The Syrian war is winding down after seven brutal years, with hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced and neighborhoods in smoking ruins. President Bashar Assad is on course to win, with help from powerful allies Russia and Iran.
Now, activists who lost the challenge to Assad’s rule on the streets of Syria are waging a new fight — in European courts.
“We will catch them no matter how much they hide. There is no safe place to run,” says Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer who fled to Germany in 2014.
He helped file a criminal complaint that led Germany’s Federal Supreme Court to issue charges and an international arrest warrant in June for one of Syria’s most senior military officials.
The charges claim that Jamil Hassan, head of Syria’s notorious Air Force Intelligence Directorate, oversaw some of the war’s most horrific crimes, including systematic rape, torture and murder of thousands of Syrians.
The warrant is a milestone for Syrian accountability, says al-Bunni. “It’s the first time in history there is an arrest warrant against people who are in power [in Syria] and continue the crimes,” he says.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Germany in recent years, many of them witnesses to the Assad regime’s atrocities. Now, refugees with legal expertise like al-Bunni have joined a revolt against the regime dedicated to seeking justice in European courts. Germany’s courts, especially, legal experts say, are the last hope for many of the victims of the regime.
“We have a responsibility because the survivors live among us,” says Alexandra Lily Kather, a legal adviser at the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, or ECCHR.
The center jointly filed the complaint naming the air force intelligence chief and other senior officials all the way up to President Assad. ECCHR represents 50 Syrian clients and has filed four more criminal complaints in Germany and one in Austria.
“We go after those who are at the top of the chain of command,” she says. “These individuals either gave orders or received daily reports on torture. These are the ones we target.”
Kather concedes that it is unlikely that Hassan will appear in a German court anytime soon. “Since there is not trial in absentia under German law, this is as far as we can go,” she adds.
But she insists the warrant, and an arrest alert sent to Interpol, sets a precedent, “sending a very first clear sign that the wall of immunity starts to crumble.”
Crimes in Syria, prosecuted abroad
Al-Bunni himself was arrested and tortured for his human rights work in Syria. He says his jailers tried to kill him twice. He fled to Germany in 2014.
Soon after his arrival in Berlin, members of the Syrian refugee community sought out al-Bunni, who was well known in Damascus for representing political prisoners. He got to work compiling eyewitness accounts with fellow human rights lawyer Mazen Darwish, who also says he was detained and tortured by the regime. The two are now key figures in building the cases, and, according to al-Bunni, they work with more than 30 exiled Syrian lawyers across Europe.
“Our complaint has 15 perpetrators, including Assad himself,” says al-Bunni, who heads the Syrian Center for Legal Research and Studies in Berlin. “We want to push them out of the future of Syria.”
Crucially, Germany has the broadest interpretation in Europe of a legal principal known as universal jurisdictionover international war crimes, explains Scott Gilmore, a Washington-based attorney with the Center for Justice and Accountability. That means a judicial process can begin in Germany, regardless of where the alleged atrocity occurred or where the plaintiffs or defendants are from.
“It’s a local crime, a crime occurring in the basement of a Syrian detention center, with a global impact. These types of war crimes, because of our interconnected world, because of technology, because of flows of migrants, affect everyone,” Gilmore says.
Prosecutors are building cases based on a vast trove of evidence, including thousands of images of dead bodies, torture victims, emaciated and battered, who died in Syrian prisons. The photos, along with GPS locations, were smuggled out of Syria by a photographer who worked for the Syrian military police. Code-named “Caesar,” he fled his homeland in 2013 carrying 55,000 photographs on a thumb drive hidden in his sock.
Two years later, Syrian activists started posting many of the images on Facebook to encourage families of the victims to identify the dead by name and create a database for future trials.
Gilmore says the evidence points to a crucial factor about the early years of an uprising that began as a peaceful protest in 2011.
“The Assad regime focused the brunt of its violent crackdown on the intelligentsia, on moderate activists, on professionals, lawyers, journalists, doctors,” he explains. “They really tried to liquidate the civil society that formed the best alternative to the regime, in terms of being the plausible inheritors of power in Syria.”
That’s why activists in exile are at the forefront of the justice campaign. “I think what you’re seeing now is a second wave of the civil society striking back and they are striking back in exile with global partners,” he adds.
Official death registry
Noura Ghazi, a Syrian lawyer based in Beirut, says she has identified some of the battered faces among the Caesar photos.
“It was very ugly, very hard and I found many of my friends there,” Ghazi says.
The latest shock came when she discovered that her husband Bassel Khartabil, a prominent pro-democracy activist who disappeared in 2015, was executed after his arrest by the regime.
Ghazi learned the details of her husband’s death as hundreds of Syrian families discovered the fate of loved ones who “disappeared” during the war. In recent weeks, the government has quietly updated official registries with the date of death after years of being silent about tens of thousands of people forcibly disappeared during the war.
The grief is overwhelming, Ghazi says, but the campaign to bring torturers to justice keeps her spirits from breaking. “We need this hope that we are going to reach justice. Maybe the second generation, maybe not us, but we need this hope,” she says.
The latest death notices are a signal from Assad saying his regime has won the war and is now firmly in control of Syria, says Fadel Abdul Ghani, the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group that has confirmed more than 300 of the newly listed casualties.
Except for a few rebel-held areas, the regime, backed by Russian and Iranian forces, has retaken most of the country.
Ghani says the relentless campaign for accountability is crucial for Syria’s future. “We need to reveal to any civilized country not to build relations with Assad,” Ghani says.
The stakes are especially high because Syria has so far stood as a failure of international accountability and justice, according to Stephen Rapp, who led the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice from 2009 to 2015.
Rapp also worked as a prosecutor in the successful war crimes tribunal for Rwanda and Sierra Leone. He says the evidence against Assad in Syria is far stronger than it was those cases, but prosecution is a matter of political will. Russia and China have blocked United Nations proposals for a Syrian tribunal.
Last year, Rapp traveled more than 280 days to promote stepping up prosecutions against Syria’s regime in European capitals.
There are developing cases in Spain, France, Austria and Sweden, he says.
There’s also a case underway in the United States. In 2016, the Center for Justice and Accountability filed a lawsuit against the Syrian government in the Washington federal district court on behalf of the family of murdered American journalist Marie Colvin. They charge that Syrian officials targeted Colvin for death when she was killed while reporting on the war in the Syrian city of Homs in 2012.
Building war crimes cases is painstaking and justice moves slowly, Rapp says, but the progress in a German court puts the Assad regime on notice. “Those that have committed these horrible crimes will never be able to live normally for the rest of their lives,” he says.
Syria’s horrors on display in D.C.
In a museum thousands of miles from Syria, the evidence of some of the country’s most horrific war crimes has been on display for more than a year. The exhibition, Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us, is housed in the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Some of the Caesar photos are on display, grisly images of death from torture and abuse.
In addition, there are five scraps of cloth with the names of 82 prisoners, opponents of the Syrian regime, written in a mixture of blood and rust.
Syrian journalist Mansour al-Omari spent 18 months in a secret government cell. He smuggled out the documentation of his cellmates,most no longer alive. He created the record so families would know the fate of their loved ones. He now lives in exile in Europe and agreed to donate his evidence to the Holocaust Museum for the historical record.
“In this exhibition I took this story from under the ground from darkness to light,” al-Omari tells NPR. “My main goal, we can still fight back and provide information.”
NPR’s Bo Hamby contributed reporting.