago. He had a choice then."
Gharib's lawyer, Hannes Linke, said he will appeal the verdict. But he described the ruling as "in large parts convincing" and said it would "send a clear signal to war crimes perpetrators worldwide," according to The Associated Press.
The trial will continue for Raslan, a former colonel who was in charge of interrogation at Branch 251.
"It takes many small fish to run a massive crime against humanity," says Kostas, "and each of those persons who took part are responsible and they should be prosecuted."