Six years ago Wassim Mukdad fled Syria, demoralized and fearing for his life as the country spiraled ever deeper into all-out war. After a harrowing life of detention and torture, Mukdad is watching unfold the German trial of Assad torturer Anwar Ruslan who was his own tormentor.
This week, the 34-year-old will come face-to-face with the man accused of running a government detention center where Mukdad and thousands of others were tortured during the early months of the uprising against Chemical Assad.
Together with more than a dozen other witnesses, Mukdad will testify before a German court in the trial of Anwar Ruslan, a former member of Syria’s secret police suspected of overseeing the abuse of detainees at a notorious jail near Damascus known as Al Khatib, or Branch 251.
FIRST TRIAL OF AN ASSAD TORTURER
German prosecutors last fall charged the 57-year-old Ruslan with crimes against humanity, murder and rape. Human rights activists say his case marks the first time worldwide that a former Syrian officials is being held responsible for such serious crimes during the long-running conflict.
As a senior member of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, Ruslan is accused of overseeing the “systematic and brutal torture” of more than 4,000 prisoners between April 2011 and September 2012. His actions resulted in the deaths of at least 58 people, federal prosecutors said.
A second suspect, Eyad al-Gharib will also go on trial accused of contributing to crimes against humanity by enabling the torture and imprisonment of at least 30 protesters in late 2011. The 43-year-old played a role in a unit that arrested people following a demonstration in the city of Douma. He took them to Branch 251, where he tortured them.
Mukdad recalled in an interview with The Associated Press:
I was taking part in demonstrations, demanding freedom and civil society, liberties and democracy. Exactly the same as the whole demonstration movement in that time. The second time I was detained, it was in the same branch where (Ruslan) used to work. I faced torture there, during the interrogations.
GERMAN TRIAL OF ASSAD TORTURER ANWAR RUSLAN
For legal reasons, Mukdad can’t talk about the details of his case before the trial opens. But he said what happened to him wasn’t unique.
We were three friends and we all suffered the same procedures from the beginning till the end. And other people in the cells I met also suffered the same. So I knew that it wasn’t only me.
None of the inmates knew why they were being detained or whether they would make it out alive.
We were not allowed to contact any lawyers, family members or friends. Nobody tells you anything. It’s not only a physical torture, it’s also psychological torture.
SILENT DEFENSE LAWYER
The defendants’ lawyers was unavailable for comments.
After his release, Mukdad volunteered as a medic in a refugee camp in southern Damascus. Only for the al-Nusra Front, a terrorist group, to detain him. Later, the Assad regime detained him for a second time.
Starting from 2013, the situation was going very clearly into a full-scale civil war.
The government had begun to use chemical weapons. “You think: What could I do anymore? There is no place for any reasonable voice in this time of total mania.
He decided to flee Syria a year later, first to Turkey and then, in 2016, to Germany.
THE TRIAL IS OF CONSIDERABLE IMPORTANCE
Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians who found refuge in Germany, Mukdad tried to create a new life for himself, learning the language and concentrating on music, unaware that human rights groups in Europe were building a case against Syrian officials. It wasn’t until last year that he happened to cross paths with a lawyer in Berlin who asked him to testify against Anwar Ruslan.
Wolfgang Kaleck, head of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights that supports 16 Syrians in the case, eight of whom will be present as co-plaintiffs, said:
This trial is of considerable importance worldwide. The trial will provide an overall picture of the crimes committed by the Syrian government. This knowledge can then be used by others and in other trials.
The group said the case is the result of a series of criminal complaints 50 Syrian torture survivors, relatives, activists, and lawyers in Germany, Austria, Norway and Sweden submitted over the past four years.
RUSSIA AND CHINA BLOCK HUMAN RIGHTS CASES AT THE U.N.
With efforts to bring war crimes cases to the International Criminal Court in The Hague blocked by Russia and China, victims have increasingly looked to courts in Europe to apply the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’ that allows them to try crimes committed elsewhere.
Both France and Germany have issued international arrest warrants for Jamil Hassan, the former head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Service implicated in widespread torture.
To Mukdad, the trial that opens Thursday in Germany’s western city of Koblenz is a way to “raise the voice of the victims, the living and the dead.”
If there is any process to restore part of this dignity for the victims, to acknowledge the suffering, to just say clearly and loudly, this is not acceptable, it’s a gain for the whole of humanity.
Mukdad said he hopes the defendants receive the fair trial he was denied in Syria. The men, who themselves left Syria for Germany before their arrest in February 2019, remain in jail.
Mukdad final words:
If they are innocent, I want them to be free. If they are guilty, I want them to face just punishment. All that I can hope is that the system works properly.
AP contributed to this article.