BERLIN and KOBLENZ, Germany — Hassan Mahmoud believed his testimony about the death of his youngest brother in a Damascus prison would help bring to justice a onetime senior member of Syria's secret police. But even though the trial is thousands of miles from Syria, in Germany, he knew his testimony carried risks.
Before he was scheduled to take the stand in October 2020, in the courtroom in the western German city of Koblenz, he feared especially for another brother, Waseem, who still lived in Syria.
As the date for Hassan's testimony approached, Syrian security officers went searching for Waseem in their home town of Salamiyah. Both brothers understood this to be a deadly threat from the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Assad.
"I cannot sacrifice another brother," Hassan, 53, says he told his German lawyers. "I will not give testimony until [Waseem] is out of Syria."
Hassan Mahmoud was one of more than two dozen Syrians who have appeared in the Koblenz Higher Regional Court since April 2020 to detail brutal experiences of torture and other abuse in Syria in a crimes against humanity trial. German federal judges already convicted one former official in the case in February as an accessory and sentenced him to 4 1/2 years in prison. The trial of a more senior ex-officer, Anwar Raslan, continues. But witnesses in the case and their relatives say they are dealing with threats and harassment.
"The regime is still in power and we know still have the full authority to punish," says Joumana Seif, a Syrian human rights lawyer and researcher at the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which is representing some of the Syrians on the prosecution side in the case. "We know the behavior of this regime."
Although many Syrian torture survivors have delivered excruciating testimony despite the risks, Seif says some Syrians have disavowed their testimony or withdrawn from the witness list out of fear. "Actually, this is the main challenge we are facing," she says.
The trial in Koblenz is the first of its kind, widely regarded as a landmark case to prosecute members of the Assad regime outside Syria.
Raslan, 58, was a colonel in Syria's General Intelligence Directorate who prosecutors say was in charge of interrogations at the Branch 251 detention center in Damascus. He got asylum in Germany but German police arrested him in February 2019 based on allegations from Syrian refugees and human rights advocates in Germany. Charges against him include torture of more than 4,000 prisoners in 2011 and 2012, leading to the deaths of 58 people.
He is "strongly suspected of crimes against humanity and other crimes," according to the prosecutors' statement. "As head of the investigative department, Anwar R. determined and directed the operations in the prison, including the use of systematic and brutal torture," the statement says.
Raslan denies the charges.
The Mahmoud family is haunted by its experience with Branch 251. Hassan's youngest brother, Hayan, died in the prison in 2012, according to prison officials, but the family could never recover the body.
Hassan and Waseem Mahmoud detail the story in a Zoom call in Germany with NPR.
Hayan was 26 and had recently graduated from medical school when he was arrested as part of the sweep of detentions as street protests swelled against the Syrian government.
Just 12 days after the arrest, a prison official phoned the family. "We got a telephone call that said our brother had died and said you have to look after the body," Hassan recounts. The official offered no further details.
Waseem, who is 46 and also a doctor, went to Branch 251 to identify and collect his brother's remains. He searched through the freezers in a hospital morgue and then a truck with more corpses, all disfigured by torture.
"The bodies were close together. It was horrible," says Waseem, "but because I'm a doctor, I can deal with bodies. I tried to find my brother, but I couldn't recognize him."
Waseem says Col. Raslan was monitoring the search.
He called Raslan; the colonel was angry. "He told me, literally, 'Take any body from these bodies and think that it's Hayan, put him in the ground and say nothing after that,'" Waseem recalls.
More than a decade later, Hassan was set to testify about his brother Hayan's death. But as Syrian officials were searching for Waseem, he knew he had to get him to safety.
Soon after, Waseem was smuggled out of Syria following a successful campaign, with help from the French Embassy in Beirut, to arrange an emergency visa for France for him. The brothers would not specify the efforts, but sum it up as a thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have resettled in Germany in recent years, many of them survivors of torture and other abuses under Assad's regime. They have helped federal prosecutors build cases in German courts, which allow the most serious human rights crimes to be tried even if they are alleged to be committed outside Germany. That has made Germany a go-to place to seek justice for grave international crimes. The country and other European courts have filled a void left by the absence of an international tribunal. Russia and China have blocked efforts in the United Nations Security Council to bring Assad regime members to the International Criminal Court.
But as witnesses face harassment, intimidation and threats, advocates have called on European countries to provide better protection measures, such as concealing witness' identities.
Still, such protections may not guarantee safety: Family members still in Syria remain vulnerable to attack when a witness' identity is leaked.
German law enforcement agencies do not usually talk to media. But Tobias Schneider, an expert on Syria at a Berlin think tank, the Global Policy Institute, follows their investigations closely. He says they are aware the Syrian government keeps close tabs on Syrian exiles in Germany.
"If you read the annual reports of [Germany's] domestic intelligence agencies," he says, "they are keenly aware that this exists [but] they simply do not have the means or the capacity to meaningfully combat this."
The Syrian government did not reply to NPR's repeated request for comment.
Schneider points to a past attack in Germany that sent chills through the Syrian émigré community there. In 2019, a Syrian man, who campaigned against the Assad regime in Germany, died after he was attacked with an ax in his home in the German city of Hamburg. Syrian activists feared that the Assad regime or its supporters were involved. German police are still investigating.
Schneider says Syrian activists understood the killing was a message that the regime could somehow target them even in Europe. "It doesn't have to get to the point where you are directly threatened, as a Syrian, to know what the potential threats are around you," he says.
Despite the threats, many Syrians have showed up in the Koblenz courtroom to face the man they accuse of perpetrating atrocities.
Wassim Mukdad says he felt relieved after testifying in August 2020. He describes his testimony about being held at Branch 251 in 2011 to NPR.
"It's a horrible experience. Lack of food, lack of medicine, I remember clearly that some have to stand up most of the night for others to sleep," Mukdad says. "They hit us on the street and with their fists, with their feet. The whole interrogation took place in Branch 251 and it was always accompanied with active torture, as if you are now in hell."
And as he testified, the man Mukdad says ordered his abuse — Raslan — sat just a few feet away in the courtroom.
"It's not easy, personally, to share your bad experiences on a public stage," Mukdad says, "but this is the first step in a long way towards justice."
It's been almost five years since Mukdad fled Syria to start his life again. Now in Berlin, he has learned the language, got married and launched a career playing Syrian music on a stringed instrument called the oud.
He never told anyone in prison he's a musician, he says, so they wouldn't hurt his hands.
Mukdad insists it is crucial for survivors to find the courage to testify in court. "The solution is not to be more afraid. The solution is to face it more with more determination," he says.
This way, they can send a message back to Damascus: "It's a very direct message that your crimes are not going to pass unpunished," he says.
Mukdad is gratified Germany is setting an example — even a man accused of horrific crimes gets due process.
"I was a little bit angry, but I was also proud that Anwar Raslan is now in a fair trial and his dignity is saved," Mukdad says. "In contrast to what he did where we were suffering unbearable conditions of torture under his watch."
A verdict is expected later this year.