(Un)covering Syrian Atrocities at a German Court

Tracy Jawad
Lebanese Journalist and Political Researcher

The podcast Branch 251 has provided biweekly updates in English and Arabic on the first ever trial of two former Syrian officers in the German city of Koblenz, which on January 13 sentenced Anwar Raslan to life in jail. “The purpose of normalizing the Asaad regime is to erase the crimes that happened. The purpose of the trial is to keep them alive, to show they did happen, and are still happening.”

In February 2019, two Syrian men were arrested in Germany for suspected crimes against humanity. Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib had worked at the Al-Khatib detention center in Damascus until their defection in 2012. Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, they were charged with authorizing and administering acts of torture, sexual assault and murder at a court in the city of Koblenz.

After several bids to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague had failed, this was the first-time former secret service agents were tried for atrocities committed under the Bashar al-Assad regime.

On January 13, the 58-year-old former colonel Raslan was convicted to life in jail for crimes against humanity in the form of “killing, torture, severe deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual coercion.” Last year, the then 44-year-old Gharib had already been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail after prosecutors had successfully argued he had helped arrest protesters in 2011, who were later tortured and killed.

The Koblenz court has given Syrians the chance to confront their tormentors and describe in detail the regime’s brutality. Their stories attest to widespread and systematic violence essential to suppressing dissent. Together, civil society members, activists, and organizations have sketched a portrait of what the international community excuses, and erases, when normalizing Assad’s rule.

“Justice is important for us Syrians, to feel satisfaction, to feel that somebody still cares about us, about our stories, about our tragedies,” said Joumana Seif, a Syrian human rights lawyer and research fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). She offers legal, psychological and social support to witnesses, many of whom had been detained in Al-Khatib and subjected to its inhumane conditions.

“The purpose of [normalizing] the Asaad regime is to erased the crimes that happened. The impact of these trials is to keep that knowledge alive; to show that it did happen, and that it’s still happening”

Since the start of the trial in April 2020, she has informed them about their rights and clarified Germany’s judicial procedures along ECCHR, as they recalled memories of overcrowded cells, medical negligence and solitary confinement.

Syrians across the world were eager to be part of the Koblenz trial and its promise of a fair trial. Joumana hopes the trial’s outcome will bring forth real change towards Syria. She believes the verdicts are only the beginning, as there are still 130,000 individuals missing – forcibly disappeared, arbitrarily detained, or dead.

“Koblenz has sent a good message to all Syrians,” she said. “Despite that [our struggle] is difficult and limited, there’s still hope. These verdicts will set a precedent, and we hope it will offer a strong basis for the future.”

It has not been easy for Seif to revisit these stories from her homeland. Her father, Riad, is a well-known opposition figure who was threatened and detained by the government throughout his life. He was a witness at the trial describing Syria’s machinery of repression.

Caesar’s infamous photos were also used as evidence, showing victims who died in detention and suffered from the unrestrained torture inflicted in government facilities. The graphic images, which were smuggled out of Syria by a military defector, identified a number of detainees who died at Al-Khatib.

“Nobody involved in this trial, after almost two years, is the same.”

Despite their historic importance, the court sessions were exclusively in German. No recordings were permitted inside the courtroom. However, the podcast Branch 251 has provided listeners with biweekly updates and analyses of the trial’s underlying taboos, controversies, and themes. Over the course of three seasons experts and guests discussed the trial’s legal and ethical considerations, urging listeners to reflect on the limitations of justice within the constraints of the Syrian regime.

Branch 251 does what podcasts are made to do: inform, explore, and engage. The team questions the premise of the trial, its consequences, and its limitations at a time where Assad is still in power. Some episodes have explored duress, taboos around sexuality and mental health, comparisons between Nazi Germany and the Mukhabarat, the profitability of war, and why some medical professionals chose to betray their code of ethics.

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Produced in English and Arabic, the podcast elaborated on the perspectives that informed public opinion. The episodes entwine journalistic reporting with digital storytelling by reaching beyond the court sessions and relaying the harrowing experiences of witnesses and survivors. The podcast is named after the underground detention facility in Damascus, or part of “Branch 251” of the General Security Directorate (GSD), one of Syria’s four main intelligence agencies. Branch 251 more specifically is the nickname of the Al Khatib torturous prison (which is also known as “hell on earth”).

Founder and co-host Fritz Streiff wanted to create a “well-researched, fact-checked, and proofread” resource for Syrian and international audiences. A human rights lawyer by training, and podcast enthusiast by choice, he aimed to filter misinformation and rumors without relinquishing a conviction that what is happening in Syria is deeply criminal.

“We hear from Syrian colleagues that it’s empowering [for Syrians] to take control of this painful story and not have others tell it, or tell it wrongly, or bully it with propaganda from different sides,” he said.

The show has succeeded in translating the complex technicalities of international and criminal law into episodes that are accessible and comprehensive in both content and delivery.

Noor Hamadeh, a Syrian American international lawyer who joined Branch 251 in its second season, admits that the work required her to step back and learn from other voices. The show has challenged her to empathize with the accused, contextualizing their loyalties and obligations under a tyrannical regime that permeates all facets of society.

“We were constructive about what topics we wanted to include. How much information do [we] present, while serving the story, without giving too many difficult details?”

Branch 251 offers a space for victims to share and validate their experiences and reintroduce themselves as survivors: an oud player shielding his hands from harm; a daughter detained with her mother after a sit-in, tortured for information on other activists; a filmmaker who underwent surgery after being raped by officers; a writer and actress who recalled Raslan’s love for the arts; a human rights lawyer who spent five years in prison for being outspoken against the regime long before the conflict erupted. These stories, albeit painful and gut-wrenching, must be heard by all those who lived to tell them.

“The purpose of [normalizing] the Asaad regime is to erased the crimes that happened. The impact of these trials is to keep that knowledge alive; to show that it did happen, and that it’s still happening,” Hamadeh continued.

Archive for Humanity

Saleem Salameh, a Jordanian producer based in Amsterdam, has been instrumental in finding the language to best translate the trial’s stories and overarching themes for Branch 251’s Arabic podcast.

“I think about everything I produce as an archive,” he said. “I see podcasts as a tool for archiving stories, archiving voices. When we look back, there will be material that will not go anywhere. People can revisit, re-listen, and learn. This particular conflict is important. It deals with revolution, war, and courts.”

Salameh’s work with Branch 251 has brought him closer to the human devastation reaped by the conflict. Documenting the trial in Arabic illustrates the importance of the mother tongue and native culture in pursuing justice and finding closure.

While the trial takes place in Germany, reporting in Arabic reaches audiences in Syria, where communication is still heavily monitored and the state’s media monopoly restricts the free flow of information. Reporting on the trial in Arabic also reaches a wider Arabic-speaking audience in the region, where Syrian atrocities have often been overshadowed by more immediate concerns of national crisis and foreign policy.

“Even after 10 years it still matters and it’s still happening.”

The trial’s final verdict shows the importance of preserving the stories that have emerged from Syria. Holding onto lived experiences keeps the promise of justice alive. On January 19, one week after Raslan’s verdict in Koblenz, Alaa Moussa’s trial began in Frankfurt. Moussa is a trained doctor who arrived in Germany on a skilled workers’ visa. He is charged with 18 counts of torture and one of murder.

Although the trials are promising, Streiff sympathizes with those who have “checked out,” those who chose to move forward from their lives in Syria and opted for peace of mind. He also had his moments where the conflict’s severity affected him personally. When analyzing video evidence of baby casualties from the chemical attacks in Ghouta, he could not help but think of his wife, who was to deliver their newborn only weeks later.

Seeing the crowds and demonstrators in Koblenz, it is clear that nobody has forgotten about Syria just yet. Victims have offered forgiveness and showed a readiness to move forward and rebuild their homeland. However, they are unable to do so when their loved ones are still missing, when their hearts still wander in Syria.

In their final statements, witnesses emphasized that they did not want to Raslan and al-Gharib to suffer like they did. They did not want to see them isolated, tortured, their medical needs neglected, their families worried. On the contrary, they want both men to be treated like human beings – a right they were denied during their time at Al-Khatib.

Her Hopes for Her Syria

Seif recalled an instant at the trial that moved her. The presiding judge had cordially asked Raslan how to pronounce his surname. It was just remarkable for Seif to hear such an authority treat a man, accused of torture and murder, with kindness and respect. Seif wished the same decency was extended to her father.

“Our struggle is for a democratic country, for basic human rights to be protected, for dignity, equality, and freedom. I will not stop fighting for those principles.”

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