KOBLENZ (Germany): A German court on Thursday sentenced a former Syrian colonel to life in jail for crimes against humanity in a “historic” verdict marking the end of the first global trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria.

Anwar Raslan, 58, was found guilty of overseeing the murder of 27 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251”, in 2011 and 2012.

He sought refuge in Germany after deserting the Syrian regime in 2012.

During the trial, more than 80 witnesses testified about what the court in Koblenz called “catastrophic conditions” in the centre, which had a reputation for being especially brutal. They took the stand despite “a great fear of the Syrian regime, whether for themselves or for their families”, said presiding judge Anne Kerber. “I owe them my full respect,” she said.

Over 80 witnesses testified about ‘catastrophic conditions’ at the Damascus detention centre

Bashar al-Assad’s regime had resorted to “violence” and “the heavy use of munitions” to suppress protests that erupted in March 2011, Kerber said, also stressing that “the Syrian regime is not here in the court”.

Detainees were not only “tortured but also starved and deprived of air” in unsanitary, crowded cells where they could not sit or lie down, she said.

Wassim Mukdad, a victim who testified before the courts, voiced relief over the verdict. “It is a sign that torture and crimes that took place in Syria are crimes against humanity and that the perpetrators must pay for them.” UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet called the verdict a “landmark leap forward in the pursuit of truth, justice and reparations for the serious human rights violations perpetrated in Syria over more than a decade”.

“The court in Koblenz clearly and formally established inhumane detention conditions, systematic torture, sexual violence and killings in Syria,” said Markus N. Beeko, head of Amnesty International in Germany.

Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, which provided some of the evidence used in the trial, told reporters in Geneva the verdict was “really historic”.

Syrian activists gathered outside the court on Thursday holding banners and posters with slogans such as “Where are they?”, referring to their relatives who have disappeared in Syrian detention centres.

Activist Yasmen Almasha said: “I think that this is what he deserves. I would’ve wished for my brother Okba to have had the same fair prosecution that Anwar Raslan did. Maybe he would’ve still been alive, we wouldn’t have lost him.”

Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni called the verdict a “victory for justice” and the victims. “I am so happy... It’s victory for Syria and future of Syria,” he said.

Raslan was put on trial in April 2020 along with another lower-ranking defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, who was accused of helping to arrest protesters and deliver them to the detention centre.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2022

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