A German federal police officer explained to the judges in Koblenz what he learned after collecting and analyzing satellite imagery from a stretch of land northeast of Damascus.
"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 2) was made possible with the support of the MENA Prison Forum and UMAM Documentation & Research.
Noor Hamadeh: Hi, everyone and happy new year from all of us here at the podcast team. Let's hope that 2021 will be a good one, generally for everyone, and also for all justice efforts out there. I'm Noor Hamadeh.
Fritz Streiff: And I'm Fritz Streiff. Happy new year to all you listeners.
Noor: A short episode this week from us to get up to speed about the latest from the courtroom at the beginning of this year. Last time we heard from our court reporter, Hannah El-Hitami was just before Christmas. The court has been back in session since last week after a holiday break and there is one specific testimony from last week we want to draw your attention to.
Fritz: On the 54th trial day, the court heard the testimony of yet another German federal police offer. Over the past few months, the court has heard many of these officers in order to confirm the testimony that these officers provided in writing beforehand. This particular officer testified about an analysis that he and his office have done, prompted by information given to the police, and then later also to the court, by a special Syrian witness who goes by the alias, Z30/07/19.
Noor: Our court reporter Hannah was there.
Hannah El-Hitami: Last Thursday we heard the testimony of a BKA witness, so an officer from the German Federal Police, who presented his analysis of satellite images that supposedly show mass graves in an area called Al-Quteifah, northeast of Damascus. Just to remind you briefly, we have heard about mass graves twice before in court, in Koblenz. Both were testimonies by insider witnesses, who used to work for the Syrian regime until they defected and left the country. Both of them described mass graves in two areas called Nadjha and Al-Quteifah, where they said dead bodies from all the different secret service prisons were buried.
One of them testified in Koblenz, in September anonymously under the codename Z30/07/19. He became known to the public as the Gravedigger. He had worked for the Damascus Burial Authority until he and his team were sent to the mass grave sites, where it became their job to push the mutilated corpses that arrived from different security branches and from Saydnaya Prison into the ditches. He personally was in charge of registering their numbers, so he knew that trucks with around 700 bodies arrived about four times per week on average. Altogether in both areas, he counted more than one million, or even one and a half million dead bodies.
It all actually started with this witness's testimony to the BKA, the Federal Police, in the summer of 2019. After telling them about the mass graves, they were able to track down the exact coordinates of the location of Al-Quteifeh and they then checked out the images on Google Maps. Unfortunately, the quality on Google Maps was not good enough, so they couldn't really see the quality of the ground and the movement of soil over time. They went on to check the same location in Apple Images. There, they actually found some satellite pictures that were in high resolution, that really showed long ditches with piles of soil next to them, and in one corner an excavator is visible.
The BKA officer who testified last week showed us these images in the courtroom and he explained that the longest ditches were longer than 100 meters and several meters wide. For the trial, of course, it is important to know when these satellite images were taken, because the crimes that Anwar R. and Eyad A. are accused of allegedly took place in 2011 and '12. The BKA officers said that the Apple Images themselves did not have a date on them.
After finding out about these mass graves and because the BKA has a larger investigation on mass graves as part of the structure of the investigation, they contacted the German Society for Aerospace, DLR, to provide more images from 2011 onwards. This is how they could determine that the ditches in Al-Quteifeh started existing in 2013 or '14 and that over several years more ditches were dug and closed up again, and the affected area grew from 19,000 to 40,000 square meters until 2019 when the last ditches were closed up and the area was surrounded by a wall and has then been guarded by security forces.
This analysis of satellite images was really important because it corroborated with what we had heard before from witnesses. However, it did leave some questions open since these images are not from before 2013, they don't really provide evidence for the crimes allegedly committed by the defendants in Koblenz. Also, these images were only from Al-Quteifeh and not from Nadjha. Like I said, there were two insider witnesses who had mentioned mass graves in court before and one of them had said that he saw defendant Eyad A. accompanying one of the convoys delivering corpses to the graves.
However, he was talking about Nadjha and not Al-Quteifeh, so this satellite image analysis didn't really corroborate specific evidence against Eyad A. Finally, these images could not corroborate the numbers of bodies mentioned by the so-called gravedigger, because according to the BKA officer there's no way of knowing how deep the ditches are. From the satellite images, you can know how wide and long they are, but you can still have no clue how many bodies could have fit into them. The officer added that Nadjha was much larger than Al-Quteifeh and it had already been a huge cemetery before 2011, so it's possible that corpses were added to already existing graves.
This leaves us with a huge dark figure of how many bodies were actually buried in those mass graves. I guess we can only hope that there will be another analysis of satellite images from Nadjha so that we can get the full picture of what happened there.
Noor: I think from a legal perspective, the remarkable thing about this testimony by the police officer is that it corroborates one of the most impressive testimonies heard by the Koblenz court so far, the testimony of the anonymous gravedigger. This could be valuable because it could help prove the massive scale of the crimes, right? The systematic nature, the bureaucracy, the planning, and the execution of a plan by the Assad regime to murder and then mass bury thousands of humans.
Fritz: That is exactly why I found this testimony so significant. The prosecutor, in this case, needs this kind of evidence. This kind of detailed and technical corroboration of key witness evidence if he wants to convince the court that the crimes alleged in the indictments are indeed crimes against humanity, rather than just individual crimes of torture and murder, and others that stand alone, that are not part of a bigger picture, of a system.
Then, there is another aspect to this that deserves mentioning to this witness testimony, the analysis that the police officer described to the court, the kind of analysis. It seems like that was an interesting example of how modern digital technology can be introduced as evidence in a court of law, like the one in Koblenz.
Noor: Apparently, the police was able to confirm the location described by Z30/7/19 using Google Maps and Apple Images. Building on that, they also worked together with the German Aerospace Center for additional satellite images. The police officer testified that based on this digital information, based on the images that their analysis produced of the stretch of land in question, and comparing those over time, seeing the landscape change, they could tell that there was, or rather that there is a mass grave where there wasn't one before.
Fritz: The police officer noted that when you push the coordinates into Apple Images now these days, you find a scene of packed up and filled trenches surrounded by a wall. Now, of course, we have to wait and see how the court eventually weighs and evaluates this evidence, but this police officer's testimony shows that the earlier testimony, the one given by that special witness, Z30/07/19, does not stand by itself. In fact, the police officer mentioned that other witnesses have provided additional information on other mass graves. He said the police investigation into that information is ongoing.
Noor: Finally, relating to all of that, it's worth mentioning that just before the police officer testified, there was a reading in court of a Human Rights Watch report from 2011 about the early systematic killings and torture of Syrian civilians, it's titled, "We've Never Seen Such Horror," and mostly describes the events during and after early demonstrations in the Syrian of Daraa shortly after the uprisings began. In this report, there are witness statements about the mass graves as well. The descriptions in it are very graphic. For those who are interested, we'll put a link to the report in the show notes.
Fritz: As you said Noor, that report and the testimonies in it are from as early as 2011. This also just shows how early the systematic nature of the violence against civilians in Syria began after the revolution started in March 2011, almost exactly 10 years ago. The reason this report shows up in the Koblenz trial is that it concerns the relevant time period for the charges against Anwar R and Eyad A. The court is hearing a lot of information that goes beyond their individual charges. They're doing that to understand the system, the structure, but eventually, the judges will have to make a decision on the two individual cases only.
Noor: In the Eyad A's case, that will most likely be in late February. The prosecutor confirmed last week that this is still the plan. They expect that enough evidence will have been heard in this case by the second half of February.
Fritz: We will, of course, keep you up to date on Eyad A's case. First though during next week's episode, we will take a step out of the courtroom. We'll take a step back.
Noor: As listeners of Branch 251, you're used to hearing from legal experts, journalists, human rights activists. Next week, we're passing the mic to Syrians of different backgrounds inside and outside of Syria to hear what they think of Koblenz. People who've heard of the trial, people who haven't, people who are wildly enthusiastic about Koblenz, and some who are a little bit skeptical. We'll see you then.
Fritz: See you then.
Female Speaker: 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. Hannah El-Hitami is our court reporter. For those of you who master Arabic, check out our series in Arabic hosted by Asser and Noor, and produced by Saleem Salameh. Today's episode was made possible with the kind support of the organization UMAM Documentation and 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 could 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. You'll find a link in the show notes.