A former colonel in the Syrian secret police has been jailed for four-and-a-half years for complicity in crimes against humanity, in a landmark court decision out of Germany.
Eyad al-Gharib, 44, was convicted over his involvement in the arrest of 30 protesters in 2011 who were later taken to the notorious al-Khatib prison in Damascus where hundreds were systematically tortured and starved to death by Syrian officers.
The trial in the city of Koblenz was unprecedented in terms of the Syrian civil war, as hours of testimony from survivors and medical forensic experts were heard in open court, while evidence presented by the prosecutors included thousands of images of prisoners starved and tortured to death that were leaked by the military defector known as Caesar.
Another former Syrian intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, 58, remains on trial.
Today’s conviction comes on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the start of the civil war. The verdict increases hopes of setting a precedent to prosecute other former officials and defectors of the Syrian regime involved in the systematic oppression and crackdown on political and civilian opposition groups.
The fate of 120,000 people remains unknown after disappearing in the country’s infamous prisons over the past decade.
Gharib and his senior officer Raslan defected in 2012 and were granted asylum in Germany in 2018, but were arrested a year later and prosecuted under Germany’s principle of “universal jurisdiction” for serious crimes.
Survivors attending the court proceedings testified of being subjected to rape and sexual assault, beatings, sleep depravations, mock drownings, electric shocks, and having their fingernails torn out in torture chambers run by a secret police force that was directly under the auspices of President Bashar al-Assad.
In a letter asking for acquittal that his lawyers read out, Gharib argued that he was only acting on orders, and that he would have risked his family’s lives if he defied his superiors.
International human rights groups welcomed the decision by the German judges and called on the rest of the international community to follow the example to hold former officials of oppressive governments to account.
"Today's historic verdict – the first of its kind for crimes under international law committed by a Syrian government official – is a resounding victory for the tens of thousands of Syrian torture survivors and victims of enforced disappearance," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"It also sends a clear message to the Syrian government that those responsible for horrific violations will be brought to justice."
The case continues against Raslan. The former brigadier general will face charges of direct involvement in crimes against humanity during his role as the lead investigator in the al-Khatib prison. His verdict is expected to be delivered in October.
The Syrian civil war, which the Assad regime has largely won, began in March 2011 when peaceful pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring were brutally crushed by the regime. Since then 400,000 people have died, 6 million people have been displaced and entire cities destroyed.