A court in Germany convicted a former Syrian security officer of crimes against humanity on Thursday and sentenced him to life in prison. He is the most senior Syrian official to be held accountable for abuses committed by the government during a decade of civil war.
The former officer, Anwar Raslan, was accused of supervising a detention center where prosecutors said at least 4,000 people were tortured and nearly 60 killed.
The ruling represents a watershed moment for an international network of lawyers, human rights activists and survivors of the Syrian war who have struggled for years to bring to justice officials who have punished or participated in acts of violence.
During nearly 11 years of civil war, the Syrian government has bombed residential neighborhoods, used poison gas and tortured countless detainees in state prisons, but so far, no high-ranking official has been held accountable for these actions, which human rights lawyers describe as a war . crimes.
They say Mr. Raslan’s guilty verdict enhances the ability of European courts to pursue similar cases while sending a message to war criminals around the world that they may one day face consequences.
“This is the first time that members of the Assad regime have had to be tried before an ordinary criminal court,” said Stephanie Bock, director of the International Center for Research and Documentation of War Crime Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany. This sends a clear message to the world that some crimes will not go unpunished.”
But while Mr. Raslan, a former colonel, once held a senior position in Syria’s intelligence service, he was more of a cog than a pillar of President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its vast apparatus of repression.
After more than a decade of war, Assad is still in power, and there seems little chance that he, his top advisers or military leaders will soon be put on trial. They rarely travel abroad, and only to countries they can count on not to be arrested, such as Russia, a staunch supporter of Assad.
Other potential avenues for justice were also blocked. Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and Russia and China have used their UN Security Council veto to block Syria’s referral to the court.
Germany is among a few European countries that have sought to try former Syrian officials for war crimes on the basis of universal jurisdiction, the principle of international law that states that some crimes are so serious that they can be prosecuted anywhere.
This is how Mr. Ruslan ended up on trial at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, a small city in western Germany.
Mr. Raslan, 58, oversaw a security office and detention center in Damascus, the Syrian capital, during the early days of the war.
German prosecutors said his position gave him oversight of torture, which included beatings, kicks, electric shocks, and sexual assault. Witnesses at the trial said they were given inedible food, denied medical care, and kept in overcrowded cells.
Prosecutors said at least 58 people died due to abuses under Mr. Raslan’s authority. In a court statement, Mr. Raslan denied his involvement in torture.
He entered Germany as a refugee in 2014 and lived there legally until his arrest by German authorities in 2019.