AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Some Syrians who fled their country want to bring the regime officials who tormented them to justice. Beginning with a protest back in 2011 and during the civil war that followed, the Syrian government conducted sweeping arrests of activists and others, and it seemed to act with impunity. Now a network of lawyers and survivors is working mainly in Europe to bring war crime cases to court.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
They're supported by government documents smuggled out of Syria and refugees' own testimony. One key figure in the effort is a Syrian lawyer who fled to Germany when his life was in danger. NPR's Deborah Amos met him in Berlin.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Anwar al-Bunni spent years in Syrian jails, the price for an activist streak that runs in his family - between his brothers and his sister, a total of 75 years in Syria's brutal prisons. But in 2014, the regime threatened al-Bunni with arrest again. He figured they would kill him this time. The human rights lawyer fled to Germany, where he would take up the fight from Berlin. His aim - to put the Assad regime on trial and put torturers in jail. Like all newcomers, his first stop was at a resettlement center where there were plenty of potential witnesses. He saw someone he knew from Damascus.
ANWAR AL-BUNNI: I know this guy. I know this guy. I didn't recognize him. Next day - oh, that's Anwar Raslan.
AMOS: He would not forget that name again, and we'll get to that part of the story. The chance meeting was a sign that what al-Bunni was trying to do was within reach.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNIVES SHARPENING)
AMOS: When I get to al-Bunni's office in Berlin, he's sharpening knives to chop bales of parsley for a traditional Syrian lunch.
AMOS: He's 60 now, a cheery guy for someone who spent so much time behind bars. He founded this center for legal research as soon as he arrived. He works with a handful of young volunteers and dozens of Syrian lawyers across Europe. Al-Bunni is central to building cases against the Assad regime. He collects eyewitness accounts of secret detention centers where thousands were held in overcrowded cells, stripped, tortured, starved - a savage campaign against civilians to win the civil war.
AL-BUNNI: If this regime survive, you will see disasters. How it will affect Egypt, about Turkish, about Iran, about Saudi Arabia? All of them look now for the destiny of Bashar al-Assad. We will put end to this.
AMOS: He knows that international tribunals backed by the United Nations are blocked. Even now, Russia and China wield a U.N. veto to protect the Syrian regime. Al-Bunni wages the legal battle in Europe in national courts. His partners are German lawyers, European war crimes investigators and federal prosecutors. Incriminating evidence has been smuggled out of Syria over eight years of war - documents signed by Assad's lieutenants, official photographs of corpses battered and numbered. Witnesses reached out to al-Bunni as soon as he got to Berlin.
AL-BUNNI: I have hundreds of letters for victims need to do something.
AMOS: How many victims do you think are in Germany?
AL-BUNNI: I think there is more than 50,000.
AMOS: And these are people who survived the torture chambers.
AL-BUNNI: If he not himself, his brother, his son, his father. The detention issue touch every Syrians - every.
AMOS: Cases can be built in Germany and a handful of European states because legislatures decided that when it comes to certain crimes, borders don't count. It's called universal jurisdiction and applies to crimes against humanity - war crimes.
AL-BUNNI: In Germany, just in Germany, there is 126 files open - open investigation - against people who committed these crimes.
AMOS: His German partner is the European Commission for Constitutional and Human Rights, a legal nonprofit. Lawyer Patrick Kroker heads the Syrian investigation. Now the focus is on Syrian officers who slipped into Europe with the refugees.
PATRICK KROKER: Which is why we also went to Austria, to Sweden. We were in touch with prosecutors in the Netherlands and France and Switzerland.
AMOS: And are there cases being developed in all of those places?
KROKER: Yes, absolutely. These are universal rights, and that means we need to look beyond our borders.
AMOS: A breakthrough came last year. Al-Bunni scrolls through a criminal complaint filed with the German federal prosecutor. The charge - crimes against humanity.
AMOS: The Syrians named in the German indictment reads like a who's who of Bashar al-Assad's inner circle.
AL-BUNNI: Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, Abdel Salam Mahmoud...
AMOS: In 2018, Germany issued the first international arrest warrant against top officials. A French court took a similar step. Yet all of those named, including Bashar al-Assad, remain in power, untouchable as long as they don't travel outside of Syria. The more promising cases are against Syrian officials tracked in Europe. But justice is a marathon, says Patrick Kroker. These cases take years.
KROKER: The first thing we basically say is Bashar is not going to be in a German prison in the next years. It's not going to happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AMOS: On a train in the Berlin suburbs, a busker is the background to a journey with a potential witness. She is a 35-year-old torture survivor. Jihan only wants her first name broadcast. Al-Bunni is taking her to a mental health clinic.
Jihan wants to testify.
AL-BUNNI: Yeah, yeah.
AMOS: She does.
AL-BUNNI: She won't because they feel we start to do something for our suffering.
AMOS: He has to be sure she's strong enough to tell her story in open court. He wants her account because sexual violence is part of the torture story. But here's the problem - he has to weigh what testimony is worth if it retraumatizes the victim.
AL-BUNNI: I don't know. I will ask the doctor if she is ready or not, or we must do it more before we have her testify.
AMOS: The German therapist tells him he'll have to wait. But another trial is pressing, one he worked on for years. Remember that man that al-Bunni saw at the resettlement center? He remembered the name - Anwar Raslan.
AL-BUNNI: Anwar Raslan was officer - security officer.
AMOS: Do you remember what he did to you in jail?
AL-BUNNI: Yeah. He kidnapped me from the street - 2006. And they sent me to jail for five years. He slapped me twice on my face.
AMOS: He told German authorities one of the men responsible for torture was in Berlin. The arrest came this year in February. The charge - suspicion of crimes against humanity. Al-Bunni will testify at the trial, along with 10 other witnesses.
AL-BUNNI: They will be open court and this is the first time where the victim faces the criminals.
AMOS: For the first time, a Syrian officer will be in the dock to face Syrians who say they were tortured.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Berlin.
CORNISH: And as we continue our look at the efforts to get justice for Syrian torture victims, the spotlight stays in Germany.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STEPHEN RAPP: Germany is the capital of accountability in the case of Syria and has shown that it can be done.
CORNISH: Hear more about why that country is so pivotal tomorrow on Morning Edition.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.