Three alleged former Syrian secret service agents were arrested on Tuesday on charges of carrying out or aiding in crimes against humanity, including torture of anti-government activists, paving the way for what could result in the first criminal trials of senior members of President Bashar Assad's regime anywhere in the world.
Two of the men, Anwar R., a 56-year-old senior member of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, and Eyad A., a 42-year-old member of a unit that purportedly arrested hundreds of activists, sought asylum in Germany and have been living there since 2012, according to the German Federal Prosecutor. German privacy law prohibits the publication of the men's surnames.
The third man, arrested near Paris, was not identified. However, the Federal Prosecutor described him as a former employee of Anwar R. His arrest was coordinated as part of a joint investigation team between France and Germany.
The apprehensions follow years of investigation launched by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, and included testimony from six alleged torture survivors.
"The arrest shows once again that Germany is taking the fight against impunity for torture in Syria seriously," ECCHR's General Secretary Wolfgang Kaleck said in a statement.
"It sends a very important message to survivors of Assad's system of torture. Without justice, there will be no lasting peace in Syria," Kaleck added.
If the investigations successfully lead to trials, it will be the first time anyone from Assad's regime will face any consequences for human rights abuses, the organization said.
German prosecutors believe Anwar R. led the "investigation department" of the Syrian General Intelligence Service at a prison in Damascus, and that he was complicit in abuses inflicted on detainees –mostly, Assad opponents — between April 2011 and September 2012.
Meanwhile, officials say Eyad A. arrested hundreds of activists, initially at a checkpoint in the outskirts of Damascus, then later storming into homes and apartments, and once the demonstrations subsided, pursuing dissidents as they attempted to flee the country. According to prosecutors, he then transported them to the same prison run by Anwar R. — Al Khatib — where he is accused of participating in killing two people and abusing 2,000 more from July 2011 through mid-January 2012.
The Paris prosecutor's office told Le Monde the French arrest stems from an ongoing investigation launched in September 2015. That probe is based on evidence culled from a trove of over 50,000 photos that were smuggled out of Syria by a former military police photographer.
The photographs, taken in Syria between May 2011 and August 2013, depict horrific scenes of torture within Syrian detention facilities and are embedded with important metadata. They "provide information on the locations and institutions involved as well as the torture methods used and the causes of death," the ECCHR explained.
In the announcement Wednesday, German prosecutors remarked that Assad's regime has suppressed all anti-government activities with "brutal force" since April 2011, and that the country's intelligence services have played an essential role in silencing the public.