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2018 | El Pais - Building the case against Assad regime

This report in the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, looks at recent legal cases being mounted in Germany against the Assad regime for torture and crimes against humanity. The first international warrant has recently been issued, for Jamil Hassan, director of Air Force Intelligence and a high-ranking official in the Assad regime. The cases would rely on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Whereas national courts generally only have jurisdiction to try cases involving crimes committed by or against their own nationals or on their own territory, universal jurisdiction allows national courts to prosecute crimes committed in other states by non-nationals of the host state.  Given the current impasse in diplomatic efforts to involve the International Criminal Court or the UN more broadly in seeking accountability and justice for victims of crimes committed in Syria, several observers believe that universal jurisdiction cases conducted in domestic courts outside Syria may provide the only option for  persons seeking recognition and other reparatory measures. 

The case is based on three sets of documents:

1) Hundreds of thousands of documents smuggled out of Syria which show, among other information, the chain of command, the specific pattern of instruction of torture, the position of the Assad officials responsible for the crime and the extent of their knowledge and accountability. Those documents are now driving investigation in a dozen different countries in Europe and, according to some international justice lawyers, are the key to avoiding a Rwanda or Yugoslavia scenario where lack of evidence delayed justice for decades. Jerma Jelacic of CIJA states that lack of sufficient evidence to confirm that Mladic knew of the abuses perpetrated under his control was the reason for the delay in his arrest and prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.  Compiling evidence now, of conflict-related crimes committed during the still ongoing war in Syria, will be of tremendous significance any efforts towards accountability and justice in the future.

2) The “Caesar report”. This UN report collates the forensic evidence of patterns of torture committed in prisons of the Assad regime, on the basis of photographs that were taken and released by a Syrian defector who had worked as a government employee. The information attached to the photographed bodies links each victim to a specific detention center and, in this way, to the high-ranking official responsible for it.

3) The accounts of several Syrians victims of torture who are now refugees in Germany

In the case of the legal cases in Germany, while other countries as Norway, Sweden and Austria also allow for the application of a pure universal principle, in Germany it is possible to carry out structural processes in which the evidence can be compiled without having to relate to specific cases. Moreover, besides the legal cases undertaken now, such evidence is useful also in short-, medium- and long-term strategies for justice for Syria, such as the use of evidence in international tribunals in the future.