On February 24, 2021, a German court convicted former Syrian secret police officer Eyad al-Gharib of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity during the Syrian Civil War. The landmark decision is the first example of a national court – as opposed to the International Criminal Court – convicting a relatively high-ranking officer for war crimes committed during the now decade-long conflict in Syria.
The Principle of Universal Jurisdiction
The typical mechanism for seeking justice for such crimes is through the International Criminal Court. However, as this court is an organ of the United Nations, the UN Security Council can block efforts to bring charges against accused war criminals in that venue. In the case of the Syrian Civil War, Russia and China have consistently blocked such pushes.
This obstructionism has led frustrated international human rights groups to push for European courts to bring charges against alleged war criminals unilaterally, made possible by the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. Under this principle, any nation’s courts may prosecute offenses like crimes against humanity, genocide, and torture, even if they were committed far outside that nation’s borders. These crimes are so severe that the accused are considered hostis humani generis – enemies of all humankind.
Although most countries, including the United States, acknowledge some forms of universal jurisdiction, the principle is applied especially expansively in many European legal systems, leading human rights campaigners to focus their attention on that continent. The large numbers of refugees flowing out of Syria and into Europe has also contributed to the intensity of the calls for European courts to pursue justice.
The Crimes of Eyad al-Gharib
Eyad al-Gharib arrived in Germany in 2018 and was arrested along with a higher-ranking secret police officer, Anwar Raslan, in February 2019. Al-Gharib subsequently admitted his involvement in the arrest of 30 protesters in 2011, in the opening stages of the Syrian conflict. The dissidents were then transported to a detention facility known as Branch 251 and were beaten en route. Al-Gharib also testified to knowing that the protesters would likely be tortured at the facility.
Raslan – whose trial will continue into the fall – was a senior officer at Branch 251, overseeing the torture of at least 4,000 detainees. In both the al-Gharib and Raslan cases, German prosecutors have argued that these individual actions constitute crimes against humanity as they were elements in the Syrian government’s systemic patterns of illegal detention and torture.
Among the key pieces of evidence in the prosecution’s case were forensic analyses of thousands of photos of corpses secreted out of Syria by a defecting police photographer, Syrian government documents, and the testimony of Syrian refugees in Germany who had been held at Branch 251.
No evidence linked al-Gharib directly to the crimes, but the judge allowed the defendant’s testimony to investigators to be admitted as evidence, despite his defense team’s objection, claiming that, at the time, he believed he was being questioned as a witness rather than a suspect. Al-Gharib was ultimately sentenced to four and a half years in prison, one year less than prosecutors had sought,nevertheless a defeat for the defense, who had argued for a full acquittal.
After the verdict was announced, Syrian human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni warned the Assad regime that “the time of impunity is over, and you will not find a safe place to go.” However, the optimism was not universal. Hassan Kansou of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center struck a gloomier note: “It is symbolic that they sentence one officer, and there could be others, but it won’t change anything inside Syria.”
Kansou is likely right, as the Assad government – which has regained control over most of the country – will not implicate itself in war crimes by prosecuting its own offenses. There is also no sign that Assad’s backers in Moscow and Beijing will start supporting prosecutions in the International Criminal Court. However, al-Bunni is correct to the extent that this verdict is a dark sign for accused Syrian war criminals within the reach of European national courts.
*Teddy Davis is a contributing author for the IELR blog. He is currently a senior at Vassar College.