Bashar al-Assad, the defiant president of Syria, may never be brought to justice, at least not unless his patrons in Russia want to replace him. An ongoing trial in a German court in the quiet city of Koblenz against two regime officials, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, is slowly but surely destroying all hopes that Assad might have had that Europe will soon normalize relations with his regime. The process also gives millions of Syrian refugees in Germany, who lived under the fear of having to return to their home countries, the hope that their hosts will finally understand their vulnerability.
The court has successively exposed testimony – in the testimony of survivors of torture in Syrian prisons, relatives of those killed, experts and insiders of the regime – about the extent of the crimes of the Syrian government against humanity. For the first time, outsiders can see how atrocities became routine under Assad's leadership.
On September 9th, the 30th day of the trial in Koblenz, at 11:10 a.m., the court saw his most important testimony to date. At that point, a Syrian undertaker who was part of a team that buried countless mutilated bodies took a stand. His testimony detailed how the bodies were brought in between 2011 and 2017 not only by al-Khatib, a state security directorate headed by Raslan in Damascus, also known as Branch 251, but by several branches of Syrian intelligence services, including those of the military For the safety of his family in Syria, the undertaker appeared with his face covered and is described as witness Z 30/07/19.
Local and global activists had previously reported widespread torture of civilians, and a military photographer code-named Caesar had leaked 50,000 photos as evidence of torture and extrajudicial murders. Z's contribution was to paint the picture of what followed. He told the court about the state where he found the bodies, what happened to them and under whose orders. Foreign policy has accessed a copy of his entire testimony.
"There were rivers of blood and maggots" that came out of the bodies, "once I couldn't eat anything for days." Some corpses were completely rotten and their faces "unrecognizable" as if they had been deliberately disfigured with a chemical. It is the stench of the rotting corpses that worried him most and continues to this day. "The smell stayed in my nose even after taking a shower at home."
Witness Z was a small cog in the machinery of the larger regime that allegedly arrested peaceful protesters and anyone who either belonged to the opposition or appeared to support it, tortured them in detention centers and prisons, executed many, and organized their secret funerals. Z was part of the last act. Since he could not stand the stench of the corpses, he was tasked with transporting the men who had buried the corpses and also recording the number of deaths against the secret service that brought them, that is, the secret services responsible for each the state's killing.
Z was previously part of the Syrian government in Damascus Governorate and buried those who died of natural causes until the start of the 2011 uprising. A few months after Syria became embroiled in protests against the regime, he was approached by two intelligence officers to drive a van. without a license plate, but covered with Assad's posters, in cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. In this van, he and eight to twelve other men sometimes drove straight to the Najha and Qutiefa cemeteries, and on other occasions waited first in the Tishreen and Harasta military hospitals. Z parked outside and saw 35 foot refrigerated trucks filled with 200 to 700 bodies, usually accompanied by at least one military officer, and followed them to the cemeteries.
He recalled that the cemeteries looked like camps "with different army units". Entry of civilians was prohibited. There was a checkpoint at the intersection that led to one of the tombs occupied by an officer with the rank of colonel who recognized the van and waved it through. "The officer had instructions," Z informed the court.
In the cemeteries, Z's colleagues, who had also been hired by the regime, opened the refrigerated trucks and threw one corpse after the other into ditches 6 feet deep and 160 to 330 feet long. "Such a pit was full after about 40 to 50 loads." Four times a week for at least six years, thousands of corpses were buried without a semblance of dignity. There were no relatives, no prayers, just a big hole in the vast desert in the country.
He confirmed the claims of Caesar, the military photographer who photographed corpses in military hospitals, when he told the court that each corpse had the intelligence or military branch number scrawled on its forehead and chest.
In the cemeteries, Z helped the regime officials on site to list the number of dead and the origin of the bodies. He named some of the most feared intel branches in the country, such as "al-Khatib", "Palestine branch" and "of the Air Force Intelligence Service, including military intelligence – of all departments belonging to the Syrian regime".
Z was sensitive to the overwhelming smell of rotting bodies and stayed half a meter from the trenches. But those killed in the notorious Sednaya Prison did not smell. The officer who brought the Sednaya bodies from the hospitals told Z that they were killed that same day. They were still warm, with unavoidable signs of torture which Z confirmed that he had seen. Many were still handcuffed with toes and fingernails pulled out. "There were signs of execution on the neck," said Z, a statement confirming the findings by the international non-governmental organization Amnesty.
An amnesty report published in 2017 found that thousands of people were killed in mass hangings in Sednaya between 2011 and 2015. The trial of these victims lasted one to three minutes before two local military courts, and on the days when prison authorities carried out the murders they were referred to as "the party". Philip Luther, the director of research and advocacy for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty, counted several confirmations in Z's testimony, including the timeframe and method of the murders. The amnesty report found that the highest levels of government approved the killings: “Death sentences are approved by the Grand Mufti of Syria and either the Defense Minister or the Army Chief of Staff, who are charged with acting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. "
Patrick Kroker, a lawyer fighting the Koblenz case and the senior legal advisor for Syria at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who is assisting 16 Syrians in the trial, said there was no evidence that the Syrian regime did not commit these crimes have committed more. in fact, Z's testimony is the opposite. He said the process will inevitably have implications for a broader European policy towards Syria. For example, Kroker said it was repulsive to even support the idea of normalizing relations with such a regime. "Someone is giving evidence that mass graves were still being dug until at least 2017," he said. "This is the kind of government, the kind of regime that you don't relate to."
He also highlighted the ongoing legal implications of the trial and the revelations made in such statements, saying the evidence now presented would facilitate future trials of regime officials if caught traveling to Europe. ““ The individual acts of torture only constitute a crime of humanity if they are committed in a specific context, ie as a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population. Z's testimony shows that the crimes were systematic. "
At the end of the trial, experts believe that the evidence influences refugee policy in Germany, even if the victory is symbolic and only two middle-regime officials are convicted. In the face of such statements, it is more difficult for the populists to demand the return of the refugees to Syria. Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, said the interior ministers of the federal states in Germany discuss the possibility of the refugees' return every six months. "But from what we hear in court proceedings about everything that happens in Syria, it is absolutely impossible to deport people," said Bente, adding that there is hope that the court proceedings will soften Germany's attitude towards the refugees. "Nobody can say that they didn't hear about it, that they didn't know."
Europeans are hearing more about the longstanding torture of the Syrians and that they not only fled bombs and other hardships of war, but also allegedly from rampant torture and brutal murders by the regime. Evidence like Z's shows that the murders weren't the accidental acts of some officers, but crimes organized by numerous government agencies, with men like Z at the end of the food chain having no choice but to obey orders. It is fitting that Syria's plight should be exposed in Germany, a country that should empathize with the country's ordeal.