Mounting Syrian War Crime Cases Raise Hopes For Justice Against A Brutal Regime An unprecedented legal battle against the regime is playing out in European courts, where large refugee communities and prosecutors can bring cases even for suspected crimes committed abroad.
NPR logo Mounting Syrian War Crime Cases Raise Hopes For Justice Against A Brutal Regime

Mounting Syrian War Crime Cases Raise Hopes For Justice Against A Brutal Regime

Omar Alshogre, a Syrian refugee who was tortured as a political prisoner in Syria, now lives in Sweden. He has framed photos of men who he says tortured him that he keeps upside down. Axel Öberg for NPR hide caption

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Omar Alshogre, a Syrian refugee who was tortured as a political prisoner in Syria, now lives in Sweden. He has framed photos of men who he says tortured him that he keeps upside down.

Axel Öberg for NPR

Omar Alshogre can remember every detail of his torture in Syrian jails: the electric shocks, the brutal beatings, the rancid food and open wounds, the days he was suspended by his wrists from the ceiling for hours, then returned to a crammed cell where sleep was only possible in shifts.

Sometimes the torture consisted of forcing him to listen. "They put us in the corridor just to hear the torture, and this guy is saying, 'Please kill me. I can tell you whatever you want. Stop or kill me,' " he recalls.

Brutality was standard in Branch 215, a military intelligence prison in Damascus known for gruesome torture techniques as documented by Human Rights Watch.

Alshogre was 17 when he was arrested and sent to Branch 215 in December 2012 for joining protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad in his hometown of Bayda, on the Mediterranean coast. It was the Arab Spring. In Tunisia and Egypt, dictators were already out. He wanted change in Syria too. Instead, he was swept up in a brutal campaign to stifle dissent. The Assad regime has waged a war against civilians, jailing tens of thousands who are packed into filthy cells where thousands have been tortured and killed.

Alshogre demonstrates how he was forced to sit while in prison. He was arrested in 2012 at age 17 for joining a protest movement in his hometown of Bayda, on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Axel Öberg for NPR hide caption

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Alshogre demonstrates how he was forced to sit while in prison. He was arrested in 2012 at age 17 for joining a protest movement in his hometown of Bayda, on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Axel Öberg for NPR

"The first dead body I saw [in] prison, I was scared," he remembers, "because when you see a dead body you see yourself. You can see your face. That's you going to be like him very, very soon."

Remarkably, Alshogre survived for three years. Many prisoners died within weeks or months.

Now, harrowing testimonies like Alshogre's could be key to what happens next.

As the Assad government solidifies its hold after more than eight years of civil war, a network of survivors and lawyers who fled Syria, many bearing stories of torture, is now gaining some ground in pursuing justice against regime officials accused of war crimes. Much of the fight is playing out in European courts, where large refugee communities and prosecutors can use laws that allow trials even for suspected crimes committed abroad.

Alshogre was released in June 2015, barefoot and coughing up blood. He weighed just 75 pounds. Even his mother didn't recognize him after she paid an intermediary $20,000 for the release that saved his life, he recalled in a recent interview in Stockholm.

He crossed the border to Turkey and soon after joined a human wave of refugees heading for Europe, a journey that took him to Sweden in 2015.

Now, Alshogre is the most visible and vocal witness to atrocities committed in Syria's prisons. He has spoken on college campuses and has given a TEDx talk. He has even spoken at the White House and briefed members of Congress.

Alshogre speaks English with a slight Swedish accent, learning both languages quickly in his first year in Stockholm. Tall and delicately thin, he recounts his abuse in Syria's vast prison complex, sometimes in a whisper and other times at a full roar.

"It's something I'm still living with. Everyone who was with me, everyone I remember, everyone died," he says flatly.

Alshogre crossed the border from Syria to Turkey and soon after joined a human wave of refugees heading for Europe, a journey that took him to Sweden in 2015. Axel Öberg for NPR hide caption

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Axel Öberg for NPR

Alshogre crossed the border from Syria to Turkey and soon after joined a human wave of refugees heading for Europe, a journey that took him to Sweden in 2015.

Axel Öberg for NPR

When he arrived in Sweden, he became the go-to guy for Syrian families whose relatives are still detained. "I'm talking about 20,000 families who sent me messages on Facebook and Instagram," he explains. "The phone was like 24 hours a day."

One day he got a chilling call from Syria. An ominous voice carried him back to the dark cell and daily beatings.

"I recognized this voice. I know exactly who this guy. He just said, 'Why you don't shut up? Do you want money, or do you want me to kill you?' " Alshogre recalls the threat from the man who he says tortured him every day for more than a year.

Then, Alshogre turned the tables, demanding answers from his former torturer.

" 'What makes you enjoy hurting people and torturing me when you know I never did anything wrong!' " Alshogre says he told the man on the phone. He says he could hear the man sob. "He knows he's guilty. This guy killed many hundreds of people. As long as I still alive, they are going to stand in front of the judge and admit they tortured people."

Alshogre's faith in justice keeps him going, motivated by those who died in jail. " 'Omar, please, if you get out of prison, do something. Talk about us.' People felt no one cared," he recalls being told by older inmates, who taught him how to survive and gave him a mission.

He has joined other victims, witnesses, activists and lawyers to wage an unprecedented legal battle for justice in European courts. He has given testimony to German lawyers and prosecutors, as well as to European war crimes investigators, to build cases against a regime determined to cling to power.

View of Berlin from the Neukölln district, home to some of Germany's 800,000 Syrian refugees. In 2018, French and German prosecutors issued the first international arrest warrants for senior Syrian security officials. Yet, President Bashar Assad and his lieutenants remain in Syria, out of reach of prosecutors. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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View of Berlin from the Neukölln district, home to some of Germany's 800,000 Syrian refugees. In 2018, French and German prosecutors issued the first international arrest warrants for senior Syrian security officials. Yet, President Bashar Assad and his lieutenants remain in Syria, out of reach of prosecutors.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

The evidence of Syrian war crimes is overwhelming. Since 2012, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent nonprofit group funded by Western governments, has worked with Syrians on the ground to ensure that evidence is collected and stored for future trials. In addition, a Syrian military police defector, code-named Caesar, slipped out of the country in 2013 with some 55,000 photographs on a thumb drive stashed in his shoe. The photos show emaciated and bruised corpses tagged with prison numbers.

Last year, acting on evidence compiled by CIJA and witness testimony, French and German prosecutors issued the first international arrest warrants for senior Syrian officials: then-national security chief Ali Mamlouk and the then-head of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, Jamil Hassan. Yet Assad and his lieutenants remain beyond prosecutors' reach as long as they stay in Syria, protected by military allies Iran and Russia. Moscow also provides diplomatic protection, wielding its veto at the U.N. Security Council to block an international tribunal.

In separate cases in February, police in France and Germany made arrests that were hailed as the first detentions in Europe of suspected Syrian security officials. One of Germany's detainees was a colonel in Syrian military intelligence prisons. German prosecutors called him only Anwar R., in keeping with national privacy laws, but his full name was soon widely reported as Anwar Raslan, which witnesses and researchers have confirmed to NPR.

A woman walks past a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Bab Tuma in the Old City of Damascus on March 14. Even as the civil war winds down, arbitrary arrests and torture continue, according to independent monitors. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

A woman walks past a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Bab Tuma in the Old City of Damascus on March 14. Even as the civil war winds down, arbitrary arrests and torture continue, according to independent monitors.

Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

He is "strongly suspected of crimes against humanity and other crimes," according to the prosecutors' statement. "As head of the investigative department, Anwar R. determined and directed the operations in the prison, including the use of systematic and brutal torture," the statement says.

The trial will be a landmark for Syrians everywhere: the first time a high-ranking Syrian official will face Syrians in open court in a war crimes case.

The case is also remarkable for Germany, which is changing the way war crimes are prosecuted — not in an international tribunal but in a national court, says Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. State Department ambassador at large for war crimes issues.

"Germany is the capital of accountability in the case of Syria and [has] shown it can be done — shown it's possible to arrest people and bring them to court. There are a dozen other cases that they are working on," Rapp says.

Rapp, who has experience as a prosecutor in an international tribunal in the 1990s, is serving as an adviser to European groups investigating war crimes.

Raslan is being prosecuted in Germany under the principle known as universal jurisdiction, which means people suspected of the most serious human rights crimes can be tried in German courts. "The national prosecutor can prosecute even when the victims are not German citizens. And even when the perpetrator is not in Germany," Rapp says.

Universal jurisdiction has been in German law since 2002, but legal experts say that the large number of Syrian refugees, many of whom are torture survivors, has motivated German prosecutors to build cases.

"Germany has 800,000 Syrian refugees. It's been profoundly affected," Rapp says. "And these people came to this country because of the torture. A lot of other horrible things were also happening, but that was a key part of it, so it makes sense that the trials are in Germany."

Sonnenallee, a street in Berlin's Neukölln district, has become a home to many Syrian refugees. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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Sonnenallee, a street in Berlin's Neukölln district, has become a home to many Syrian refugees.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

The evidence

"You can't torture people and kill them in custody — it's illegal. Forget international law — it's illegal under Syrian law," says Bill Wiley, a Canadian war crimes investigator who is the founder and executive director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability.

He says his investigators have verified state-sponsored torture as a response to the 2011 Syrian uprising. In detention centers and prisons, officers reported up the chain of command to superiors in Damascus, including Syria's president, Assad.

"There are documents that say, 'The bodies are piling up. We have no space in the refrigerators anymore. So, we have to start figuring out how to deal with this,' " says Wiley, quoting from communications between a Syrian prison official and his superiors.

NPR recently visited the CIJA headquarters in Western Europe; its location is kept secret for security reasons. There is no website or a sign on the door. In an inconspicuous building, the cramped office holds more than 800,000 official Syrian documents stored in cardboard boxes behind a locked metal door, according to commission members. "There is 3.6 metric tons of paper," Wiley says. The documents are digitized, and "each page is given a bar code that has a unique evidence number."

The Commission for International Justice and Accountability stores more than 800,000 official Syrian documents in its office in an undisclosed European location, according to its director. Deborah Amos/NPR hide caption

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Deborah Amos/NPR

The Commission for International Justice and Accountability stores more than 800,000 official Syrian documents in its office in an undisclosed European location, according to its director.

Deborah Amos/NPR

In late 2011, CIJA began training Syrian activists to collect evidence and created a risky smuggling network. "We've had a couple of men killed, some wounded, in Syria," Wiley says about the price of moving tons of documents across the Syrian border.

CIJA investigators have prepared legal briefs that link torture and murder to Assad.

"There are documents that show that the information about torture was not only known to him but also known to the individuals that reported directly to him, and nothing was done to stop it," says Wiley.

The commission also tracks lower-level officials, counting more than a dozen who have migrated to Europe.

Raslan was one of them. He and his family had settled in Berlin among the Syrian refugee community.

When German prosecutors asked CIJA for information about Raslan, the commission was already working on a dossier. "They got more than I think they had anticipated," Wiley says. German police arrested Raslan a few weeks later.

Syrian lawyer and human rights advocate Anwar al-Bunni has been living in Germany since 2014. Working with witnesses and other rights lawyers, he has been collecting evidence about Syrian war crimes. Above, he sits in his Berlin office. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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Syrian lawyer and human rights advocate Anwar al-Bunni has been living in Germany since 2014. Working with witnesses and other rights lawyers, he has been collecting evidence about Syrian war crimes. Above, he sits in his Berlin office.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

"He is the biggest fish arrested in the West at this point," says Wiley about Raslan. "He was a full colonel, head of interrogation in two intelligence branches in Damascus, meaning he was responsible for the teams that interrogated detainees and everything that goes with that in the Syrian context."

There are more cases coming, says Chris Engels, CIJA's director of operations and investigations. He gets hundreds of requests a year for information and is coordinating with 13 European countries.

"Germany definitely has political will to move forward," Engels says, and so do other European countries. "Several of the countries with which we have the opportunity to work are really pushing forward."

The lawyers

Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights activist and lawyer from Syria, is central in building a case against the Syrian regime. He aims to put the Assad regime on trial in German courts and put torturers behind bars.

More than four years ago, he founded the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, based in Berlin, and works with a handful of Syrian volunteers. In addition, he coordinates with 30 Syrian lawyers across Europe who identify witnesses and collect refugee testimony about systematic abuse in Syria's prisons.

A chance meeting in 2014, on his first day in Berlin at a refugee registration center, is also part of the story.

"I didn't recognize him the first while. I'm thinking, 'I know this guy. I know this guy,' " says Bunni, 60. "The next day, 'Oh, that's Anwar Raslan. [He] was a security officer, for sure; he knows me."

The last time he had seen Raslan was in Damascus in 2006. "He kidnapped me," Bunni says. "When he delivered me to the official prison, they took off my blindfold, and I saw him and asked his name."

His rough arrest by Raslan is an indelible memory: "He slapped me twice on my face," he says. Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison.

Bunni meets with Gerlinde Hollweg, a volunteer fundraiser. He coordinates with 30 Syrian lawyers across Europe who identify witnesses and collect refugee testimony about systematic abuse in Syria's prison network. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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Jacobia Dahm for NPR

Bunni meets with Gerlinde Hollweg, a volunteer fundraiser. He coordinates with 30 Syrian lawyers across Europe who identify witnesses and collect refugee testimony about systematic abuse in Syria's prison network.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

This past February, when Raslan was arrested by German police, the charge was based partly on testimony that Bunni had gathered and delivered to German prosecutors. Eleven witnesses have agreed to testify; Bunni is one of them.

"This is the first time the victim faces the criminals," says Bunni. "It is the first time in history that we break the immunity."

Bunni says he, his three brothers and a sister have spent a combined 75 years in prison for their activism. When his older siblings got long prison sentences in the 1980s, Bunni was getting his law degree at Damascus University. He established a human rights center in the Syrian capital and became well-known to Syrian activists. His work has been recognized by the German Association of Judges.

Germany offered him asylum after his prison release in 2011, but he remained in Damascus to defend and track demonstrators as the uprising gained steam. When the government moved to arrest him again in 2014, he figured they aimed to kill him in prison. He fled to Berlin with his family.

Now he is challenging the Assad regime again, this time in European courts, which again puts him at risk, he says, because there are Syrian agents in Europe.

German lawyer Patrick Kroker of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights stands in his Berlin office. He and the center are working to prosecute Syrian officials for war crimes, applying the universal jurisdiction principle used in a handful of European countries. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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German lawyer Patrick Kroker of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights stands in his Berlin office. He and the center are working to prosecute Syrian officials for war crimes, applying the universal jurisdiction principle used in a handful of European countries.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

"Let them watch me. I don't care," he insists. "I have a weapon that they don't have," he says, referring to Germany's universal jurisdiction law. "If they kill me, that means my weapon will be stronger against them. The regime should be afraid of me."

Bunni has partnered with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, a nonprofit law group based in Berlin. Founder Wolfgang Kaleck says universal jurisdiction, in Germany and in a handful of other European countries, has revolutionized war crimes prosecution. The push for accountability is led by Germany.

Americans too have taken legal action against Syrian officials in the United States, such as in the case of slain journalist Marie Colvin. U.S. courts have also tried suspected international war criminals, including for charges such as lying to immigration agents.

But Germany has a combination of a large Syrian refugee population and a broad interpretation of universal jurisdiction.

"Among the estimated 800,000 Syrian refugees, you will find a lot, a lot, of witnesses," says Kaleck. Their testimonies have persuaded prosecutors to move forward.

"The question is, when do they show impact? We don't know," he says. "You have to be patient and impatient at the same time when you deal with these crimes."

"This is an open wound, and the earlier you try to treat this wound, the better," he says.

Patrick Kroker, a Berlin lawyer who heads Syrian investigations at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, agrees. He says the cases are complex and time consuming, but any success in court sends a message. The arrest warrants issued for high-ranking Syrian officials in 2018 spurred more investigations across Europe.

At his office, Kroker points to a map showing Jordan and Syria. He says European arrest warrants issued for high-ranking Syrian officials in 2018 spurred more investigations across Europe. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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At his office, Kroker points to a map showing Jordan and Syria. He says European arrest warrants issued for high-ranking Syrian officials in 2018 spurred more investigations across Europe.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

"It's a wider movement," says Kroker, "because these crimes cannot be investigated by one country alone. Not by one prosecutor alone."

His organization has partnered with prosecutors in Austria, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Sweden, countries that have some version of universal jurisdiction. But he too is cautious about the timeline for justice.

"Bashar [Assad] is not going to be in a German prison in the next few years. It's not going to happen," Kroker says he tells Syrian witnesses. "The only thing we can promise — that we would fight as hard as we can for you to get your rights."

If Syrian authorities are worried about court challenges in Europe, there has been no apparent official response to the international warrants or the upcoming trial of a former official. The Assad regime has repeatedly denied torture and war crimes charges.

Fadwa Mahmoud sits in her apartment in Berlin. Her husband and her son both disappeared in Syria in 2012. She believes they are still alive, and she has not stopped looking for them since. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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Fadwa Mahmoud sits in her apartment in Berlin. Her husband and her son both disappeared in Syria in 2012. She believes they are still alive, and she has not stopped looking for them since.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

The regime is now on the brink of victory. It got there by flouting the rules of war against its own civilians, say researchers and legal experts, and with the military support of Russia and Iran.

Most of the more than 5 million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and in Europe are unlikely to voluntarily go back if there is no change in the system and there is risk of arrest and torture. But even with the war dying down, the Assad regime made more than 5,600 arbitrary arrests last year, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group. The group says it documented nearly 2,000 arrests of Syrians who had returned after fleeing their homes.

In the meantime, war crimes trials and investigations in Europe can serve another purpose, says Tobias Schneider, a German specialist on Syria and a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit research center in Berlin.

"These vanguard cases provide a truth-seeking function that we are unlikely to see in Syria as the Assad regime reimposes itself," he says, and as the government fights to restore control across the country.

The German court documents provide a historical record of the brutality of the war, especially for families that have lost a loved one, says Schneider, and will offer "recognition of what they've gone through and the suffering they've endured."

And, he adds, it is likely that Germany will host a large Syrian community for the foreseeable future. It's important for Germans to know what happened to the Syrians, and why, and who were the people involved.

"Germany is the hub where the Syrian narrative, outside the control of Bashar al-Assad, is going to emerge," Schneider says.

Photos of Mahmoud's husband, Abdelaziz al-Khair (left), and son hang in her apartment in Berlin. For her, the international arrest warrants for top Syrian officials brought some relief. Jacobia Dahm for NPR hide caption

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Photos of Mahmoud's husband, Abdelaziz al-Khair (left), and son hang in her apartment in Berlin. For her, the international arrest warrants for top Syrian officials brought some relief.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

The victims

The German justice system is Fadwa Mahmoud's last hope. She now lives in Berlin. Her husband, Abdelaziz al-Khair, and son disappeared at the Damascus airport in September 2012.

She doesn't know if they are alive or dead. Still, she knits for them, obsessively. She says, "I need to knit nice things for them. Maybe they are cold."

Her husband, a medical doctor, is a prominent dissident. In the early days of the uprising, he went to Beijing to get backing for talks between the nonviolent opposition and the government.

When he returned to Damascus, Mahmoud sent their son to pick him up at the airport. She got a call from her husband when they were loading luggage in the car trunk. "Please make lunch so we can all eat together" was the last message she received from them. They have not been heard from since.

She cannot go home to look for them because she would be arrested too. "I was wanted by five intelligence branches," she says, with a short laugh. "Unfortunately, I am a dangerous woman."

For her, the arrest warrants for top Syrian officials brought some relief. The upcoming trial, the first time a Syrian official faces his accusers in court, has restored some hope.

"The trial is going to be very important. It will empower every detainee," Mahmoud says. "There is something achievable."