Koblenz trial of torture in Syria: order for violence from above

A witness presented secret documents at the trial of alleged Syrian torturers. They suggest crimes against humanity.

During the trial in Koblenz, Khaled Barakeh shows his installation against inhumanity Photo: Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

KOBLENZ taz | These documents should never be seen by anyone outside the Syrian regime. “Most confidential” is written on the two perforated A4 sheets that are closely printed with Arabic script. They look inconspicuous, but they represented a decisive turning point for the then still young conflict between the demonstrators in Syria and the Assad regime.

“The time of tolerance and the fulfillment of demands is over,” says the letter from the Central Crisis Management Cell (CCMC) dated April 18, 2011. Two days later, the written request follows to usher in a new phase in which the demonstrators should be countered with violence.

Digital copies of the two letters were projected on the wall of the Koblenz courtroom on Tuesday, where two former Syrian secret service employees have been tried since April. With Anwar R. and Eyad A., suspected torturers of the regime of Syria’s ruler have to answer for the first time.

The incriminating documents were brought by Christopher Engels from the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), who was called as a witness on two days this week. And he presented the judges with other documents that his organization had been collecting since 2011. Among other things, they are supposed to prove that the 4,000 cases of torture and the 58 murders that the main defendant Anwar R. is accused of were crimes against humanity.

Evidence is often destroyed

The CIJA is an international non-governmental organization that has been smuggling documents out of Syria since the end of 2011 in order to secure them for later legal proceedings. The work is financed by states whose law enforcement authorities want to use the documents: at the moment these are Germany, Canada, the USA, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

“We started because we saw a gap in international law investigations in the past,” explains Engels, who like most of his colleagues has many years of experience as an investigator and advisor in conflict regions such as Afghanistan or the Balkans. Most of the time, important evidence is not collected during a conflict, explains Engels. “Evidence is destroyed, lost, or hidden by people who know it could harm them.”

CIJA anticipated this in this case. Since 2011, the organization has collected 800,000 pages of Syrian government documents that are stored in an unknown location along with 469,000 videos or other digital files.

Instructions from the very top

In court, Engels used some of these papers to trace the hierarchical structure of the Syrian regime and its security forces. His conclusion: the orders came from above. For example, the CCMC, the highest-ranking state body created specifically to combat the protests, sent a letter to the heads of the secret services in August 2011, in which it asked them to arrest people who “finance or incite demonstrations, belong to or participate in opposition coordination agencies Communicate with people abroad or with foreign media. “

This order can be found literally in documents that were later sent to the smallest local intelligence units. And finally the order reappears in individual interrogations, the notes of which are available to the CIJA. Engels showed the court a record of the interrogation in which a prisoner is asked to name people “who incite demonstrations or belong to opposition coordination centers.” According to everything witnesses in Koblenz have reported so far, the answer was probably forced through torture.

For every document that Engels shows, he can explain the exact path that it has traveled. Syrian CIJA colleagues collected most of the papers in 2011 and 2012 in Raqqah, Idlib, Deir az-Zor and other cities – whenever the regime had to withdraw from the respective region. When the opportunity arose, the documents were taken out of the country, sometimes days later, sometimes up to a year later. In addition, the CIJA interviewed more than 2500 witnesses, former prisoners or regime employees, whose statements are intended to reinforce the information in the documents and fill them with life.

Everything points to systematic abuse

Even before the federal prosecutor’s office began investigating Anwar R., the CIJA had become aware that the accused was in Europe. They created a dossier on him under the code name “Czech”. In April 2018 they sent this to the Federal Criminal Police Office upon request. There are also two investigation reports signed by R, as well as testimony confirming that the accused was the head of investigations in divisions 251 and 285.

Other witnesses told the CIJA that there had been torture and ill-treatment in these departments. Engels concludes from this that R. was responsible for the torture and ill-treatment. He confirms this statement when asked by the judges.

However, Engel’s testimony and the CIJA documents are not only important in relation to the defendant’s role, but also in relation to the context in which he acted as chief investigator of a secret service in 2011 and 2012. All the findings indicated that the mistreatment had been spread across Syria, Engels told the judges in Koblenz. “And they were systematic in that they were alike across different departments.”

A widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population – that is the definition of crimes against humanity under international law.

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