With Syria's War Nearly Over, Victims Take The Battle To European Courts Syria's President Bashar Assad is on the verge of winning the war. But refugee activists are waging new battles against the regime from Europe.

With Syria's War Nearly Over, Victims Take The Battle To European Courts

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Syria's president, Bashar Assad, and his regime seem poised to stay in power as they retake more and more of the country after seven years of bloody civil war. This will make it hard to hold the regime or its commanders accountable for well-documented and widespread accusations of murder and torture. But a methodical network of activists and victims has compiled the evidence, and NPR's Deborah Amos reports, they are still hoping for justice.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: We begin this story a long way from Syria. We begin in Washington, at the Holocaust Museum. This exhibit is called, "Syria: Please Don't Forget Us." This is one part of the war crime story.

JOHN GUTOWSKY: I thought was very moving. I wasn't aware of some of the things that are happening there, obviously. This is eye-opening.

AMOS: John Gutowsky is visiting from Atlanta. Carolyn Ramey is from Richmond.

CAROLYN RAMEY: I'm very troubled and in prayer a great deal.

AMOS: What is troubling, grisly images of battered and emaciated bodies. These are torture victims, part of a collection of more than 50,000 images smuggled out of Syria by a former police officer-turned-defector code named Caesar. 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 records of his cellmates, most no longer alive. He now lives in exile in Europe and spoke via Skype.

MANSOUR AL-OMARI: In this exhibition, I took this story from under the ground, from darkness to lightness. My main goal, we can still fight back and provide information.

AMOS: This is part of a trove of evidence that could prove charges of war crimes.

STEPHEN RAPP: Tens of thousands. At least 50,000 people have been tortured to death in their prisons.

AMOS: You mean up-close kind of murder?

RAPP: Yeah. Up-close murder, tortured to death.

AMOS: That's Stephen Rapp, head of the State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice until 2015. In June, a German court issued a landmark decision says, Rapp - an international arrest warrant against a key official in the Assad regime, Jamil Hassan, head of Air Force Intelligence Directorate accused of overseeing torture and murder. Torture on an industrial scale, says Rapp. He hopes this first warrant shows Syrian leaders they, too, could face consequences.

RAPP: Their hope of visiting their money in the West, of meeting with family members, is gone. And I think that does begin to have an impact, and those that have committed these horrible crimes will never be able to live normally for the rest of their lives.

AMOS: For the victims, German courts are the last hope for justice after Russia and China blocked a Syrian tribunal at the U.N. Crucially, Germany allows a judicial process to begin without the victim being a citizen, explains Scott Gilmore, a Washington-based attorney with the Center for Justice and Accountability.

SCOTT GILMORE: It's a local crime, I mean, a crime occurring in the basement of a Syrian detention center. It's a local crime with a global impact. These types of war crimes, because of our interconnected world, because of technology, because of flows of migrants, they affect everyone.

AMOS: In particular, in Germany. Now a hub of the Syrian diaspora, many refugees witnessed wartime atrocities.

GILMORE: What led to the issuance of this arrest warrant was a concerted effort between Syrian lawyers living in exile, working with international human rights organizations to compile evidence.

AMOS: So far, four more cases in Germany and one in an Austrian court.

GILMORE: I think what you're seeing now is the second wave of the civil society striking back. And they're striking back from exile with global partners.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

AMOS: The early days of the Syrian revolt began as peaceful protests. Then the Assad regime focused the brunt of the crackdown on civil society. Thousands were swept into Syrian jails, deaths documented in the Caesar photos. Syrian activists posted the images on Facebook, where Noura Ghazi, a Syrian lawyer now in Lebanon, recognized some of the battered faces.

NOURA GHAZI: It's very ugly. It's very hard. And I found many of my friends there.

AMOS: She got another shock recently when hundreds of Syrian families learned about missing relatives. Syrian officials had quietly updated official registries. Ghazi learned that her missing husband was executed within days of his arrest in 2015. Sometimes, she says, the grief is so overwhelming, it's hard to get out of bed. But the campaign to bring the top torturers to justice is some relief.

GHAZI: We don't mind the long time. We know. But at least we need this hope that we can reach that justice. Maybe the second generation. Maybe not us. But we just need this hope.

AMOS: The war in Syria is winding down, she says. The battle in the courts is just beginning. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say that Mansour al-Omari spent 18 months in jail. He spent a total of 356 days.]

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