Talk: Organized by MENA Prison Forum & UMAM D&R
BRANCH 251 | SYRIAN ATROCITY CRIMES ON TRIAL
A Conversation with Fritz Streiff & Amer Matar
On Thursday, January 27, 2022, the MPF hosted a talk with human rights lawyer Fritz Streiff and Syrian journalist and filmmaker Amer Matar to discuss the recently concluded Koblenz trial. Streiff created, produced, and hosted Branch 251, a podcast in both English and Arabic that covered the world's first criminal trial dealing with Syrian atrocity crimes in Koblenz, Germany. The trial was against two defendants, Eyad al-Gharib and Anwar Raslan, both former officials of President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus. Matar, on the other hand, is now residing in Germany and personally testified against Raslan. The trial ended on January 13, 2022, having more than a hundred court sessions that five federal judges oversaw and for which a hundred witnesses testified. The court found that Anwar Raslan committed several crimes against humanity and punished him with a life sentence; this verdict came nearly a year after Eyad al-Gharib was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, also for his involvement in crimes against humanity.
The MPF’s Mina Ibrahim kick-started the talk by providing a brief overview of the Koblenz trial. He then offered questions to Streiff and Matar, first asking Matar how the experience was for him personally to testify at the trial and the impact this experience had on him. Matar spoke about how the trial almost seemed like a dream when he thinks back to his time working as a journalist in Syria at the beginning of the revolution and his subsequent detention and abuse by Raslan. However, he also addressed the difficulties of testifying, as the act required him to recall difficult memories and details, he had spent the past ten years trying to forget. He noted that his personal experience providing his testimony changed his relationship with Germany, as the process of engaging with the German legal system in some ways ameliorated his perception of the country, in light of some of the difficulties he has faced since arriving in Germany.
Matar addressed the fact that Raslan was a main actor in his arrest and detention in 2011, heightening the personal nature of facing and testifying against him into a very significant experience. He stated the experience even felt like a personal victory against the intimidation and torture machine the regime has been operating against Syrians. He also spoke about the belief and impression now that the Koblenz trial has instilled in some that regardless of where perpetrators escape to, justice and accountability can follow them, even though he did note that the ideal situation would be to have such trials be held in Syria, and to have them cover all actors involved in the regime’s apparatus.
For Streiff, his decision to dedicate a podcast on the Koblenz trial was largely motivated by both his background as an international lawyer who has been working on issues relating to Syria over the years, and the concern of many that there would be a disconnect between the legal process and Syrians, since the trials were taking place in Germany and in German. Thus, the idea for an English and Arabic podcast covering the trials and their proceedings was born to increase access and awareness of Syrians to this legal process. Streiff then reflected on the term “milestone” that is widely being used to describe the case. He noted that the pure definition of the word means a marker of distance on a path, to which he agrees: this court case is a step on the long process of justice and accountability for crimes committed in Syria. He also noted that this step came from the tireless work that has been done over the years, and also in this sense, it is a marker of these efforts.
Streiff offered some insights into the legal dynamics of the Koblenz trial. Looking at the macro-level, he carefully noted that while all cases are different, some similarities can be drawn between the Koblenz trial and the early years of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as these court proceedings also began while the war in the Balkans was still on-going and the tribunal also started with smaller actors while the significant political leaders were at the time still in power. He then provided some legal insight into the practice of vetting and testing evidence in initial trials as part of the larger process of evidence collecting that is vital in the journey to accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Streiff also offered insights into the legal details of the specific trial findings, especially around the question of who was actually on trial in these court proceedings. The question had been raised if the two individuals themselves were on trial, or if they were being tried as symbols or “scapegoats” of the Syrian regime; in fact, this was a position their defense took. However, Streiff noted that the judge in both cases explicitly stated that the trials were for these individuals’ personal actions, and the evidence collected supported their responsibility and culpability. Interestingly, however, as the judgments handed down were for these two men’s roles in committing crimes against humanity, which are part of the widespread systematic attacks against civilian populations, the judgements against the men for their individual roles inherently also implicate the overall Syrian regime.
Both Matar and Streiff addressed the current political environment of ‘normalization’ with the Syrian regime. They both highlighted the importance of the court’s findings and the precedent that the trial has set, but they also noted the pervasive warming of diplomatic and political engagements from other countries with the Assad regime in recent years, and the limited ability of the court cases to change this behavior writ-large. However, as Streiff asserts, this does not diminish the vital importance of the Koblenz trial as an independent criminal court that successfully conducted rigorous testing of evidence and came to a conclusion that abides by international law. Therefore, the court is evidence that no one who respects the rule of law can talk of normalizing with the Assad regime, regardless of economic, political, or development motivations external actors may be otherwise following. Streiff also noted the importance of continued media coverage of such legal proceedings, to try to guarantee as much international pressure on actors who may be considering or willing to engage with the regime. Streiff also noted that the wider context can perhaps be an explanation for the atmosphere in the courtroom upon reception of the verdict: he noted that the reaction in the courtroom was not of celebration or joy, but was instead more muted, and of relief and exhaustion. Once again, Streiff noted the incredible amounts of work that had been put into prosecuting these individuals, and that the culmination of such a process that also just marked just the first step in accountability for Syrians, is an understandably overwhelming experience. Matar concluded by evoking hope that more and more individuals will be trialed and sentenced, but noting that in the wider context of the extremely difficult present-day situation in Syria and the normalization shifts, there is no lack of challenges.
In the Q&A after the discussion, participants pointed to the importance of the Koblenz trials for playing a role in maintaining the memory of the Syrian regime’s atrocities. As such, a participant noted that hearing the testimonies at the court was not only a matter of collecting evidence for the court, but also can be considered an important process of compiling and documenting what survivors of torture and families of current prisoners hold in their minds and souls. Another participant offered a reflection on how the Koblenz trial compared to other cases of (albeit incomplete) processes of transitional justice and accountability in Tunisia and Morocco. Another participant posed a question to Streiff about the possibility of similar trials being held in other European countries, such as France. While Streiff’s answer was positive, he noted that holding trials in other domestic legacy contexts requires an understanding of the differences and similarities between the various legal systems and bureaucracies. With this, Matar insisted in his closing words that the route to justice and accountability is not as easy as sending one or two persons to justice, but instead has now just begun.