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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Former Syrian prisoners are firing back at the Assad regime

Thirteen former prisoners have testified in two criminal complaints filed to the German Federal Public Prosecutor

A satellite image shows Syria's military-run Saidnaya prison, located 30 kilometres north of Damascus. CNES and ASTRIUM / Amnesty International via AFP
A satellite image shows Syria's military-run Saidnaya prison, located 30 kilometres north of Damascus. CNES and ASTRIUM / Amnesty International via AFP

Yazan Awad, an engineering student, was 24 when he was imprisoned in a Syrian jail in November 2011 for taking part in more than 100 protests against the regime in Damascus and helping fellow activists who had been forced out of the country. Guards broke his jaw in a beating as soon as he arrived to the prison. He received no medical attention, and other inmates had to pre-chew his food for him.

For 137 days he was held in various prisons belonging to Air Force Intelligence Directorate, regarded as the most brutal of Syria’s four intelligence agencies. He was beaten with cables and with wooden poles that had nails embedded in them.

His wounds turned septic but, again, he received no medical care. He was given electric shocks and hung from the ceiling by his wrists which were tied behind his back — a technique which puts massive strain on the shoulders. On some days he was tortured for up to 10 hours.

The 36th day was the worst when he was repeatedly sexually assaulted with the barrel of a rifle, causing such damage that he ate only small amounts of food on alternate weeks because using the toilet was so painful.

Yazan believes his unshakeable insistence that he had no information about other activists saved his life, along with testimony from fellow activists who denied any knowledge of him — and the large bribe his family paid to secure his release.

Syrian activist Yazan Awad, 30, was tortured for over four months in various prisons belonging to Syria's Air Force Intelligence Directorate. David Crossland for The National.
Syrian activist Yazan Awad, 30, was tortured for over four months in various prisons belonging to Syria's Air Force Intelligence Directorate. David Crossland for The National.

“When I got out of jail I was so thin. I was about 32 kilos, and when I went in I was 109 kilos,” Yazan told The National. Now 30, he is bespectacled, strongly built and speaks in a quiet, measured voice.

“My family wanted to send me out of the country but I didn't have the strength to walk. I couldn’t even hold a spoon to eat and my mouth was always open because it was damaged from being hit.”

“But my father is a dentist so he repaired my jaw," he added with a laugh.

Now, he wants justice and has testified with 13 former prisoners in two criminal complaints filed to the German Federal Public Prosecutor last week.

Compiled by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the complaints relate to crimes against humanity and war crimes by the government of president Bashar Al Assad.

They name high-ranking officials, including National Security Bureau chief Ali Mamlouk, Air Force Intelligence Directorate chief Jamil Hassan, defence minister Fahd Jasim Al Furayi and military prosecutor Mohammed Hassan Kenjo

“What has happened in Syria is a case for humanity, not only for Syrians,” said Yazan. “You too are related to our case because you are human.”

It took two-and-a-half years for him to recover physically and mentally from his ordeal.

“The first year I was always dreaming that they are coming to take me again, and the screaming of my friends was always on my mind," he said. His parents also sought help for him from seven psychologists.

A year after his release, he fled to Egypt with his family but decided not to stay because he was unable to get a job or marry. He moved on to Turkey, where he joined the multitude of refugees making the dangerous, illegal sea crossing to Europe in November 2015.

He now lives in Germany with his wife, a fellow refugee.

Germany, which has taken in more than 600,000 Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the conflict in spring 2011, is taking the lead in efforts to collate evidence and launch investigations that could one day trigger war crimes prosecutions against the Syrian leadership for the systematic torture and killing of civilian opponents.

“Almost everything happening in Syria is taking place systematically by hierarchical state organisations, especially the torture policy, which has been part of the DNA of the Assad regimes, both father and son, for decades,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, a lawyer and co-founder of the ECCHR.

Amnesty International estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been executed in the notorious Saidnaya military prison outside Damascus and a further 18,000 have died in other prisons.

“All sides in the Syrian conflict have committed human rights abuses, but we believe the Syrian government is responsible for by far the biggest part of them,” said Rene Wildangel, an Amnesty International expert for the Middle East. “Up to 75,000 people have disappeared in Syrian prisons with no access to families or lawyers or to the outside world.

“Most victims are members of the civilian Syrian opposition, convicted on the basis of forced confessions in front of military courts in a matter of minutes. Many experts describe the human rights abuses as the best documented crime since the end of the Second World War.”

At present, war crimes trials against the leaders of the Syrian regime appear to be a distant prospect at best. But activists said the opening of formal legal proceedings was a crucial first step that could give comfort to the victims, highlight their suffering to Europeans opposed to taking in refugees, deter the perpetrators in Syria and eventually trigger prosecutions.

“When Spanish lawyers filed complaints against [Augusto] Pinochet they didn’t foresee that he would be arrested while shopping in London three years later,” said Mr Kaleck, referring to the former Chilean dictator detained under an international arrest warrant in 1998 for human rights violations.

Syria’s leaders were dreaming of a future in comfort in Europe, said Syrian lawyer Anwar Al Bunni, who helped to compile the complaint.

“They think that after a political solution they will run away to Europe. They will not run to Iran or Russia because they don’t like it there, they will run to Europe with the money they’ve stolen from the Syrians and come to live here as kings,” he said. “But we are sending a message to them: there will be no safe place in the whole world that will accept you.”

War crimes must be addressed in the forthcoming eighth round of Syrian peace talks due to open in Geneva on November 28, said Mr Al Bunni, who also spent time in a Syrian jail.

“Justice is like life. It is very important for rebuilding the peace in Syria. Without justice, people won’t feel safe, they will feel they could be a victim at any time,” he said.

So far though, all international efforts to launch prosecutions have failed. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague cannot act because Syria is a not signatory, and China and Russia have vetoed the UN's attempts to allow the ICC or a special tribunal to proceed.

That leaves Germany, which is rigorously applying the principle of universal jurisdiction that allows national prosecutors to pursue people accused of international crimes even if they were committed in another country and neither the accused nor the victims are German nationals.

Germany is one of only three European countries (with Sweden and Norway) applying universal jurisdiction over war crimes and was one of the first to incorporate universal jurisdiction — which is enshrined in the ICC’s statute — into its own national criminal code in 2002. It set up a war crimes unit at the federal prosecutor’s office in 2010 and opened up two general investigations into Syrian human rights abuses and ISIL in 2011.

The system works. Germany first applied the principle of universal jurisdiction in the trial of two Rwandan rebel leaders who were sentenced by a court in Stuttgart to long jail terms in 2015.

“There is no German interest, no German victim, this is for the Syrians, this is the first time we feel that somebody, some country, someone else respects our need for justice only because we are human,” said Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights activist and journalist who was imprisoned in Syria.

“This means a lot. Somebody cares. And this makes a difference to each Syrian, especially those refugees in Germany. Again, Germany is taking the ethical leadership in justice after the ethical leadership in the refugee issue,” he said.

He said the country’s experience in dealing with its Nazi past helped explain the role it was taking now.

“They understand from their own history that you can’t build a sustainable future without dealing with the past," said Mr Darwish.

The two complaints filed last week supplemented another one brought in March by Syrian survivors of torture living in Germany. The prosecutor’s office has started interviewing witnesses.

In addition, in September, photos of thousands of victims in the so-called Caesar Report — taken by a photographer known only as Caesar whose job was photographing killed detainees for the Syrian military police — were submitted to the federal prosecutor, who has commissioned a forensic report on the images.

“This means Germany is playing a leading role in securing evidence and is ready to share this evidence with other European justice authorities and in the future with international tribunals. That’s very important fundamental work for the future,” said Mr Kaleck.

The plaintiffs are confident that their cases will soon be formally investigated. So far, German justice authorities have focused on indicting low-ranking former members not of the regime but of ISIL and Al Nusra in cases linked to terrorism offences. The federal prosecutor has launched proceedings against 28 people to date.

“We want cases to be directed against the most senior people responsible for the torture crimes,” said Mr Kaleck. “We want Ali Mamlouk and Jamil Hassan to be on the cover of those files in future.”

Yazan, the torture victim now living in Germany, says he wants to return to rebuild his homeland one day. He has forgiven the men who tortured him.

“They are tools for the regime, so I don’t care about them. I care for Jamil Hassan and Bashar Al Assad. I believe in justice and that it will happen in the end but it needs time. I am speaking out to make it happen faster.”