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2018 | FIDH Q&A on Arrests Warrants - Dabbagh case in France

In early October 2018, French judges issued international arrest warrants against three high-level Syrian regime officials, including Ali Mamlouk and Jamil al-Hassan. This report by the FIDH provides some answers to the main issues regarding the case, the legal criteria for initiating investigations in France, details about the people allegedly responsible for the crimes and its significance.

In 2013 Patrick Dabbagh and his father Mazen were arrested by the Syrian Air Intelligence, and later detained at the Mezzeh Military Airport. In 2018, Dabbagh family was notified that Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh died while in custody, most likely under torture, respectively in November 2014 and November 2017. 

Since 2012, given the impossibility of bringing Syrian crimes before the ICC, Syrian activists and human rights groups had turned to third-countries domestic courts to investigate cases of international crimes committed in Syria. In 2016 Obaidah Dabbagh brought the case before French prosecutors. This is the first case in Europe, for crimes committed during the Syrian conflict, not undertaken under the principles of universal jurisdiction. Instead, the case was initiated on the basis of the dual French/Syrian nationality of Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh. 

Several legal elements of French Law allow French judges and prosecutors to initiate investigations into crimes perpetrated in Syria. First, victims of torture and enforced disappearance can file a criminal complaint with the French prosecutor irrespective of their nationality. This is allowed because of the integration into French Law of the UN Convention against Torture and of the UN Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, respectively in 1986 and 2013. Moreover, in 2010, the Rome Statute was incorporated into French Law giving French courts jurisdiction over the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in another country. Alongside these legal criteria, French courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed against French nationals or dual nationals, as in the case of Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh.

The case is significant for two main reasons: first of all, the international arrest warrants will discourage the three suspects from travelling abroad, thus thwarting illicit visits such as that by Ali Mamlouk – the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau - to Italy, earlier this year, which triggered a legal complaint against Italy before the European Commission.  Moreover, even if the international arrest warrants are not executed, the investigative judges could nevertheless consider closing the investigation and send the case to trial. The suspects would have the right to be represented by a lawyer for the duration of the trial, even if they themselves are not physically present in court.