The trial of torturer Anwar Ruslan opens on Thursday in Koblenz, Germany. It is the first trial ever of members of Assad’s security services for crimes against humanity, including torture and sexual assault.
Campaigners have hailed the process as a first step towards justice for thousands of Syrians who say Assad ordered their torture in government facilities after attempts to establish an international tribunal for Syria failed.
Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who told Reuters Anwar Ruslan tortured him at a jail near Damascus:
Arbitrary arrests and torture are the main weapon used by the Assad regime to spread fear among Syrians and suppress their demands for democracy and justice. This trial will break the immunity of the criminals in Syria, from the head of the regime all the way down.
Syria’s government has regularly rejected reports of torture and extrajudicial killings. The Assad regime has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians during a civil war that has been raging since March 15, 2011. Assad himself has in the past denied such accusations against the security apparatus.
Neither Syrian state media nor Syrian officials have made mention of the trial in Koblenz.
Lawyers for the two suspects have not said how they will plead. Under German law a suspect can only enter a plea once the trial has started.
Michael Boecker, a lawyer for the main suspect Anwar Ruslan, said:
We do not wish to make any public statement about our defense strategy.
INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNAL BLOCKED
German prosecutors have used universal jurisdiction laws that allow them to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world to initiate the trial.
They say Anwar Ruslan is a former intelligence officer charged with 58 murders in a Damascus prison. Ruslan tortured at least 4,000 opposition activists in 2011 and 2012.
Prosecutors say he oversaw interrogations before leaving Syria in 2012. He arrived in Germany in 2014.
Germany charged the second suspect, Eyad Al-Gharib, 43, with facilitating the torture of at least 30 opposition activists arrested after an anti-Assad demonstration in 2011. He arrived in Germany in April 2018.
Western powers failed to set up an international tribunal for Syria. Mainly because both Russia and China blocked the effort at the U.N. Security Council. To escape accountability, Assad is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Campaigners and survivors hope the trial in Koblenz will open the door for similar processes in other European countries. Norway has similar universal jurisdiction laws and where former Syrian security members live today.
In 2011, the Assad regime tortured Hamoudi Shoaib, 37, in a government prison in the northern town of Deir Al-Zor. He told Reuters:
Syria is probably the most unfair country in the world. So to me, just the fact those people are having a fair trial in a respectable court feels like a revelation. I don’t have a grain of revenge in me. I just want justice.
Shoaib fled to Germany six years ago.
Reuters contributed to this article.