The head of Human Rights Watch hailed as “historic” a German court’s sentencing Thursday of a former Syrian colonel to life in prison for crimes against humanity in his war-ravaged country.
In the first global trial over state-sponsored torture and killings in Syria, Anwar Raslan, 58, was found guilty of overseeing the murder of 27 people at the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251”, in 2011 and 2012.
“This is really historic,” HRW executive director Kenneth Roth told reporters from Geneva, where he was presenting the organisation’s annual report when the news of the verdict dropped.
Raslan had sought refuge in Germany after deserting the Syrian regime in 2012.
Prosecutors accused him of overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the detention centre, but not all of the deaths could be proven.
Raslan was put on trial in April 2020 along with another lower-ranking defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, who was accused of helping to arrest protesters and deliver them to the detention centre.
Gharib was sentenced to four and a half years in prison last year for complicity in crimes against humanity, in the first verdict worldwide over torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The case was brought using the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows offences to be prosecuted even if they were committed in a different country.
Roth said HRW had helped provide some of the evidence in the trial, maintaining that “the torture and murder in custody that (Raslan) was convicted (of) was a key part of the modus operandi of the Assad government.”
He lamented that vetoes by Assad’s main ally Russia, as well as China, at the United Nations Security Council had blocked efforts to bring cases of alleged Syrian atrocities to the International Criminal Court.
But in this situation, where “the natural international institution of justice is unavailable, we don’t give up,” Roth said.
He welcomed the fact that the UN had tasked an international prosecutor with gathering the evidence about war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, that could be used by national prosecutors in such cases.
“Germany is very much at the forefront of this, but other governments are joining as well, (getting behind) the idea that certain crimes are so heinous — torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity — that they can be prosecuted in any national court.”