Will Germany Hold the Assad Regime Accountable for Crimes of Sexual Violence?

Maya El Ammar
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 01.07.2020
Reading time: 10 minutes

The Syrian regime is fully aware that rape, sexual violence, and the harassment of women, as well as men, are all under-reported crimes in Syrian society, and they’ve taken advantage of this culture for decades. Finally, some Syrians have decided to speak up and put an end to these atrocities.

For all the women and men who were survivors of the Syrian regime’s brutality, June 17, 2020, was no ordinary day. Seven Syrian citizens filed a complaint to the German Federal Public Prosecutor against nine high-ranking officials of the Syrian government and the Air Force Intelligence Service, for crimes of sexual and gender-based violence committed against them during their detention period in the regime’s detention centers.

“I can’t get used to the idea of women detained in solitary confinement in cells of no more than 80 centimeters. They were psychologically deformed and tortured, while forced to listen to hear holy Quranic verses to humiliate them. Women were deprived of clothes, bathing, and even sanitary pads, helplessly sitting behind bars in their own blood for months. On top of this, when they were released from prison, their local communities harshly treated them with rejection and ostracism rather than treating them as victims who deserve protection.”

With these words, Sima Nassar, executive director of the Urnamo Foundation, voiced her frustration, on the same day the filing of the lawsuit was announced, supported by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and the Syrian Women Network, against the Air Force Intelligence officers for committing sexual and gender-based violence crimes, or in some cases turning a blind eye to them. It is worth mentioning that the Air Force Intelligence apparatus is one of the fiercest security apparatuses in Syria, with Caesar’s photographs documenting the horrendous killing and maiming of thousands of Syrians being just a mere taste of the bitterness of their behavior.

Furthermore, the Syrian human rights activists concerned with the lawsuit, as well as, the activists in “The Syrian Road to Justice” campaign, told “Daraj” shortly after the filing of the June 17 lawsuit, that most of the Syrian families are still in the habit of stigmatizing the victims of such crimes. They would use them as a pretext to neglect and exclude others like them, disrupting their careers, and ruining their emotional lives, to the extent of many of them getting divorced, once they are released from jail, as if these women weren’t tortured enough in the first place.

Who are the complainants against the Syrian Air Force Intelligence?

The preparators of these atrocities generally assume that they could go scot-free because their victims would refrain from reporting their crimes, or as time passes, that their past would be shrouded in utter oblivion. Perhaps they’d get off due to the survivors refraining from voicing their anger and taking the necessary legal action, out of their worries from the prevailing-social discrimination, or their fears for their loved ones living in Syria. Nevertheless, seven Syrian men and women refused to swim with the tide and proved that it was a mere illusion, declaring once again that the damage they endured would not be redeemed without-at least- exposing it to the public.

The complainants, now based in Europe, varied between five “direct complainants”, and two others who also survived sexual and gender-based violence. However, they joined the case as witnesses -not direct complainants- delivering their testimonies of the horrendous crimes committed inside the draconian regime’s dungeons, specifically, in the detention centers of the Air Force Intelligence in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hamah, as legal expert Joumana Seif explained to “Daraj”. Joumana is a human rights advocate following up on the case, a researcher in the center of ECCHR, as well as a founder of both the “Syrian Women’s Network” and the “Syrian Women’s Political Movement.”

All complainants were young people who took part in the relief activities and peaceful demonstrations in Syria between 2011 to 2013, including three men and four women, all of whom survived acts of torture and detention for periods exceeding -in some cases- a year.

The preparators of these atrocities generally assume that they could get off scot-free because their victims would refrain from reporting their crimes, or as time passes, that their past would be shrouded in utter oblivion

In this respect, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based organization, pointed out that the complaint was directed against nine high-ranking officials of the Syrian government and Air Force Intelligence. Among them, Jamil Hassan, then head of the Air Force Intelligence Service, was charged with “crimes against humanity” under an international arrest warrant issued by the German and French authorities.

On the other hand, the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, has scheduled the first hearings in the ground-breaking trial in April 2020 to probe the alleged acts of torture attributed to the Assad’s regime, specifically, the notorious “al-Khatib” detention center.

Universal Jurisdiction: The Syrians’ Window to Justice

In the last few years, universal jurisdiction seemed to be the only ally of the Syrians, who have been overrun by Assad’s regime over decades, not just in the last nine years since the Syrian revolution, but for years in the absence of other mechanisms for bringing the culprits to justice. Attempts to refer the Syrian file to the International Criminal Court was repeatedly vetoed by the Russian state, and the international community has delayed translating its verbal condemnation of the Assad regime into a more serious recognition of its crimes.

Universal jurisdiction is a principle that can be invoked in several cases, most notably by prosecuting perpetrators of systematic and widespread crimes against a group of civilians. This prosecution is based on international criminal law and the Rome Statute, which gives jurisdiction to signatory States and requires them to enact new laws or amend their national laws in accordance with its principles. This provides the State parties with the ability to investigate and prosecute such crimes.

In fact, universal jurisdiction in Germany is not limited but open; that is, it allows for the investigation and prosecution without requiring the presence of victims or offenders on its territory, as is the case in France, which sentenced Refaat al-Assad to prison on charges of money-laundering and illegal gain.

All lawsuits related to torture, crimes against humanity and financial offences have been filed on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction in countries such as Austria, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden, and these include 4 cases that were submitted by ECCHR alone since 2013 to date. ECCHR demanded that military and air intelligence officials, as well as officials at Sednaya prison, be held accountable for crimes committed systematically, as in most of the crimes committed by the regime in Syria.

International Investigations Lack Gender Sensitivity

The great irony is that these lawsuits were not based, in their investigations and various stages of the proceedings, on a gender-sensitive approach, conscious of the possibility of a series of crimes based on sexuality and gender. Crimes of sexual and gender-based violence have not been properly investigated, which would almost eliminate the possibility of the recognition of the widespread and systematic nature of such crimes -which do not happen in an individual or a random manner- risking the neglect of the rights of their victims, and excluding them from the course of justice.

This fact prompted women human rights activists to speed up the process of lawsuits related to sexual violence and gender-based violence, and to highlighting the necessity of inclusion of victims of such violence, and for judicial systems to recognize their legal classification, i.e. within crimes against humanity. In the Syrian context, as in Rwanda, Bosnia and other countries that have been plunged into and around militarization and war, all this violence was committed in a deliberate and repeated manner against a segment of civilians, with the aim of subduing and silencing them, and depriving them of their right to political expression.

This observation has pointed out several gaps in international judicial processes at various stages, specifically in the lack of sensitivity of the investigations, interrogations and trial systems, as well as victim protection programs to the nature, mechanisms and effects of gender-based violence, and the weakness of specialized expertise in this area.

In the not-so-distant past, Rwanda’s trials established precedents that produced new approaches and fundamental changes in how crimes, aims, and methods of sexual violence are perceived. They provided a broader concept than was previously envisaged, often reduced by direct physical abuse and rape: In fact, sexual and gender-based violence also include verbal and psychological abuse, threats of violence, defamation, harassment of family members, visual, physical and verbal harassment, forced denudation, as well as the act of forcibly removing the veil, which is in itself is considered an assault by many veiled women.

Joumana Seif

In this context, Joumana Seif tells “Daraj” that “this new case is extremely important, because the current recognition of these crimes, their forms, their systematic nature and their characterization as a crime against humanity decides the future of justice for Syria. If we neglect it, this means that there will be no path for the victims to justice. ”

She adds: “All the judicial systems with all their departments and agencies have to realize that the effects of those crimes are so deep. That’s why it’s important to seek special gender expertise to deal with those effects. In addition to providing the necessary agencies to ensure justice for the victims and that they feel secured and protected.”

In Joumana Seif’s point of view, the main issue is for the society to “bring justice to women who were subjected to this disgusting violence of the regime.” She continues, “Our duty as a Syrian society is to prevent duplicating this violence. Thus, we have to work hard to get rid of the stigmatization and the isolation to which the victims are subjected.”

Towards the “Transformational Justice”

Joumana Seif’s appeal is an echo for “The Syrian Road to Justice” campaign in support of this lawsuit. It is a campaign that consists of four Syrian human rights and feminist organizations: “Badael”, “Dawlty”, “Women Now for Development”, and “Syrian Feminist Journalists Network” and supported by “The Syria Campaign.”

One of the core goals of this campaign is to go beyond the judicial processes, to address social discrimination linked to sexual and gender-based violence rooted in Syria, and to strengthen the social, political and judicial processes that bring justice to the survivors, without limiting the support efforts to the legal part which is very often limited, for the public opinion, to courtrooms and court lobbies.

The great irony is that these lawsuits were not based, in their investigations and various stages of the proceedings, on a gender-sensitive approach

Mona Zaineddin of the organization “Women Now” says: “We look forward to achieving a more comprehensive vision of justice by promoting transformational justice, which goes beyond the field of complaints, to serve the interest of creating a social and economic protection network for survivors, in which official and societal institutions bear their responsibility in meeting their various needs, and not just the legal aspect of them, so that the response is broader and closer to their aspirations, each according to their location and need. ”

“Part of our demands is directed to the judiciary, but the other part is directed to the society, to address the so-called stigma and its effects on the victims, and remove the obstacles that prevent them from accessing any form of justice,” Zaineddin adds to “Daraj”.

Joumana Seif does not predict a specific time period for this lawsuit to take its course, but explains that it is likely to continue for years, especially with the presence of many prosecutors, perpetrators, witnesses, and complicated incidents, which would extend the legal tradition for any legal course. Others who are too afraid to take a stance themselves have nothing to do but to follow the developments of the trial in Koblenz, as it is the first trial that examines torture cases, and to monitor the rhythm of its sessions and methods in order to form a simple estimate of what other future trials will be like.

Crimes Against Humanity!

During the announcement of the lawsuit, Sarita Ashraf, a lawyer specializing in international criminal law, reiterated the need to view sexual and gender-based crimes committed in detention centers in Syria as crimes against humanity, and not just isolated events that were targeting some individuals from time to time. They were widespread and systematic, which required the cessation of the description of this type of crime that aims to torture a group of people as exceptional or individual acts and to start treating them as crimes against humanity.

The Syrian government forces are well aware that rape, sexual violence and harassment of women and men are also crimes that are difficult to report in Syrian society. For decades, they have benefited from this culture and invested in it, allowing sexual and gender-based violations to be committed while imposing repressive practices, land-based military operations, at checkpoints, and detention facilities, to the extent that they have permitted sexual assaults on some women in detention centers, in retaliation for the towns that the regime was losing against in battles to restore its influence and control.

These forgotten women, and their allies who today lead the lawsuits and societal initiatives to redress them, are the ones who will change the reality of Syria, until the time comes when women’s justice will rest from the hassle of repairing what was destroyed by men’s violence.

Maya El Ammar
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 01.07.2020
Reading time: 10 minutes

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