Syrian torture survivors finally came face to face with their suffering. But the calculation is far from home

Koblenz’s court made this historic ruling on Thursday morning. And many Syrian activists – mostly relatives of people who have been forcibly disappeared or killed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – poured into this small German town to see it.

A group of women awaiting the sentencing of Raslan searched their missing relatives outside the court on Thursday. News of the verdict reached through a German activist, who read a text message from inside the courthouse: The panel of judges found that Ruslan was involved in at least 4,000 counts of torture, 27 murders and two counts of sexual violence.

A pregnant break hung in the air as soon as the news broke. Some workers started crying silently.

“I cry because of my relationship with the survivors,” said Jumana Cef, a Syrian lawyer, human rights activist and part of the legal team representing the 17 plaintiffs in the trial. “Syrians deserve justice. We deserve more than what we are in.”

The Courthouse is located at the edge of the junction where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet. It’s a world away from the infamous Damascus detention facility at the center of the trial, where Ruslan headed intelligence from 2011 to 2012.

Former prisoners of Branch 251, as it is known, told how they were in overcrowded cells and fell asleep due to lack of space. They were denied adequate food and medicine and were tortured. Some were raped and sexually assaulted. Many died.

It was part of the Assad regime’s labyrinth of prison systems where more than 100,000 are believed to have disappeared and thousands more died. since 2011,

“I am happy because this is a victory for justice,” said Anwar al-Bouoni, Syrian human rights lawyer and former political prisoner outside the court.

“I’m happy because it’s a victory for the victims sitting inside,” said the dwarf, his loud voice filled with emotion as he pointed to the courthouse. “I’m happy because it’s a victory for the Syrians back home who couldn’t come here. It’s also a victory for the Syrians who didn’t survive.”

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bouani stands outside the courtroom in Koblenz.

At this sweet gathering in Germany, many Syrians have repeatedly acknowledged that, for now, accountability can only be given far from their homeland, where the justice system has been thoroughly undermined by autocratic rule.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague also could not try the Assad regime for countless war crimes and crimes against humanity, because Syria is not a party to that court. Syria could be investigated by the ICC if the UN Security Council refers it to, but Assad’s allies – Russia and China – have scuttled previous proposals to do so.

Closer to home, justice appears even more distant. Assad’s regional foes – the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – have repaired diplomatic ties with the regime, believed to mark the beginning of the end of the Syrian president’s isolation.

Yet in Koblenz, torturers and survivors have set up trading places. Raslan reached the court bound in bondage. His victims were free and are now prosecuting against his oppressor and – by extension – the Assad regime. The court heard the survivors draw on their personal testimony and the copious amounts of objectionable evidence gathered by activists and advocates since the start of Syria’s 2011 insurgency.

In addition to personally indicting Raslan, the court also ruled that the Assad regime “systematically” committed crimes against humanity.

Yet it was a single legal mechanism that made this possible. The principle of sovereign jurisdiction gives courts jurisdiction over serious violations of international law, regardless of the state to which the court belongs, and regardless of the nationalities of the parties involved.

As a result, what the survivors said was the first step in a “long road to justice”. More trials are underway against Assad officials who took refuge in Europe from the Syrian war. Some activists call this a “strategic war”, the ultimate goal of which is to bring the Assad government to its knees.

Even if that ambitious target is not met, Thursday’s decision, he said, will at least let him sleep a little easier.

Fadwa Mahmood, a prominent activist who says her son and husband were forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime, Koblenz keeps watch for her loved ones outside the courtroom following the guilty verdict.

Branch 251

Wasim Muqdad’s apartment reflects the way he describes his life in exile. The walls of an office overlooking a quiet Berlin street are known as the Arab Lut-oud. His library is a mix of Arabic and German books.

“One of the cool things about living abroad is that you can pick and choose what you want from Arab culture and Western culture,” he quipped, his hands wrapped over his vintage three-piece suit. Had happened.

Against the backdrop of his new life lies Muqdad’s dark history in Syria, where he says he was imprisoned three times for his anti-regime activism, and a fourth time by al-Qaeda-linked fighters. His second stint in custody was at Branch 251, where he believes Raslan was in the room directing his interrogation sessions. Like all his fellow prisoners, Muqdad was kept blindfolded during his torture.

“(Ruslan) ordered a man directly next to me … ‘Lay him on his stomach and lift his legs in the air,’ said Muqdad. “Once my answers don’t suit (Ruslan), the other person starts hitting until he stops.”

Wasim Muqdad (left) talks to reporters after the guilty verdict against his tyrant.

Muqdad said he told his interrogator that he was a doctor, fearing that his tyrants would break his fingers if he confessed to being a musician. Muqdad said that came to mind of Syrian cartoonist and dissident Ali Farzat. Farjat’s tormentors broke his fingers. He said it was stopping him from making political cartoons, Farjat later said.

“It was like hell,” says Muqdad Branch of his imprisonment in 251. “How did humanity come up with this?”

During the entire trial in Koblenz, Raslan rarely spoke. His statements – in which he tried to present himself as a conscientious objector to the practices of the regime – were read out by his defense team. He spoke only when the judges asked him a question, which rarely happened. When he did, his answers were one-word.

Musician Muqdad Anwar Raslan was the vocal plaintiff in the trial in Berlin.

Some Syrian lawyers and plaintiffs speculated that he did not want his victims to recognize his voice from his interrogation sessions in custody. Several plaintiffs said they had seen her face before, but except for one living person, they said they had only seen her in his office. Raslan and his defense team did not explain why the former colonel declined to speak at trial, and Raslan’s defense team repeatedly denied CNN’s requests for comment.

“Every one of us was blindfolded,” said Muqdad. They didn’t want us to see, but they couldn’t stop us (interrogators) from listening. “But now he has stopped us from listening to him.”

Unlike his co-defendant Gharib, Ruslan appeared to make no effort to hide his face during the trial. “He stood tall and looked arrogant,” Seif recalled. “He would look into the plaintiff’s eyes one after the other, as if saying ‘Who do you think you are?'”

“For the last two years on the court, Ruslan has been sitting in his chair and doing nothing with his face and writing,” said Whitney-Martina Nosakhre, assistant attorney for Human Rights Watch. “When the judge read the verdict, there was no reaction on his face.”

Nosakhre said, “It’s an intense moment. To be sentenced to life in prison is a big deal. It’s not something you take lightly.” “But he made us believe it was something he didn’t care about.”

Yasmen Almashan says Raslan is the least activists could sue for their missing loved ones.

‘Convicted in lieu of Syrian rule’

Ruslan’s lawyers said they would appeal his sentence, and experts expect his case to remain in the courts for years to come. After the verdict was read, defense attorney Yorke Fratzky continued to deny that Raslan was personally guilty of the charges.

“The defense does not make secrets of being dissatisfied with the verdict,” Fratzky said in a press briefing after the trial ended. “We see that Raslan has been convicted in retaliation for the Syrian regime.”

The argument, that Raslan was the scapegoat, resonates with some Syrians, even those who were actively opposed to the Assad regime. Some compare the Koblenz trial to the pieces presented by the international community in the absence of political change in Syria.

“My main concern is that politically these tests are used in the international community as a substitute for the states to actually do something,” says Berlin-based activist Wafa Mustafa, who leads her father – Ali Mustafa. – was forcibly disappeared by the government. in 2013.

Wafa still supports the lawsuit, and has been cobbled together several times over a framed photo of her father. “I take him to places I know he’ll want to go,” she said with a wide smile of defiant optimism.

“But I fear they are actually using this trial as an alternative to their failure to deal … with the fact that a war criminal like Assad is still in power ten years later.”

Wafa Mustafa took her father's picture to the court of Koblenz.  She says she thought he would love to be there.

After the verdict, similar concerns seem to be creating an atmosphere of celebration.

When asked how she feels about the punishment, Yasmin Almashan pointed to a photo collage of five of her six brothers. She says that they all disappeared or were killed. “Couldn’t it be the least we could do for them?” He asked.

One of the plaintiffs, Ruham Hawash, was visibly shaken after emerging from the after-hours judgment session. The court read out the statements of each of the plaintiffs. Hawash Branch does not want to remember his experience in 251, he said, let alone recite it aloud.

“I don’t want to speak about my torture, I just want to speak about the trial,” she said.

Hawash said, “In the past I used to say that I was imprisoned and tortured and my freedom was taken away from me and the story had a sad end.” “Today I can say that I was put in jail, and tortured and my freedom was taken away from me but I helped those officers get this trial.

“There’s a big difference between these two stories. It’s not a sad story anymore. Was closed.”

When asked what she plans to do now after the trial is over, she said, her legs were shaking as she was speaking. “I don’t know what’s next. Maybe a new phase in my life,” she said. “I’m ready to move on.”