The podcast about the worldwide first criminal trial against Syrian regime officials is back! Just before the end of the year, the new team brings you this episode with an update on the most important developments of the trial in Koblenz from the past couple of months. To round things up, Noor, Asser and Fritz provide a review of what 2020 meant for the wider search for justice and accountability for crimes committed in Syria. And take a peek at next year, which will mark the 10 year anniversary of the Syrian revolution.
"Branch 251 - Syrian Atrocity Crimes on Trial" takes you to the heart of the world's first criminal trial dealing with atrocity crimes committed by Syrian officials. Prosecutors in the German city of Koblenz accuse two alleged henchmen of the Syrian government of crimes against humanity committed at Branch 251 detention center near Damascus.
This episode (season 2, episode 1) was made possible with the support of the MENA Prison Forum and UMAM Documentation & Research.
Pauline Peek: Hey, everybody. It's Pauline. We're going to get to the episode in a second, but I thought I'd just give you a quick update on our crowdfunding campaign. As you might know, we set out to raise €2,500 in under 21 days and we ended up raising all of it in 40 hours. So from the entire team at the Branch 251 podcasts, thank you so much for your donations. While the crowdfunding campaign has ended, season two of Branch 251 is about to start.
Fritz Streiff: Welcome to the podcast, everybody. It's been a while. A bit more than two months but it feels much longer. Maybe that's because we were everything but idle. Preparing season two has been a lot of work and a lot of fun. Here we are again, episode one of season two. One of the things that kept us busy was the search for a new co-host and we found one and another one. This season we will actually have three hosts. We will rotate depending on the topic of the episode. You'll see. First things first, let me introduce our new hosts, Noor and Asser. I think I also speak on behalf of Pauline when I say that we are so happy to have you guys on board. Welcome.
Noor Hamadeh: Thank you, Fritz. It's exciting to be on board.
Asser Khattab: Same here, and I'm really looking forward to all the interesting episodes that we are going to offer.
Fritz: Do you guys want to tell our listeners a little bit about yourselves?
Asser: Sure. I'm a freelance journalist and researcher from Syria currently living in Paris. During the past few years, I reported from the middle east from Beirut for international media outlets such as the Washington Post and the Financial Times. This is my first podcasting experience. I'm rather excited about it.
Noor: I'm a Syrian American international lawyer. My work has primarily focused on Syria accountability efforts and business and human rights in Syria and in the middle east, generally. I'm also a huge fan of podcasts. I'm extremely excited to have joined this amazing team.
Fritz: Last but so much not least. We also have a new producer on board. Why is that? You may wonder Pauline is doing such a fantastic job. She will continue doing just that for our English language episodes.
Noor: Asser and I are not the only new team members.
Saleem Salameh: Hi, I'm Saleem. I joined the team of Branch 251 to help in producing the Arabic version of the podcast, which is not a translation of the English version, but a carefully written and produced original podcast for the Arabic-speaking audience.
Asser: So that the people who should hear about Koblenz will finally be able to listen.
Fritz: Next to the biweekly English episodes you're already used to, you will have this new series in Arabic presented by Noor and Asser and produced by Saleem. We are very excited about these plans. Like I said, for the English episodes, we will be rotating. Sometimes you will hear Noor and Asser and sometimes Asser and myself or Noor along with me, you get the idea. But today, in our first episode of the season, we will be with the three of us.
Noor: Guys, what are we doing on the podcast today?
Fritz: Two things. First, of course, we want to catch everyone up on the latest from the trial, from the courtroom. Koblenz. I talked to our court reporter, Hannah El-Hitami, to find out more about the most interesting and significant events at the trial, the past couple of months. There were some really important developments.
Noor: For example, the court decided that it will separate the two cases that are being tried together in Koblenz against Eyad A and Anwar R. The judges announced that they're planning to announce the verdict in Eyad A's case soon. First, they'll officially separate the two cases in late February. Then, just a few days later, announce the decision in Eyad A's case. When I first heard this, it made me wonder, why is the court doing this? What does it mean for the case against Eyad A and for the case against Anwar R? Is that continuing? But more on that from Hannah in a bit.
Asser: Then, in the second part of the episode, we want to take a bit of a step back. As 2020 is coming to an end, we want to look back at this year. Obviously, a lot of things happened in this strange and difficult year, but we want to just zoom in on the question of what 2020 meant more generally for the topic of accountability for crimes like the ones the court in Koblenz is dealing with.
Fritz: I think it's fair to say that 2020 was, "A good year," in this regard. It's worth pointing that out in the face of all the bad news that 2020 brought. Before we get to that, let's hear from Hannah to get an update on the trial itself. I called her and this is what she told me.
Hannah El-Hitami: I think we can divide what happened into three main categories. There have been some interesting testimonies that were also very significant for the trial. There has been an interesting motion by two plaintiff lawyers that was later joined by all the other plaintiff lawyers. They argued that the court should expand the indictment against Anwar R, but we can talk about that in detail a bit later. Finally, the court has made a major announcement recently that the two cases will be separated. That means that the judgment in Eyad A's case is going to be ready by the end of February.
Fritz: Wow, I did read that. Of course, that is a major development. Let's take this one by one, these three categories that you mentioned. Regarding the significant testimonies, who came to testify at the Koblenz court? Why were those testimonies significant?
Hannah: Some testimonies that stood out were, for example, two testimonies of people who have been guests on this podcast. Mazen Darwish and Christoph Reuter.
Fritz: Can you just remind us and the listeners about who they are and why the court wanted to hear from them as witnesses in the courtroom itself?
Hannah: Mazen Darwish is very well known. He's one of the most famous Syrian and human rights lawyers and activists. He's the head of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. His testimony was mostly about the general situation in Syria, the political situation around 2011 and the years after that. Also. what I found most important or memorable from his testimony was, he said that, of course, before 2011, there was torture, but it was really used to extract information from detainees about the opposition.
After 2011, it was used as revenge, as punishment. I thought that was a very interesting change of how that torture was applied. He also submitted a lot of documents to the court that he and his organization had collected about human rights violations.
Christoph Reuter is a German journalist who works for DerSpiegel and he met Anwar R for an interview in Jordan in 2013. That's testimony was also quite interesting in one respect that he could describe a bit more personality of Anwar R. One interesting observation he made about Anwar R's personality was that he said Anwar R was hurt or humiliated by the fact that he had worked for the secret service for so many years, and yet after 2011, he still had to prove his loyalty every single day to the Alawites majority or those in power because he himself was a Sunni.
I thought that was really interesting because it made us all, I think, question, again, what were his motives for leaving the country? Was it really his conviction that what he was doing was wrong or was it the specific situation he found himself in as a Sunni in the secret service. He also said that he couldn't do his job properly anymore because investigations weren't about actual investigations any more but about revenge and punishment, as I mentioned before.
Fritz: That is interesting. It's interesting to hear this now being said in court. It does remind me quite a bit of the episodes that we did with Mazen Darwish and Christoph Reuter on the podcast. What about the other testimonies that were given in court in the last few weeks that you thought were significant or interesting in some way?
Hannah: For me, the most memorable and also emotionally draining testimony of this whole trial was that by Professor Markus Rothschild. He's a forensic professor from Cologne. He was there to analyze the Caesar photos that, I think, everyone knows, the photos smuggled out of Syria by a photographer of the secret service. The topic of the Caesar photos was related by three different witnesses.
There was Garance Le Caisne, she's a journalist and she was also a guest in the podcast. She's known for her book about Caesar because she is one of the very few people who actually met him. There was a federal police officer who had interrogated Sami. Sami is a friend of Caesar who helped him get those photos out of the country.
There was this Professor Markus Rothschild who analyzed the photos and he showed us a presentation of dozens of photos analyzing injuries seen in the pictures, analyzing the signs of death and the causes of death and really showing examples for each and every point of analysis. I have seen those pictures before, but at some point, I just didn't want to look at any more of them because it's not just the pictures themselves that show dead people and some of them with traces of torture, but it's the stories behind them.
Markus Rothschild really told us all these stories. He analyzed what could have happened to this person. Why does that person have this mark on his throat and all these disturbing stories behind them? What I found most remarkable about his testimony was that he broke everything down into statistics and he told us how many people died of that, how many people starved, how many people were tortured in what way. He said that 85% of the bodies show no visible cause of death. I thought that was so surprising. You have all these--
Fritz: What does that mean?
Hannah: It means that you cannot see on these bodies why they died. They weren't beaten to death. They weren't suffocated or strangled, I mean. How did they die? I think that the fact that 85% of the dead bodies in these pictures, their cause of death has remained a mystery and this shows us that there's maybe even more happening in those prisons that we can't see from here and I thought that was very disturbing.
Fritz: Yes, especially when it's 85% of the bodies.
Hannah: Exactly. Yes, it's a lot. He did give some examples of how they could have died, which would not be visible. For example, suffocating due to lack of oxygen and a lot of witnesses have said that there was not enough oxygen in the cells or due to specific positions that make it hard to breathe. Also, witnesses have described these torture methods where they were hung from the ceilings on their wrists so perhaps this could have been the reason, but it was just so strange that he couldn't tell.
Fritz: In one of the reports on those court hearings where Professor Rothschild gave his testimony, I read that while his testimony was, as you just reported, really impressive in a number of ways, but also very significant legally in the sense that it, again, showed the very structural crimes that are alleged in this case and that many reports over the years have said the Syrian regime has been conducting against its own people. I also read that for the charges in the indictment in this very case, only about two or three of the photos that were presented to the court of the many hundreds of thousands actually relate to the indictment period and to Branch 251 itself. Is that right?
Hannah: It's actually just one and even that one is not completely clear because usually the branch numbers are written on the bodies either on the skin directly or on a card held next to the body. In this case, the branch number 251 does not appear in the photo. It is only written in the file name and the file names were later added by Sami and Caesar when they were processing the pictures. It's very likely that he collected this photo at the time from the branch and so he wrote that in the file name, but it's of course less valuable than if the branch name was actually in the picture.
Fritz: Let's move on to another testimony that was really quite highly anticipated by a lot of people that follow the trial and that follow international criminal justice in the last few years, generally. That is the CIJA evidence that was given as evidence, as information to the court and a representative of CIJA appeared as a witness. Can you tell us about how that went and whether the high anticipation resulted in the interesting testimony that everybody was expecting?
Hannah: The CIJA, just to spell it out again, it's the Commission for International Justice and Accountability and it's an NGO that has been collecting documents from Syria since 2011, 2012. Whenever the regime was pushed out of a certain area, they would go in and just collect everything they could from the government offices without scanning it. Just collecting everything they could and then later they digitalized it and they analyzed it. Chris Engels, he's one of the representatives of CIJA. He testified in court and he had also a large presentation about what documents they had that referred to this case.
All together, they have 800,000 documents from the Syrian regime and some of them, of course, are highly confidential which was also written at the top of the documents that he showed us. There were two investigation reports with Anwar R's signature on them so I guess that was pretty important. Apart from that, his testimony really exposed the hierarchy and showed how the orders came from the very top and then trickle down through the different branches, to the very smallest local branch somewhere in Syria.
Fritz: This is interesting indeed also from a legal perspective in that kind of framework when listening to this kind of testimony. We always talk about the chain of command and this is perhaps the first very, let's say, analytical presentation of the chain of command based on collected information and documentation that has been presented to the court in Koblenz, right?
Hannah: Yes, I would say so.
Fritz: It will be interesting to see how the court will consider this kind of evidence in its decision-making. CIJA, the organization that you just described, has been discussed also in controversial terms over the years. There is a debate going on about how the evidence that that organization has collected over the years will be used in
criminal courts of law. It'll be interesting to see how that is done in the worldwide first criminal trial against regime officials and we'll stay tuned to that. We'll put some more information on CIJA and on the debate regarding CIJA into our show notes.
Hannah, let's take it to the next category. It seems like that the court has heard enough evidence in at least one case against the two individual defendants. Can you tell us more about that?
Hannah: Yes, the court announced that Eyad A will receive a sentence on the 24th of February and the proceedings against Anwar R will continue the day after. I heard that the proceedings, in general, are going quite well, everything's on time. Possibly even the proceedings against Anwar R might finish in 2021.
Fritz: Right. As 2020 is coming to a close, we are looking at a separation of the two cases and a continuation of the case against Anwar R and a judgment against Eyad A possibly in late February, at least that's the planning for now. Just to put this into context a bit more, the reason that the two defendants were tried together in one trial originally was because practically I assume, and it will be interesting to hear your thoughts on this, but I assume that the police had these two suspects on the radar. In a similar time frame, the two suspects worked at the same security branch, Branch 251 and some of the charges were at least similar or the same.
In terms of trial efficiency, they decided to indict the two together and put them on trial together, but now has come the moment where enough evidence has been heard regarding the one, Eyad A, and more evidence needs to be heard regarding the more extensive, the more, let's say, high-profile defendant who in this case is Anwar R. Now the two defendants case is going to be separated, which from my perspective as a lawyer, I assume, again, also has to do with the fair trial rights of Eyad A. Namely that as a defendant, innocent until proven guilty, you do have some fundamental trial rights which includes an expedient, a speedy trial with with no unnecessary delay.
Hannah: Yes, I have to say, honestly, I personally find that fair as well because most of the witnesses that we've heard have been concerning Anwar R mainly or only and maybe an interesting observation is that Eyad A has also been visibly frustrated during the past weeks and month. It happens once in a while that he's lead in handcuffs, because he has been getting into fights with guards. Once he even came in and spat on the ground next to the guard's chair.
Often, he's sitting during the trial not paying attention or even taking off his headset where he could listen to the translation. Maybe he's practicing German, who knows? [chuckles] Maybe he's just also not that interested anymore because he feels that what's happening doesn't concern him in the first place.
Fritz: Him getting in fights with guards and spitting on the floor in front of the judges, has not had any consequences at all?
Hannah: Not that I know of.
Fritz: That does sound like he's quite frustrated. Lastly, Hannah, the third category of interesting events at court hearings that you witnessed in the last couple of months is the motion of the two joint plaintiffs lawyers, the lawyers that are representing the civil parties in this case. You mentioned at the beginning of the trial that the motion was about expanding the indictment with additional charges or with an additional element against Anwar R. Can you tell us a little bit about the contents of the motion, what actually it was trying to achieve?
Hannah: It was initiated by Patrick Kroker and Sebastian Scharmer, two of the plaintiff's lawyers, as I said, and they requested that the systematic use of sexualized violence against the civilian population in Syria needs to be considered as crimes against humanity. Right now, the defendant Anwar R is merely accused of two single cases of rape and sexual assault according to the German criminal law.
Over the course of the trial they argued, witness testimonies have suggested that the use of sexualized force has actually been systematic, not just against women, but men as well and also, against women in order to break the men of their families and to weaken the civilian population in general. They are requesting that these two charges in the indictment should be also considered as crimes against humanity and not as single crimes.
Fritz: I see so the charges indictment as it stands are based on the, let's say ordinary German code of crimes and what this motion is trying to achieve is to transfer those from the ordinary criminal court to the court of international crimes where the element of crimes against humanity is included. Is that right?
Hannah: Exactly. I talked to Patrick Kroker about it and he said that the reason they're going forward with this is also because this kind of violence is not only extremely destructive but also regularly neglected when dealing legally with conflict such as the Syrian one. They're hoping that at least they could change that in Koblenz. They don't know when exactly the court is going to decide on this and the court doesn't have any deadline but they really wanted to go through before the two cases are divided.
Fritz: It seems like the two lawyers are trying to move this debate along not only in academic and activist circles but also in the courtroom. It's interesting from a legal perspective to see how in a trial like this in the German criminal procedure the joint plaintiff lawyers who are representing the civil parties that registered to participate in the trial not only as witnesses but as participants, as civil parties, that these civil parties with the help of their lawyers can make motions that really much resemble the prosecutor's task in a trial.
By asking the judges, by asking the court to add charges to the indictment, this really is an interesting example of how that can be done in the German context and specifically in an international crimes trial like this. Hannah, thank you so much for being on the podcast that once again, we really look forward to future episodes with you in the season, and let's talk again soon.
Hannah: Yes, thank you. Talk soon.
Fritz: All right, bye Hannah.
Fritz: A lot of information at the same time, hear from Hannah. Noor also let me get your take on what we just learned. What did you find most striking?
Noor: I think the inclusion of the Caesar photos in the evidence is particularly interesting. Obviously, it's disappointing that only one photo was used, but I think even if none of the photos had any specific reference to Branch 251, they are still highly relevant for proving crimes against humanity. Even if Anwar R was not directly involved in the torture or murder of any of the individuals in the Caesar photos, if the harm that appears in the Caesar photos lines up with witnesses' testimonies, that in itself is pretty significant.
This also makes me think about the request to include the systematic use of sexualized violence charge. To me including this is a really important move because there's a lot of evidence of sexual and gender-based violence being used in Syria in a way that is really widespread. The fact that there is sexual violence and rape charges against Anwar R indicates that he may very much be part of the systematic use of these crimes.
This also serves a second purpose which is to really call the use of sexual and gender-based violence in Syria what it is, a crime against humanity.
Asser: For me, the testimonies of Mazen Darwish and Christoph Reuter stand out. They are among the best-suited people to testify in the Koblentz court, I think. Christoph is my personal go-to source when it comes to Syria’s notorious prisons and the stories that relate to them. Mazen on the other hand has experienced the horrors of serious detention centers both before and after the beginning of the war. Both men frankly have been working tirelessly to advocate for justice.
Fritz: Absolutely. The amount of information both have produced from their very own perspective and profession it's really quite extraordinary. They're experts like you say, Asser, and that is why the court wanted to hear from them. Let's move on to the second part of the episode:. The Year Review 2020 and Syria Accountability, but first, a word about the support we got for this episode.
Fritz: Today's episode was made possible with the kind support of the organization, UMAM Documentation & Research. As part of UMAM’s work on carceral and detention issues, their team just recently launched a new website for their project MENA Prison Forum, you can find a multimedia approach to the phenomenon of detention in the MENA region there, blogs, films, literature, audio, and more. Check it out at menaprisonforum.org. We will link to this in our show notes as well.
Noor: Back to the episode and onto the second part. We here at the podcast team how to look back at efforts toward justice in Syria in 2020 and found that, actually, there were a lot of positive developments.
Fritz: The number of guests on the podcast have said this about the trial in Koblenz. A first and small, but a significant step towards justice for Syria and the fact alone this year brought the worldwide first criminal trial against Syrian regime officials for crimes against humanity will give 2020 a special place in the history books but next to Koblenz, there have been a number of additional accountability moves as well.
Noor: To start with, let's have a look at the Netherlands. On September 18th, the government of the Netherlands announced that it officially accused the government of Syria of violations of the Torture Convention which Syria, remarkably, had ratified in 2004. In practical terms, that means that another state can sue Syria for non-compliance with its obligations under that treaty. That is what the state of Netherlands did. It was quite the move.
Fritz: There are a couple of things that are important to mention about this one because there are some misunderstandings floating around in the reporting about this. To some, the announcement by the Dutch government seemed to create the impression that the Dutch government is taking Syria to court right now, as in immediately.
Noor: Yes. First of all, we are not there yet. The Netherlands only announced that it had taken steps toward a possible case against Syria. The first step was for the Netherlands to inform Syria of its intentions to hold Syria accountable for violations of the Torture Convention. That's what it has done and then, if after six months Syria has made no efforts to solve this in negotiated arbitration, only then can the Netherlands actually take Syria to the International Court of Justice, the ICJ, which for the Netherlands is quite conveniently located in The Hague.
Fritz: We're not at the ICJ just yet, but the Netherlands has made it quite clear that the intention is to hold Syria accountable. Another common misunderstanding is that this would be a criminal trial and a criminal trial against President Assad himself.
Noor: This wouldn't be a criminal trial, it would be one state holding the other accountable based on contractual obligations. The contract being the torture convention that both states have signed. It would be against the state of Syria, not against individuals like President Assad.
Right, and we can expect to hear an update, at least after six months from the first move. That's how long Syria has to respond now and enter into negotiations. So counted from September, when the Dutch government made the announcement, that will be somewhere in mid to late March 2021. Perhaps Syria will drag out that process by entering into negotiations in good or in dubious faith, let's see what happens.
We'll put some more info on this move by the Netherlands into the show notes. We'll of course also keep you updated on this. Moving on from the Netherlands, let's have a quick look at Germany. While the trial in Koblenz has been going on, there's been another interesting development here as well in 2020. Asser, can you fill us in?
Asser: In October, just a few weeks ago, that is, three NGOs filed a criminal complaint with a German Federal Prosecutor regarding two of the most notorious and deadly chemical weapon attacks in Syria. There's the one in Ghouta in 2013 and the one in Khan Shaykhun in 2017. Fritz, you and your colleagues were involved in this move so maybe you can tell us about it.
Fritz: The complaint was filed by the organization's Syrian Archive in Berlin, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression or in short SCM based in Paris, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has its headquarters in New York. We've been working on these cases for a few years now. The filing of these complaints are definitely a milestone, not just for us who've been working on this case, but for the victims and the witnesses that we work together with, this is really a big deal.
Now, of course, we want the German authorities to act on these chemical weapons complaints. Germany can investigate these crimes, even if the suspect isn't in Germany. In fact, they don't even have to have a specific suspect in mind at all. This federal prosecutor's office can do these so-called structural investigations, where it collects information, evidence, and witness testimony for a future case, whether that is at a German court, like in Koblenz, or perhaps at another court somewhere, sometime in the future. That is not what matters most for starting an investigation like this.
Noor: This way, the authorities can make sure that the information actually gets collected, gets analyzed, documented, and filed. Right now, not in a few years. The younger the evidence, the better. That goes for any court in the world. Germany has started investigations like these concerning crimes in Syria before based on a complaint filed in 2017 on behalf of Syrian torture survivors.
There is much more to say about this. Have a look at our show notes for more information. Enough of the legal talk now. Let's have a look at one last event that was significant in 2020 and its possible effects on Syria and justice for crimes committed in Syria. Asser?
Asser: Thanks, Noor. I took detailed notes of your legal talk, by the way. This last event we want to ponder for a moment does not directly relate to the accountability for Syria but definitely will have an impact on the topic. It's the elections in the United States. Basically, US elections were crucial for us to get a better, albeit non-thorough, understanding of US-Syria policy for the coming years.
Biden espouses different views from Trump, of course, but that doesn't actually mean he will overturn all his measures, especially the Caesar Act, for example. After all, Antony Blinken, the incoming Secretary of State. He was part of Obama's administration and has since criticized the Syria policy they adopted, especially when it comes to the infamous Red Line crisis when Obama failed to retaliate against Assad for his use of chemical weapons against the people, despite the US warnings. Blinken said it's something that he will take with him to the grave. Noor, you live in the United States, in Chicago, what's your take on this?
Noor: I agree with a lot of what you said, Asser. I would also add that I think one concern here is that the Biden administration is likely to be more focused on domestic policies like reversing a lot of Trump-era policies and dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. My guess is those will be more important for him. That might mean that foreign policy will take a backseat, especially when it comes to Syria policy.
I think even though Biden will recognize that he needs to have a thorough policy on Syria, whatever his Syria policy is, it's going to be controversial to someone. I think what he needs to do really is toe the line between what many Americans might see as over-involvement in foreign conflicts and having a stronger global presence and speaking out against impunity.
Fritz: Right, and some of that impunity has taken a blow, especially this year as we just discussed, and it was about time that happened. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Syrian revolution and the beginning of the conflict.
Asser: Yes, 2021 will be an important year for Syrians, and here on the podcast, we will discuss the anniversary and many other topics. We have a great series lined up for you come January, in English and in Arabic.
Noor: Until then, we wish you all happy holidays and a happy new year, wherever you are and however you celebrate. See you in a few weeks.
Fritz: See you soon everyone.
Voice Over: Branch 251 is hosted by Noor Hamadeh, Asser Khattab and Fritz Streiff. Pauline Peek is our English series producer. Today's episode was written by Fritz Streiff, production feedback by Saleem Salameh. Hannah el-Hitami is our court reporter.