A German court is expected to decide on Wednesday if a Syrian man who fled his country’s civil war was an accomplice to crimes against humanity.
Eyad al-Gharib, 44, allegedly assisted the torture of Syrians as a government intelligence officer.
Another Syrian – Anwar Raslan, 58 – remains on trial. Both got asylum in Germany but were arrested in 2019.
It is the first such trial over alleged atrocities committed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Prosecutors in Koblenz, western Germany, are seeking five-and-a-half years in jail for Eyad al-Gharib.
Defence lawyers argued that the pair were ordered to commit the alleged crimes and feared punishment if they did not obey.
The agency the men allegedly worked for played a crucial role in suppressing the peaceful pro-democracy protests that erupted against President Assad’s regime in 2011.
Germany is trying the pair under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which allows any country to prosecute those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
For some Syrians the trial, which began in April 2020, is a rare chance for justice for a community that has seen countless atrocities.
“This trial represents the first step towards justice that the Syrian victims have truly felt,” rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni told the BBC from Germany, where he sought asylum.
Mr Bunni says he was arrested by Anwar Raslan in the Syrian capital Damascus and was shocked to later come face to face with him in a Berlin shop. He has been assisting prosecutors in preparing the case.
“Although this trial is centred on two defendants… it targets the infernal machine of torture and murder [of President Assad’s regime],” he said.
What are they accused of?
Prosecutors say the two men were “cogs in the wheel” enabling a vast state torture machine to operate, according to German media..
Eyad al-Gharib is charged with bringing at least 30 protesters to a notorious Damascus prison to be tortured in 2011, while working for Syria’s most powerful civilian intelligence agency, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID).
His defence lawyers highlight his willing co-operation with German authorities and assistance in providing evidence against Anwar Raslan.
Eyad al-Gharib says he defected from Mr Assad’s regime to help the opposition and then fled Syria in 2013, arriving in Germany in 2018.
Anwar Raslan is suspected of being involved in the torture of at least 4,000 people in 2011-12. He is charged with 58 counts of murder as well as rape and sexual assault.
He is accused of being a high-ranking officer in charge of the GID’s Al-Khatib prison in Damascus, known as “Hell On Earth”. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
What came out in court?
Hours of witness testimony laid bare the mechanics of the Syrian regime’s alleged brutalities. Prosecutors described killing and torture on an “almost industrial scale”, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
In court, witnesses described being beaten and kicked on arrival at the Damascus prison. They spoke of being raped and hung from the ceiling for hours, how torturers tore their fingernails out and gave them electric shocks, then doused them with water.
The case is ground-breaking for giving Syrian torture victims a rare voice in a legal court.
“Wednesday’s decision will enter the history books,” Mark Somos from the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law told the BBC.
The evidence included thousands of images leaked by a military defector known as Caesar. Mr Somos said “the Caesar photos and other evidence of horrendous state torture on a mass scale were publicly discussed, and the legal record will continue to serve in a range of future cases”.
Mr Assad’s authoritarian government has repeatedly denied accusations of torturing and forcibly disappearing hundreds of thousands of people.
As well as the pair, Germany is investigating dozens of former Syrian officials accused of atrocities.
Why is there a civil war in Syria?
Long before the war began, President Assad and his father Hafez before him were accused of torture, rampant corruption and the near-total crushing of opposition.
But when uprisings hit regimes across the Arab world in 2011, many Syrians decided they wanted democratic change too.
Thousands took to the streets and several military generals defected to join the revolution. The government responded with crushing force, ordering soldiers to shoot at and arrest demonstrators.
The battle between protesters and Mr Assad’s forces escalated into armed conflict. It was further complicated when violent jihadist groups including Islamic State infiltrated the once-peaceful protest movement.
A decade on, more than 360,000 people are dead, around six million are living abroad, and roughly six million more are internally displaced. Those who stayed are struggling with an economy on its knees.
President Assad now controls the major cities, but armed opposition groups hold various enclaves.