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[Letter from Germany]

In Plain Sight

The search for Syrian war criminals in Europe

Illustrations by George Butler. Source photograph © John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

[Letter from Germany]

In Plain Sight

The search for Syrian war criminals in Europe
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Anwar al-Bunni, who fled Syria in 2014, was at the time one of the country’s leading human-rights lawyers. Born into a prominent family of leftists, al-Bunni had spent his days drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes on the steps of the Palace of Justice, the seat of the high court in Damascus, where the families of imprisoned dissidents and activists knew they could find him. Al-Bunni himself had been jailed twice, for speaking out about torture in Syria’s prisons and calling for democratic reform. His devotion to his work left little room for his family or life’s other pleasures. Damascus lies only fifty miles from the Mediterranean coast, but al-Bunni hadn’t seen the sea in more than a decade. He lived with the knowledge that at any moment one of his clients could die in detention.

Al-Bunni had contemplated leaving Syria many times, but he had always been dissuaded by the belief that President Bashar al-Assad’s government would topple—that things would improve. But in the summer of 2014, al-Bunni learned that two warrants had been put out for his arrest, and he decided it had become too dangerous to stay. His wife, Raghida Issa, and two adult children left first, taking separate cars to Beirut. Then, one afternoon that August, al-Bunni disguised his russet eyes with blue contact lenses and bleached his dark hair. He brought nothing but the clothes he was wearing and another man’s ID—if stopped at a checkpoint, he would say he was leaving to avoid the mandatory military draft. A friend drove him past barren fields to the Lebanese border. He was dropped off at a mountain pass, and waited until dusk to climb down into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. From there, he hired a taxi to Beirut, and continued on with his family to Germany.

Al-Bunni, Issa, and their children were placed in a temporary housing facility for refugees and asylum seekers in west Berlin. During the Cold War, the facility had welcomed more than a million people fleeing East Germany, becoming known as “the gateway to freedom.” The complex now housed some six hundred people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe. Between the apartment buildings, the courtyard of the complex had the feel of a small village: women in headscarves pushed strollers, children played ball games, and groups of teenage girls laughed together as they headed to the nearby Turkish supermarket.

Al-Bunni found it difficult to grasp that he was no longer in Syria. When speaking on the phone with a colleague or former client, he’d find himself wanting to ask, “Will you come visit us in Damascus?” He often thought of Café Havana, in the center of the city, a spot popular with artists and intellectuals where al-Bunni would gather his lawyer friends to work through the cool winter days. Spring brought to mind the floral scent that infused eastern Ghouta, a swath of countryside near the capital, as the season’s first pale-pink roses bloomed on its hills.

Berlin, by contrast, felt foreign and cold. Al-Bunni mostly kept to himself. He knew only a handful of Syrians in the city, all distant acquaintances from Damascus. But one winter morning, when al-Bunni and Issa were walking in the courtyard, al-Bunni noticed a man whose gaze was fixed on him. The man was slim, with thinning hair, a mustache, thick eyebrows, and a mole under his left eye. The man walked past them and entered the building next to theirs. Al-Bunni turned to Issa. “I know that guy,” he said. Issa replied that she’d never seen him before. Al-Bunni felt sure that he’d encountered the man in Syria, but it took a couple of days for him to remember when and where. Though the man had aged—his hairline had receded, and his hair was grayer—al-Bunni was certain that he was Anwar Raslan, a colonel in the Assad regime.

Raslan had been an officer in Assad’s General Intelligence Directorate, one of Syria’s four main intelligence agencies, collectively known as the Mukhabarat, which oversee the country’s detention facilities. The General Intelligence Directorate, often referred to as state security, is the oldest of the four and is tasked with suppressing dissent. Although it is ostensibly a civilian agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, in practice it answers only to the president. State security has, over the years, been headed by Assad’s most trusted advisers, including Ali Mamlouk, a powerful Ba’ath official who is the subject of sanctions in Europe and the United States for alleged war crimes.

Within the regime, Raslan had a reputation as a highly intelligent man who served Assad faithfully. Born to a Sunni family outside Homs, he had placed near the top of his class in the police academy and quickly rose through the ranks in the security services, becoming a colonel in early 2011, just before the civil war began.

Al-Bunni had witnessed Raslan’s influence firsthand. Raslan was one of several men who, in 2006, abducted al-Bunni from the street outside his home in Damascus. That year, al-Bunni, along with hundreds of others, had signed a petition that called for an overhaul of Syria’s relationship with Lebanon. (Assad saw Lebanon as a dependent state, and the petition sought, in part, for Syria to recognize Lebanon as a sovereign nation.) A few days later, al-Bunni was walking to his car when a group of men in civilian clothing approached him. He shouted for Issa, who ran to the window of their third-floor apartment. She watched as the men blindfolded al-Bunni and shoved him facedown onto the floor of a car. As they drove away, he pleaded with his captors to tell him what he had done. Raslan, who seemed to be the leader of the group, replied: “You don’t know what you did?”

Al-Bunni was taken to a state security branch in Damascus, where he was interrogated. “You’re a criminal spreading false information about Syria,” Raslan said. Al-Bunni was no stranger to such interrogations. His most harrowing arrest had occurred in 1978, when he was just nineteen; he was held for a week in an underground cell at Branch 251, an infamous facility run by state security. Interrogators at Branch 251 would ring a bell each time they brought a detainee out to be questioned. “When we heard the bell, that meant all of us had to be ready,” al-Bunni told me. Guards electrocuted him and whipped his feet with a cable. Even today, al-Bunni jolts when he hears a bell.

After his 2006 arrest, al-Bunni was placed in a crowded cell along with dozens of men who had been sentenced to death for murder. He did not see or hear from Raslan again after his initial interrogation about the petition. Al-Bunni was later charged with three offenses, among them “disseminating false information likely to undermine the morale of the nation in wartime,” but his court date kept being postponed. Issa and Lilas, al-Bunni’s daughter, attended one of his hearings. “He was taken out from the cell, and he walked through, handcuffed, with the policeman dragging him,” Lilas told me. “I’ll never forget how he was dragged, how my mother and I followed him, begging the policeman to let us talk to him.” Nearly a year later, in April 2007, al-Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison.

Guards occasionally beat al-Bunni in prison, but he describes the experience as one of mostly psychological torture. Every week, Issa would enter the prison and walk down a long corridor, along which dozens of families were visiting loved ones, and touch al-Bunni’s fingers through a wire barrier. Lilas and her brothers visited when they felt strong enough to see their father in a prison uniform, his muscle atrophying. “I remember how weak he would look,” Lilas told me. Al-Bunni was denied medical treatment for the rheumatism in his legs. When he was released, in May 2011, he was slight, his face had aged, and his rheumatism caused near-constant discomfort. By then, Syria had plunged into civil war, and despite his family’s objections, al-Bunni returned to work.

Now exiled in Europe, al-Bunni was consumed by hopelessness. What could he do for the Syrian people from more than two thousand miles away? He didn’t have a license to practice law in Germany, and by the time his family left the refugee transit center and moved into an apartment in southern Berlin, in the spring of 2015, he had come to terms with the fact that the Assad regime was not approaching imminent collapse. The conflict had become a multifront war. The Islamic State controlled large chunks of territory, and opposition groups, Islamist militias, and pro-regime forces fought over the rest. Russia was expected to intervene and provide direct military support to the regime, which would likely tip the balance in Assad’s favor. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, by the summer of that year, Assad’s forces had detained or disappeared more than 117,000 people. At least 11,000 had been tortured to death, and as many as 11 million had been internally displaced or forced to flee the country.

Al-Bunni decided to reach out to lawyers at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), who had been working to amass evidence against senior regime officials accused of murder, torture, and sexual violence. Since Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court’s founding treaty, only the United Nations Security Council has the power to refer Syrian war crimes to the ICC. Thus far, Russia and China have used their vetoes to block any action. With international litigation stalled for the time being, authorities across Europe have instead turned to the principle of universal jurisdiction, which permits national courts to investigate and prosecute serious crimes—such as genocide, the use of chemical weapons, and torture—that have been committed abroad by foreign nationals. Initially, al-Bunni and the ECCHR lawyers thought they would have to wait for a resolution to the Syrian conflict to see any cases go to court. But then, in 2015, nearly half a million Syrians arrived in Germany. Al-Bunni started hearing about Syrian officials who had escaped with the refugee flow and could be subject to criminal prosecution in Europe.

European governments don’t know how many alleged Syrian war criminals have sought refuge within their borders. Early on in the war, when it looked as though Assad would quickly be defeated, many members of the Syrian regime defected out of fear. Later, some left because they experienced a crisis of conscience as they witnessed or participated in atrocities. Others simply took the opportunity to build a future with their families in Europe. Independent watchdog organizations have estimated that hundreds of former Assad officials—mid- to high-level members of the country’s military and security apparatus—have absconded to places in the Middle East and across Europe. Mohammad Al Abdallah, the executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, believes that several hundred Syrian military and intelligence officers have made it to Europe. “I think that’s one of the reasons why lots of Syrian refugees are very paranoid about each other,” Muhammad Fares, a Syrian journalist who now lives in Europe, told me.

Al-Bunni began receiving calls from Syrian friends and strangers about criminals they recognized in Germany. He had not forgotten about Anwar Raslan. Since they had crossed paths in the winter of 2014, al-Bunni had learned more about Raslan’s role in the Assad regime.

For more than a year, at the start of the war, Raslan supervised Branch 251, the facility where al-Bunni had been held and tortured at the age of nineteen. Although the building was unassuming, with a small garden out front where children often played, Branch 251 had a long-standing reputation among Syrians as a fortress of brutality.

But in 2012, Raslan fled his post. He went into hiding in Syria, then escaped to Jordan with his wife and children. While living in Jordan, Raslan got in touch with Riad Seif, a prominent member of the Syrian opposition movement who had ties to the German government. Raslan claimed that he and his family were in danger in Jordan because of his defection. Seif shared Raslan’s name with the German foreign ministry, which in 2014 provided Raslan and his family with a visa.

That year, Raslan participated in UN-backed negotiations, held in Geneva, as an adviser to Ahmad al-Jarba, who was then the president of the Syrian National Coalition, at the time the main opposition group in exile. Soon afterward, Raslan walked into a police station in Berlin, where he told officers that he feared he was being followed by Syrian intelligence agents. “I know these methods from my own work,” he said. “I know how the Syrian intelligence services operate. My life is in danger.” Although German authorities had been aware of Raslan’s past in the regime, his police report prompted them to begin an investigation into the details of his career and defection. In July 2018, federal prosecutors opened their own investigation. Through his contacts at the ECCHR, al-Bunni heard that prosecutors were looking for witnesses who had been held at Branch 251 between April 2011 and September 2012, while Raslan was in charge of the prison.

Al-Bunni thought back through the dissidents he had represented in Syria. Had he defended anyone held at Branch 251 during that time? There had been one, he realized, an outspoken blogger named Hussein Ghrer who wrote about human rights in Syria. Ghrer had been arrested and taken to Branch 251 in October 2011. Al-Bunni discovered that Ghrer had fled Syria in 2015 and now lived with his wife and children in a sleepy town outside Hannover.

Last year, I went to visit Ghrer. His wife, who is now fluent in German and studying to become a social worker, was in the kitchen preparing toasted freekeh and a spread of mezes. On the wall of their living room hung a Syrian revolutionary flag and a tapestry from Damascus. Ghrer drank yerba maté and smoked a pipe as he told me the story of his detention. At Branch 251, he said, he was brought to a small, overcrowded cell with some twenty other men. They had to sleep in shifts. Food was scarce, if it came at all. Every couple of days, Ghrer was blindfolded and taken to an interrogation room, where he was asked about his political activities. It didn’t seem to matter what he said. His back was whipped with electric cables, and the soles of his feet were pummeled with a plastic pipe, a torture technique known as falaqa. One day, he was brought to a room where torture instruments were displayed on a table, including an electric-shock device and a tool for removing fingernails. “They can kill anybody without being held accountable,” Ghrer told me. Sometimes, he said, “the guard just loses his mind.” Ghrer’s case was eventually transferred to a civilian court, where he met al-Bunni for the first time. “He came to me at the court, and he comforted me,” Ghrer recalled. Al-Bunni helped get him released after another two weeks in prison.

Al-Bunni connected Ghrer with German prosecutors and identified eight more people who had been held at Branch 251, all of whom became witnesses in the growing case against Raslan. They told German authorities that guards had sexually assaulted women and children during Raslan’s time running the prison. Female detainees had been stripped naked and paraded around. Some contracted skin diseases. Others recalled arriving at Branch 251 to the sound of screams. I spoke with one man, Taha Alzoubi, a fifty-nine-year-old filmmaker now living in Berlin, who was picked up in Damascus in August 2012 for giving food to protesters. One of the first things he saw when he entered Branch 251 was a man, hung naked against a wall, who had clearly endured severe torture. Guards were playing music and asking the man to dance; when the man’s body failed him, a guard gouged his eyes out with a knife.

Using such testimony, Germany’s federal prosecutor filed charges against Raslan for crimes against humanity, murder, rape, and serious sexual assault. The prosecutor alleges that more than four thousand people were tortured at Raslan’s direction, and that fifty-eight people died as a result. (Through his lawyer, Raslan declined to comment for this story.) “Several people that I talked to were tortured until they lost consciousness,” Patrick Kroker, one of the ECCHR lawyers on the case, told me.

Raslan’s trial, which began in April, is the first prosecution anywhere in the world for state-sponsored torture in Syria. It is also the first case to adjudicate whether the Syrian government’s use of torture against its civilian population amounts to crimes against humanity, a finding that could serve as precedent in future cases. If Raslan is found guilty, he will face life in prison.

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As German prosecutors prepared for trial, al-Bunni turned his attention to building other cases against suspected Assad regime officials who arrived in Europe as refugees. He now spends much of his day fielding tips from Syrians across the continent. While I was with him last year, al-Bunni heard about a doctor in Germany who had allegedly tortured patients at a military hospital in Homs and a former aid worker in western Europe who had allegedly smuggled weapons into Syria and handed activists over to the regime. He met with one witness whose skull had been perforated during an interrogation at the age of sixteen, to update him about the whereabouts of his torturer, and he listened to another man testify that one of his relatives, who now lived in Germany, had been a member of the shabiha, a state-sponsored militia responsible for killing thousands of innocent protesters. “Investigators can’t go to Syria to get proof, so in essence, the crime scene must come here,” al-Bunni told me. “I can prepare all the evidence; I can contact all the Syrian victims; and I deliver it to the prosecutor.”

Al-Bunni works with a volunteer network of Syrian lawyers across Europe to gather evidence from witnesses to prepare for the day when they will be able to bring cases against high-level perpetrators in Syria. Al-Bunni’s goal is not to go after small fish—it’s to reach Assad. In the meantime, though, fragmented efforts will have to do. Nerma Jelacic, head of communications for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a nonprofit that investigates serious crimes committed during conflicts, said her group is currently working on twelve cases involving mid-level Syrian officials like Raslan. “When the war started, [defectors] issued YouTube statements all over social media,” Jelacic told me. “The question is locating them, understanding their role, and gathering evidence sufficient in a court of law.” CIJA receives requests for investigative support from law enforcement agencies that are looking into former regime officials and members of the Islamic State. Last year, the organization provided information about five hundred people. “It’s an indication of how much checking is going on,” Jelacic said.

Mazen Darwish, a lawyer and journalist who runs the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, a nonprofit that tracks suspected war criminals, frequently collaborates with al-Bunni and ECCHR attorneys. Since 2011, six of his employees have been disappeared or killed in Syria. In 2018, after the team’s intelligence gathering led French prosecutors to issue international arrest warrants for three high-level officials in Syria, Syrian state TV broadcast a segment about Darwish, accusing him of attacking the country and working with Mossad and the CIA. Last spring, I visited his group’s unmarked offices in an apartment building in the center of Paris. The shutters were closed, and inside, cigarette smoke filled the air as the young team, most of whom are Syrian refugees themselves, worked at computers.

Once the team locates a possible suspect or receives a tip from a victim, they dig through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other public sites to corroborate the account. They also rely on intel from defectors, leaked documents, and informants who are still working in official positions in Syria. That afternoon, their search led them to an alleged member of the Assad regime who had recently been photographed posing in front of a popular European landmark. “They are here right now,” one said, pulling up the picture. The team planned to archive the photo and conduct an investigation.

Darwish’s group is currently pursuing criminal cases throughout Europe against members of the Assad regime, opposition groups, various militias, and the Islamic State. They are wary of what they see as the EU’s peace-at-all-costs approach, which could absolve those responsible for mass atrocities in Syria. “The international community’s goal is to make peace between all the players . . . even if they’re criminals,” Almoutassim al-Kilani, a lawyer with the group, told me. “We are trying to fight against that. These people can’t be part of our future.”

Whether Raslan deserves to be part of Syria’s future is a question that has created discord in the Syrian diaspora. Raslan claims that he left Syria with noble intentions—that in exchange for safe passage he gave the Syrian opposition information about the regime’s crimes. According to Foreign Policy, Raslan agreed to provide opposition leaders with more than twenty thousand files describing the treatment of detainees. Wael al-Khalid, an opposition activist who says he helped Raslan defect, told the magazine that Raslan “did not deliver us the promised documents” after safely arriving in Germany. “Every time I insisted, he said he will deliver the files to the United Nations, or to the CIA. I knew he was bluffing.”

But Raslan’s defenders say he was a cog in a system from which he eventually broke free. One regime defector told me that Raslan was an “unfortunate man” who was sent to a branch “with a lot of monsters inside,” one with “a very bad reputation even before the revolution.” Some of those who knew him at the time described Raslan as respected, pious, and cultured. During family gatherings, his wry humor often led his relatives to erupt in laughter.

Last spring, I met Abdulnasser al-Ayed, a Syrian novelist and self-described leftist who served as a captain in the Syrian Air Force until he was discharged in 2009. It was a cool, breezy afternoon in Paris, and we sat on the terrace of a café. Al-Ayed told me that Raslan had treated him with kindness when he was detained for attending a protest in 2011. During an intense interrogation, he said, a new voice introduced itself as Colonel Anwar Raslan. Raslan removed al-Ayed’s blindfold and handcuffs, and returned his shoes and socks. Al-Ayed remembered Raslan wearing a civilian suit and tie. They shared a Kent cigarette. Since leaving Syria, the two men have become close friends. When I asked al-Ayed what he thought of the fact that Raslan had been accused of some of the gravest crimes under international law, he said, “I’m a writer, so I know people are capable of almost anything—but I’m a writer, not a judge.”

Even some human-rights activists who support Raslan’s prosecution caution that European governments are likely to oversell the impact of such trials. “Governments are under pressure for not doing enough for Syria, not doing enough for justice,” said Al Abdallah, of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center. He explained that it’s easy for Western officials to say, “There’s five cases here and there—check, justice is done,” but that it’s not enough. Raslan and others like him are “small people,” one defector told me. The highest-level perpetrators of state-sponsored torture, most of whom remain in Syria, continue to enjoy impunity. Kroker, Ghrer’s lawyer, is careful to acknowledge that Raslan was just one of many involved in Syria’s torture apparatus: “This is one prison, and one intelligence service, and the guy is alleged to have controlled it for one and a half years,” Kroker said. “If we do a simple calculation to apply the torture and murder that occurred in this one facility across the country, to all intelligence services, one begins to imagine the amount of injustice and cruelty.”

Others worry that the case could send the wrong message to defectors. Khaled Khoja, a Syrian opposition figure of Turkmen origin, said that the case is a threat to those who defected from the regime and tried to “change the balance.” “If it’s a case of such individuals committing torture and other grave crimes, they have to be responsible, for sure.” But, he continued, “We should be very fair toward those people. If we accuse every person, whether from the opposition or from the regime side, we cannot reach any reconciliation.” There are hundreds of thousands of people who have committed atrocities for the regime, Khoja explained. “We cannot punish everyone.” He feared that Raslan’s fate would discourage other defectors who have valuable information from coming forward.

To al-Bunni, however, the potential chilling effect is immaterial. “It’s my responsibility to follow everybody—in the opposition or not,” he told me. “A change in the position or attitude of a person does not exempt him from prosecution for crimes he has committed—especially crimes against humanity.”

On the morning of April 23, journalists, activists, and members of the public lined up outside the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, an hour south of Bonn, to secure a place in the courtroom for Raslan’s trial. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, capacity had been reduced to twenty-nine spots. People were directed to sit in every third or fourth seat. The plaintiffs, the accused, and their lawyers were placed behind plexiglass. Ghrer, sitting among the plaintiffs, was overwhelmed with emotion. He hugged his tan trench coat tightly around his waist.

Just before ten o’clock, Raslan entered the courtroom escorted by police officers. He wore rectangular-framed glasses and a brown knit sweater, with a white crew-neck shirt peeking out at the collar. Eyad al-Gharib, who allegedly reported to Raslan at Branch 251 and was being tried alongside him, wore a mask and a a jacket with a hood that he had pulled down to conceal his face. As they entered, several Syrians in the audience turned their backs to the accused. Jasper Klinge, the prosecutor, then read out the indictment and described the experiences of twenty-four people who had been imprisoned at Branch 251: A man sexually assaulted with a broomstick. A man beaten while hanging from the ceiling by his wrists. Klinge alleged that Raslan had known the extent of the torture happening on his watch.

Through a forty-five-page statement read aloud in court by his lawyers, Raslan denied torturing anyone, denied ordering torture, and denied that torture was used at Branch 251 when he was in charge. He said that he had never “acted inhumanely” and that he felt “regret and compassion” for the victims. Raslan claimed that he had helped free so many people from the prison that he was stripped of many responsibilities in June 2011, and was therefore not in a position to oversee what had transpired in the year that followed. But prosecutors provided the court with documents, some of which carry Raslan’s signature, that confirm he was running Branch 251 through September 2012. They also plan to offer testimony from witnesses who saw Raslan giving orders to guards during those months, including orders to torture. “We do not believe he played a minor role,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, the general secretary of the ECCHR.

Al-Bunni stood just outside the courthouse. He was not allowed in because he would later be called as a witness, but he was satisfied knowing that his former clients were there, facing the people who were responsible for their torture. “I’m so proud,” he told me. A verdict may not come until 2021, and as he waits, al-Bunni is having trouble keeping up with the number of tips coming in. He and his colleagues are building a database of suspects in Europe; it currently has hundreds of names.

For al-Bunni’s part, such cases are about more than the people on trial. They are about laying bare Assad’s atrocities—torture, murder, gender-based violence—in a court of law, for the historical record. Al-Bunni believes that Raslan’s case will “give hope to the victims, who, after nine years now, think nobody cares about what happened in Syria.” He wants to send Assad’s regime a message: “Justice is coming.”

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August 2020