(CN) — The first trial of state-sanctioned torture in Syria is set to take place in Germany early next year after German prosecutors charged two former Syrian secret service officials in federal court.
Federal prosecutors this week said they filed war crimes charges on Oct. 22 against two Syrians living in Germany. The men were arrested in February and are in custody.
The case relies on the accounts of nearly 50 Syrians who allegedly were tortured, and on official documents smuggled out of Syria, according to attorneys and news reports.
The prosecution is relying on the principle of universal jurisdiction, under which any country may pursue perpetrators for certain crimes, such as war crimes, regardless of where they took place. Germany adopted this legal principle in 2002.
Prosecutors in France, Sweden and Austria are examining similar cases against Syrians accused of torture. Other legal cases are pending against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Germany, which has become a leader in applying the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based human rights legal center, said the upcoming trial in the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz in western Germany will set an important precedent.
The legal center said Germany’s prosecution is important because there is “little prospect of accountability on an international level.”
It said charging Syrian war criminals at the International Criminal Court is not an option because Syria does not recognize the court. The U.N. Security Council could ask the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria, but Russia and China have blocked that from happening. Russia is an ally to Syria in the conflict.
The suspects are Anwar Raslan, 56, and Eyad al-Gharib, 42. Both men fled Syria and were living as refugees in Germany when they were arrested. Raslan’s victims became aware of his presence in Berlin and alerted German authorities, according to news reports.
Prosecutors said Raslan was complicit in the torture of about 4,000 people between 2011 and 2012 at a prison he ran called Branch 251 near Damascus. Prosecutors said 58 people died from torture at the detention facility. They said Raslan also was accused of rape and aggravated sexual assaults.
Gharib allegedly aided and abetted the abduction and torture of at least 30 people in the fall of 2011, according to prosecutors. He was a former officer who detained protesters in Douma and brought them to the Branch 251 prison, according to news reports.
Prosecutors said the torture of people opposed to the Assad regime included “blows with fists, truncheons, pipes, cables, whips and hoses as well as electric shocks,” according to Agence France-Presse.
Prisoners were suspended from the ceiling by their wrists and beaten, sexually assaulted, deprived of sleep and threatened with their loved ones being harmed, according to AFP.
“The systematically brutal physical and psychological mistreatment served to force confessions and extract information about the opposition movement,” prosecutors said.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with mass protests calling for civil liberties. In response, Assad has used what prosecutors called “brutal force” to stamp out the demonstrations.
The ECCHR quoted an unnamed torture victim who may provide testimony to the court.
“This process in Germany gives hope, even if everything takes a long time and nothing happens tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow,” the victim said. “The fact that it continues at all gives us as survivors hope for justice.”
“These charges send an important message to survivors of Assad’s system of torture,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR general secretary.
More than 360,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war and millions more have fled their homes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 60,000 people have died from torture or harsh conditions in regime custody since 2011.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)