The long road to justice
In January 2022 a former Syrian prison governor and an ex-convict faced one another in a packed court in January to hear the outcome of a landmark trial. Harriet Salem tells the story of the band of refugees, victims and prosecutors who spent years bringing the case to court using laws originally designed to tackle 17th century pirates
13th January 2022 (Taken from: #46)
Anwar Raslan betrayed no emotion as he stood to hear the judges’ verdict. The courtroom in Koblenz, a small city sandwiched between the Rhine and Moselle rivers in western Germany, was packed. Since the early hours of the morning, victims and their families, journalists and activists, had been patiently queueing for a spot in the public gallery to bear witness to this moment. During the two-year trial, prosecutors had laid out in painstaking detail the abuses that had taken place under Raslan’s watch as head of the notorious al-Khatib prison, also known as Branch 251, in Damascus, Syria.
Among the evidence were photographs of piles of mutilated corpses taken by a defected military doctor, known only by the codename ‘Caesar’. Witnesses took the stand to give shocking testimony about torture, including electrocutions, whippings and beatings. One man recounted that prison guards sodomised him with a broomstick, another that he was suspended from the ceiling by his wrists and hit with batons. A driver for the Damascus Funeral Authority, who was assigned the number Z30/07/19 to protect his identity, testified about the gruesome work he had undertaken ferrying corpses, dripping with blood and maggots, from prisons including al-Khatib to trenches to be buried in mass graves. On average, he estimated, he drove four truckloads, each containing up to 700 bodies, every week.
The case against Raslan was a landmark, not only because justice had finally caught up with him some 2,500 miles away from the scene of his crimes, but also because it was the first trial of a high-ranking Syrian official for crimes against humanity committed under President Bashar al-Assad’s totalitarian regime. It stood as a first, brave attempt to bring justice to bear after years of chaos and horror – and it started with a chance encounter between the former prison head and one of his detainees in the streets of Berlin.
In the courtroom in Koblenz that day was Anwar al-Bounni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer. It was not the first time he had encountered Raslan. In the decades leading up to this moment, the lives of the two men, who share a first name and were born just four years apart, have repeatedly dovetailed and diverged.
Al-Bounni was born in 1959 in Hama, a city on the banks of the Orontes River in northwest Syria, to Christian parents who were well-known locally for their left-wing politics. He grew up fast. When he was just 12 his father, who aside from his regular day job had a sideline as a goldsmith making high-end replicas of antiques for unscrupulous dealers, passed away. As a young man al-Bounni worked to help fund his younger siblings’ education. In a bitter irony, among the jobs the future lawyer took was a gig as a constructor at Saydnaya prison. When al-Bounni worked on the building, its design included bright open-air spaces and sports facilities, but it would later become part of the Syrian regime’s network of prisons used to brutally oppress anyone that dared oppose it. In 2016, Amnesty International documented “repeated torture” of inmates in the jail including barbaric techniques such as the dulab – in which victims are forced into a vehicle tyre with their foreheads pressed to their knees and beaten. The NGO estimates that up to 13,000 prisoners at Saydnaya have been sentenced to death by hanging in ‘trials’ that typically last just a couple of minutes.
Al-Bounni has plenty of first-hand knowledge of the brutal tactics the Syrian authorities are willing to use against their own people. In 1982, a Sunni uprising in his hometown, Hama, was brutally crushed by the Syrian army which, on the orders of then-president Hafez al-Assad, laid siege to the town for 72 days, bombarding it with heavy artillery fire before moving in with bulldozers to raze entire neighbourhoods. During a sweep of his house, Syrian soldiers intent on brutalising the local population beat al-Bounni, set his beard on fire and threatened to kill him with a bayonet. In total, at least 20,000 people were killed in the Hama massacre. Al-Bounni’s family’s left-wing politics also drew the ire of the authorities. Al-Bounni tallies up the combined total of years that he and his siblings have spent in jail. “73!” he exclaims. “Can you imagine? That’s a whole lifetime for one person – it’s more years than I have been alive!” Visiting relatives in prison left its mark on al-Bounni. Like his brothers and sisters, he dreamed of a better Syria, one in which people could vote freely and weren’t sent to jail for their political beliefs. But unlike his siblings who were inspired by revolutionary Communist pamphlets and Marxist ideology, al-Bounni turned to tomes on human rights law.
By the mid-1980s, al-Bounni had started his legal training. Around that time, a young Anwar Raslan was also pursuing studies in law. He was a dedicated student and in 1993 finished near the top of his class at Damascus Police Academy. After graduating, however, the two Anwars would pursue radically different career paths. Unlike most of the elite in Assad’s Syria, Raslan wasn’t Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam practiced by the dictator’s family, but a Sunni who hailed from Houla in Homs province. As an outsider he worked hard to establish a reputation as a fierce and ruthless regime loyalist. Meanwhile al-Bounni, inspired by those early prison visits to relatives, dedicated himself to defending political dissidents from journalists to revolutionaries. On one occasion he waved the bloodied handkerchief of an activist at a judge as proof he had been beaten in prison, an act that got him barred from the courtroom.
While Raslan rose rapidly through the ranks of the Intelligence Directorate – the branch of the Mukhabarat military intelligence service charged with monitoring and quelling internal dissent – al-Bounni’s work took a lot from him and paid little. He often defended clients pro bono and once had to sell his car to cover expenses. When he wasn’t in the courtroom, he spent his time drinking cardamom-laced coffee and smoking cigarettes on the steps of the Palace of Justice courthouse in Damascus – a spot where his clients’ desperate relatives knew they would be sure to find him in their hour of need. “My wife is a very, very patient woman,” he says with a smile. “My work hasn’t made her life easy or our family rich.”
In June 2000, Syria’s president Hafez al-Assad died. His second eldest son, Bashar al-Assad, who had trained as an ophthalmologist in London and as a young man had a reputation for being shy and softly spoken, took the reins of power. He had become Hafez’s heir apparent only after his older brother was killed in a car-crash in 1994. Many hoped that Bashar’s quieter character, time overseas and marriage to his British-born and raised wife, Asma, would usher in a more forward-thinking era in Syria. Al-Bounni and other human-rights lawyers seized the moment, establishing, in 2004, a European Union-funded human rights organisation, the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research. Their optimism, however, proved short-lived.
Bashar quickly gained a reputation for ruling with an even firmer hand than his father, and al-Bounni’s non-profit attracted the attention of the authorities. In May 2006, he was on his way to a work appointment when a group of men descended on him. He was blindfolded and bundled into a car. His wife, Raghida Issa happened to be travelling with him and could only look on in horror as her husband was dragged away. One of his captors, al-Bounni noticed, was a man with a large, distinctive mole under his left eye. A man who al-Bounni would later learn was a rising star in Syrian intelligence. It was the first time that he would come face to face with Anwar Raslan.
I have a lot of optimism even in terrible times. Some people think this is crazy, but in my experience it helps you to survive”
Among the charges levelled at al-Bounni were ‘spreading false news that could weaken public morale’ and ‘working with an unlicensed political association with an international nature’. In 2007, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Conditions were harsh. Al-Bounni was beaten, subjected to psychological torture and denied access to medication for his painful rheumatism, a condition worsened by the overcrowded prison cells with little room for prisoners to sit or lie down. Yet despite the hardship, he remained ever hopeful that better days were around the corner for Syria. “I have a lot of optimism even in terrible times,” al-Bounni tells me 15 years later. “Some people think this is crazy, but in my experience, it helps you to survive.”
That hope grew when he was released from prison. Not only was he a free man, but change was in the air. It was 2011, and the revolutionary force of the Arab Spring was rippling through the Middle East. Dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya had crumbled. Activists in Syria hoped that Assad would be the next domino to topple. The number of armed groups, including Islamic extremists, multiplied and the government lost control of vast swathes of the country. But Assad did not fall. Unlike his counterparts, he doubled down, ratcheted up the violence and clung on to power, with the help of Russian military might.
It was around this time, as Syria descended into full-blown civil war, that Raslan was placed in charge of al-Khatib prison. By then he had reached the rank of colonel. With the government on the back foot, the crackdown on political dissidents had increased. Al-Bounni continued to work as a human rights lawyer but the risks were mounting. In 2014, he learned that the authorities were once again hunting him after his brother was arrested at a wedding party after police mistook him for his sibling. Reluctantly, al-Bounni decided it was time to leave Syria for the sake of his wife and children. It was potentially a matter of life or death. By this time Amnesty International estimated that around 11,000 people detained by government forces had gone missing. Many were believed dead. Among their number was one of al-Bounni’s close friends and a colleague at his rights organisation, Khalil Ma’touq, who has not been heard from since he was arrested by government forces in Damascus in 2012.
Al-Bounni’s escape was a moment of high drama. Utilising his work contacts in Germany he obtained visas in advance for his family. The biggest challenge was getting out of Syria unscathed. He decided to send his wife and adult children ahead of him. “I knew they would use them to get to me, this is a common tactic [used by the authorities] in Syria, so it was important that they crossed the border first,” he tells me. They packed just a couple of suitcases to create the illusion of a short family holiday to Lebanon. As a wanted man, al-Bounni’s escape required a more elaborate ruse. Fearing that shaving his moustache off would leave a noticeable white patch, he instead dyed it blonde. Blue contact lenses disguised his dark brown eyes. With a fake identity card in his pocket, he timed his border crossing to coincide with dusk when it would be sufficiently dark to hide his face somewhat but not enough for the guard to pull out a flashlight. His story, if he was questioned at a checkpoint as a man travelling alone, would be that he was dodging the military draft – a lesser crime in Syria than being a prominent human rights defender.
The disguise worked. After crossing the border into Lebanon, the family flew to Berlin. Much harder, al-Bounni tells me, was building a new life in Europe. In Germany, he was not licensed to practice law. Thousands of miles away from his homeland and unable to work in the profession to which he had dedicated his life, he felt utterly lost.
Al-Bounni remembered where he’d seen the man before. It was Anwar Raslan, his erstwhile kidnapper”
“These were difficult times, there were times when I did not know whether I had made the right decision to leave,” he says with a sigh. It was during these dark days, in 2014, while living in temporary accommodation for refugees in east Berlin, that al-Bounni spotted a man whose face was naggingly familiar while out on a walk with his wife. He asked her if she had known the man in Syria, but she said she’d never met him.
It wasn’t until a few days later that al-Bounni remembered where he’d seen the man before. His face had been aged by wrinkles and he now wore glasses, but the distinctive mole had remained. It was Anwar Raslan, his erstwhile kidnapper, living the life of a free man in Germany.
By the time I meet al-Bounni, years after his chance encounter with Raslan, he has settled into the rhythm of life in Germany. He is set up in a rented room in a trendy renovated warehouse complex. The same floor is used by a Berlin film production company, which gives him a discounted rate, and the entrance hall and corridors are decorated with vintage movie posters. When I enter the room, a simply decorated space that smells faintly of cigarettes, al-Bounni’s eyes are glued to a television set. A spider plant sits on the window ledge and a sofa, tables and a bookshelf crammed with ring binders take up most of the floorspace.
Al-Bounni’s frame is wiry and his energy infectious. His bushy moustache and eyebrows are dashed with grey and his eyes twinkle with kindness. The channel he’s watching is showing rolling news coverage of the war in Ukraine in Arabic. “If the West don’t stop that madman [Putin], he’ll turn Mariupol, all of the country, into another Aleppo,” he says, gesturing in the direction of the television.
Al-Bounni shakes his head as he recalls his chance encounter with Raslan on a Berlin street. At the time he shrugged it off. Back then, he was overloaded with the stresses of establishing a new life in a strange land. But it was a different story in 2018 when, out of the blue, he received a phone call from Patrick Crocker, an attorney at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, who asked him whether he knew of a man named Anwar Raslan. Crocker said that German investigators had opened a criminal investigation into Raslan and were looking for witnesses: would al-Bounni be willing to testify?
Al-Bounni learned that, like him, Raslan had fled Syria with his family. The former colonel had, apparently, defected under pressure from his relatives after pro-government forces summarily executed over 100 people, including women and children, in his hometown of Houla. To escape the country, he persuaded Syrian opposition figures that he could provide them with documents that, he claimed, would detail the mistreatment of up to 20,000 detainees in government prisons, including information on what happened to people’s missing loved ones. Convinced by Raslan’s pledge to provide valuable insider information, they agreed to smuggle him out of the country through rebel-held territory into Jordan and even paid bribes to get a new Syrian passport issued for him in Damascus so that he could travel to Germany and apply for asylum. But while Raslan did work, briefly, as an advisor to the Syrian National Coalition – an influential opposition group – and made an appearance at UN-backed negotiations in Geneva, the promised files never materialised.
After arriving in Germany, Raslan broke ties with the Syrian opposition who had helped him escape. At the time they, like al-Bounni, had bigger concerns than pursuing the former colonel for the file or the money he owed them for the bribes they’d paid on his behalf. Indeed, despite the broken promises, Raslan would likely have been left to his own devices if it hadn’t been for his own bizarre course of action. In February 2015, in a strange turn of events, Raslan filed a complaint with the Berlin police alleging he was being stalked by undercover Assad agents. “I feel acutely threatened, I believe my life is in danger,” he wrote, signing the statement with his former military title ‘Colonel Anwar Raslan’. No action was taken over the claim, but Raslan appeared unable to stay quiet. In 2017 he once again popped up on the police radar, when he put himself forward as a potential witness in an investigation into another Syrian officer. Although he had little to say about the case in question, Raslan ranted to investigators about his own work as an interrogator back in Syria, including about violence and killings at al-Khatib prison. Their interest piqued, investigators shifted gear to focus on Raslan and his life in Syria. “I think he wanted to play the victim, to make himself relevant again or that he never defected and was a spy creating a cover story for himself,” muses al-Bounni. Whatever the reason, it would ultimately put Raslan firmly in the human rights lawyer’s crosshairs.
By then al-Bounni had a new mission. In 2015, some 1.1 million refugees had arrived in Europe. The journey, a dangerous channel crossing in flimsy rubber dinghies from Turkey to Greece, followed by an arduous trek through the Balkans on foot, was long and perilous. But hundreds of thousands of Syrians were willing to brave it. In their home country, the war had reached new levels of depravity. In Syria’s northeast, the Islamic State had seized large swathes of land and implemented strict Sharia law. Punishments for those who violated the militant group’s rules included amputations and public beheadings. Fierce fighting between government forces and rebels had reduced major cities, including Homs and Aleppo, to rubble. Civilians were targeted in chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian army. Among the most popular destinations for those fleeing the conflict was Germany, where then-chancellor Angela Merkel had embraced a ‘refugees welcome’ policy. But hidden among those escaping the violence were some of those who had perpetrated it.
It wasn’t long before al-Bounni started receiving tips from refugees who realised, to their horror, that they were living side by side in Germany with the very individuals who had committed crimes against them. “People called me to tell that they were living as neighbours in a refugee camp with a prison guard who tortured them in Syria, or that they saw a guy that had murdered their brother walking around on the streets of Berlin,” al-Bounni tells me. By 2016 he had re-established his NGO in Germany. He was increasingly interested in a legal principle that allows national courts to exercise jurisdiction over crimes that were not committed on their territory. “Until I came to Germany, I had no idea about universal jurisdiction,” he tells me.
For a long time, the chance of achieving justice for the atrocities committed by the regime in Syria seemed remote. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, which means that crimes committed in the country are not within the Court’s jurisdiction. While the United Nations Security Council does have the power to establish ad-hoc tribunals to prosecute war criminals, as it did for offences committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the international body is, in effect, stopped from doing so in the case of Syria because Russia – which has allied itself with the Assad regime – has, as a permanent member, the power to veto any attempt to set one up. Syrian courts, meanwhile, are unlikely to prosecute atrocities committed by government forces while Assad remains in power.
Universal jurisdiction, however, as al-Bounni had realised, offered a glimmer of hope. Its historical roots can be traced back to a crime considered at the time, in the late 17th century, the scourge of the world, or at least of its seven seas: piracy. Its purpose was to fill a legal gap exploited by marauding boat bandits, namely that no state was able to exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed on the oceans. Today, universal jurisdiction has been extended to apply to a broader group of three ‘core’ crimes considered so heinous that, like piracy, their perpetrators should not be allowed to evade justice. Namely: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It was enshrined in this form in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, negotiated in the wake of World War II, but its underlying rationale, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, remains in essence the same as centuries ago: “to avoid impunity and to prevent those who committed serious crimes from finding a safe haven in third countries.”
The interpretation of the limits of universal jurisdiction are, however, controversial. How states apply the principle in their own domestic legal system varies from country to country. “In its pure form it’s a very broad, powerful tool,” says Valerie Paulet, a legal consultant at Trial International who monitors universal jurisdiction cases across Europe. That brings with it, she explains, a risk that “it can be used for political ends or become ensnared in politics”. A case in point is Belgium, which in 2003 found itself at the centre of an international furore when human rights activists used its unconstrained universal jurisdiction laws to file charges against several high-ranking Israeli and former-US officials, including the then-prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, and former US president George HW Bush, for war crimes. Following veiled threats by the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, about relocating Nato headquarters from Brussels, the Belgian government moved to amend the laws to require a concrete link between the crime and country, such as the victim or perpetrator having Belgium citizenship, effectively kiboshing the activists’ cases.
Paulet says cases like the attempt to file charges against Sharon and Bush are dangerous for universal jurisdiction because lawmakers tend to pull up the drawbridge. It is most appropriate to use, she explains, “when there are essentially no other alternatives” and when the accused is present in the country investigating the crimes. Fortunately for al-Bounni, Germany’s universal jurisdiction legal framework is not only one of the most open in Europe but, along with the Netherlands, France and Sweden, Germany is among the few countries that has a specialised war crimes unit. However, while arrest warrants can be issued for alleged perpetrators who are outside the country, for a trial to take place the accused must be physically present in the court. In this regard, the mass migration from Syria to Germany in 2015 was a game-changer. With both victims and alleged perpetrators now in Germany it was, al-Bounni says, “an opportunity that we just couldn’t miss out on”. The next challenge would be gathering evidence.
Judge Magda Koole’s office is on the 13th floor of the Court of Appeal in The Hague. She’s wearing a mauve cardigan and large spectacles and her voice carries the quiet authority of someone who is accustomed to being listened to. “Universal jurisdiction is a legal tool to make sure that people who commit the most terrible crimes imaginable don’t escape justice,” she tells me.
The Netherlands, as the seat of several international courts, is a forerunner in prosecuting atrocities under its domestic laws. Its courts have already convicted several Syrian refugees who were found to have committed atrocities in their home country. Most recently, on 24th May, the Dutch police arrested a 34-year-old Syrian refugee on suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed while he was a member of the Liwa al-Quds, a pro-regime militia with close ties to Syrian intelligence.
Judge Koole has been working over the last eight years as an investigative judge on war crimes cases. In the Dutch legal system, witnesses rarely testify in the courtroom. Instead, interviews are recorded and incorporated in a casefile, which contains all the investigatory steps taken by law enforcement and all the evidence gathered. It is this that forms the backbone of trial proceedings. Any additional questions for witnesses by defence and prosecution lawyers or trial judges are supervised by a specialised investigative judge in a closed session outside the courtroom (in the Netherlands, as in many European countries, there is no trial by jury and judges play a much more active role in proceedings).
Without witnesses I just don’t think it would be possible for a war crimes case to come to court”
Over the years, Judge Koole has interviewed scores of war crimes witnesses in this capacity. Investigating such cases, she explains, is different to other, ‘regular’ crimes. When police investigate a murder, the crime scene is a crucial treasure trove of evidence – fingerprints, blood spatters and murder weapons can all help identify and link the perpetrator to the act. In contrast, war crimes are mostly committed in countries located miles away from those investigating them and evidence-gathering usually start years, if not decades, after the atrocities occurred, meaning that “you have a situation where crime scenes are inaccessible” because of ongoing conflicts or the passage of time. For example, Koole tells me that a case she recently worked on has just resulted in the conviction of an Afghan prison guard aged 76 who tortured prisoners in the 1980s. Witness accounts, she says, are central to prosecutions. “Without witnesses I just don’t think it would be possible for a [war crimes] case to come to court.”
“In some cases, you can foresee it’s going to be very hard to get the evidence,” Mirjam Blom, prosecutor of international crimes at the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office tells me. Blom, who works closely with Judge Koole, has prosecuted scores of human traffickers and war criminals over the course of her career. Prosecuting atrocities entails special burdens of proof, she says. For example, in cases that involve crimes against humanity, with which Raslan was charged, investigators must demonstrate that an event was not a one-off but widespread or systematic. Moreover, prosecutors often have to find so-called ‘linkage’ evidence to prove command responsibility in cases where, as with Raslan, a commander is on trial for acts they didn’t necessarily commit with their own hand, demonstrating that they nonetheless knew or should have known that abuses would take place on their watch.
Because of these extremely exacting thresholds, the investigators usually need multiple victims to testify to prove different elements of the charges. Locating witnesses who are willing to talk is often not straightforward, however. The international context of such crimes presents “a lot of challenges” for investigators, explains Blom. When crimes were committed a long time ago you have the challenge of “witnesses dying and fading memories”. On the other hand, when conflicts are ongoing, while recollections are fresher, “there are safety concerns for witnesses that are in the country” and investigators must obtain permission from the state where they live in order to officially interview them on its territory. In places like Syria, the authorities are highly unlikely to grant access. In this respect, the arrival of Syrian refugees to Europe removed some obstacles, but not all. Although potential witnesses may now be in Europe, they often have relatives still in Syria who could be targeted for reprisals if they speak out.
The trauma of recounting what happened is another major consideration. Investigators have to ask witnesses to recount, to a total stranger, horrendous events, such as rape and torture, in minute detail. “Questioning can often take place over two days. It’s an intense experience for witnesses. You must keep in mind that many witnesses are also victims,” Judge Koole explains. Trust is vital. “When you sit face-to-face with someone, look in their eyes, then you have a real human connection, I think that’s extremely important for this kind of work,” she tells me.
Back in 2018, trust proved a stumbling block for investigators working on the Raslan case. Although several of Raslan’s victims had named him during immigration interviews – asylum-seekers are routinely asked whether they have been victims of war crimes during their application process – no one wanted to make official statements to police, let alone take the stand in court. Decades of dictatorial oppression has made Syrians paranoid, says al-Bounni. “They don’t want to talk to the authorities because their experience with them in Syria is bad.” Although al-Bounni isn’t licensed to practise law in Germany, his legal training means he can help police to gather evidence, including crucial witness testimony. Most valuable of all is his standing in the exiled Syrian community. “If I ask people to testify, they will do it because they know me. They say: ‘I will do it because you ask,’” he tells me.
One of those al-Bounni identified who was willing to testify against Raslan was Joob, who doesn’t want to disclose his full name or where he lives due to fears over his safety. Joob has a spring in his step today. He’s just moved into his new apartment, where we meet. It’s the first time he’s had his own place since he came to Europe as a refugee from Syria in 2015.
In Syria Joob studied law at Damascus University and he has collaborated with al-Bounni’s NGO on some past projects. Like al-Bounni, Joob was also detained by government forces back in Syria. When the topic turns to his time in prison, his face darkens. He still doesn’t know why he was arrested, but once he was at al-Khatib prison, guards blindfolded him with his own T-shirt and beat him with a cable and the butt of a gun. “They were accusing me of being a traitor and terrorist,” he says. It’s still a difficult topic for him to discuss. In fact, when he first heard that Raslan was being charged, he was reluctant to testify.
“I didn’t want to revisit that time, to go through all the details again,” he says. Raslan’s defence strategy, however, changed his mind. Joob hoped the defected colonel would claim that he was just a cog in the machine, that he regretted the abuses at al-Khatib. But instead, Raslan flat-out denied that he was responsible for the atrocities committed at the prison, claiming that he personally helped so many prisoners escape that he had lost authority at the prison. But what riled Joob the most were Raslan’s defence lawyer’s audacious claims that Raslan had personally offered coffee to detainees. “I wasn’t going to let him claim it was some kind of ‘brunch’,” says Joob. “I owed it to the people that died there to speak out.” Watching al-Bounni, whom he holds in high regard, take the stand as a witness made Joob realise he could too.
Joob’s dilemma, of balancing a desire for justice against a desire to forget, is not unique. Testifying can also mean coming face to face with a perpetrator and running a gauntlet of hostile questioning by defence lawyers. Despite now being in the safety of Europe, Joob felt anxious during the trial. His bad dreams returned. Raslan’s lawyer tried to undermine his story, claiming that he had concocted it to support al-Bounni’s testimony. “But I was able to prove it was true,” he says. “I could give dates, times, names, details that could be checked.”
Raslan’s trial, which started in April 2020, took almost two years to complete. Raslan took detailed notes throughout, often pausing proceedings to ask his interpreter to clarify a translation. Outside the courtroom, victims’ groups and relatives displayed photographs of those who were tortured, killed or had simply disappeared after being detained in al-Khatib. Over 110 days of hearings, scores of witnesses took the stand. Among them were experts on the Middle East, journalists, so-called ‘insiders’ including a former prison guard who served under Raslan’s watch and, crucially, around 50 former detainees at al-Khatib.
They might be able to escape Syria, but they can’t escape their past crimes”
Many were familiar faces to al-Bounni, who had scoured his network of associates from Syria to find witnesses for the prosecution. “I worked even when I was in prison, I was making contacts,” he says with a wry smile. “So, when I understood they needed witnesses in the Raslan case, I started calling anyone I knew who had been in al-Khatib prison between 2011 and 2012.” In the end, he found around a dozen people, mostly his former clients in Syria, who were in Germany and willing to testify. For many it was an opportunity to speak out for those who did not make it out of the prison alive. On the last day of the proceedings a witness identified only as ‘P1’ to protect his identity told the courtroom of the trauma-induced guilt he had experienced after escaping al-Khatib. “I kept asking myself ‘why did I survive?’”. The answer, he concluded, was to tell “what we have experienced and not to remain silent”.
On 13th January 2022 the judges delivered their verdict. Raslan was found guilty of crimes against humanity, namely: 27 killings, 4,000 counts of torture, one of rape and two sexual assaults. The mandatory sentence for his crimes under German law is life in prison. Although Raslan betrayed little emotion, many of his victims, al-Bounni and Joob among them, celebrated on the steps outside the courtroom. Some embraced one another and wept, others pumped their fists in the air in victory. But life does not necessarily mean life and Raslan can apply for release in as little as 15 years with good behaviour.
Three months later, Joob is struggling with his memories of the trial. “It’s some form of justice, but I don’t think he got long enough and in German prison he won’t be treated with the same cruelty that he treated us,” he says. Yet Joob thinks that the Raslan conviction and the ongoing trial in Germany of Alaa M – a Syrian military doctor accused of crimes against humanity – send a strong message to war criminals. “They might be able to escape Syria, but they can’t escape their past crimes. These trials are a warning to those who committed crimes in Syria to think twice before they come to Europe.”
For al-Bounni, the conviction of Raslan is a step in the right direction. “The point of my work is to be sure that these criminals will [not be part of] Syria’s future and it is the first time in history that justice has been done before the conflict is over,” he tells me. But there’s still a long way to go. “Raslan is where he belongs, in prison, but he’s just a small part of the regime that has committed these terrible crimes,” he says.
As we talk, al-Bounni’s phone vibrates with incoming messages and calls, many from victims who want to provide information about other alleged war criminals. Grass-roots organisations estimate that hundreds of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria are hiding among refugees in Europe. Next week, al-Bounni says, he’s going to a conference in The Hague to share information with over 200 investigators and prosecutors from around the world. It will, he hopes, lead to new investigations. He gestures to a stack of files on his desk and smiles. “We celebrate and then it’s time to move on to the next case,” he says.
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