The verdict on Syrian intelligence colonel, Anwar Raslan, reopened the wound. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian victims and their families welcomed the verdict. Syrian Observer editor, Wael Sawah, spoke with Syrian human rights lawyer and feminist activist Joumana Seif, who played an important role in the due process related to Raslan’s trial.
Joumana Seif is a research fellow in the Department of International Crime and Accounting at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCRR) with a special focus on crimes of sexual and gender-based violence. She is the co-founder of the Syrian Women’s Network and the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, and the Board of Directors’ Chairman of The Day After Foundation.
The Syrian Observer: The news from Koblenz about Raslan are exhilarating for many Syrians who have been arrested or tortured in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. Is justice served?
Joumana Seif: Certainly not, justice has not been achieved by prosecuting a former intelligence officer. However, the trial and the verdict handed down with its investigation is an important step on several levels: recognizing the rights of victims first and recognizing murders, torture, and sexual violence as a crime against humanity – meaning that it was committed extensively as part of the regime’s policy of suppressing civilians. We consider this verdict as a first step, and we hope that it will establish a broader international effort, especially after the trial succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to the crimes and atrocities of the Assad regime, and to the need for justice for all Syrians.
The Syrian Observer: Does the trial of Anwar Raslan have a political dimension? Or is it only judicial?
Joumana Seif: If you are talking about the trial proceedings, it is purely judicial and the court considered it and examined the evidence purely legally. However, on the other hand, it is the political dimension that prompted the Attorney General’s Office in Germany to activate the universal jurisdiction and to send political messages regarding the Syrian issue. This comes especially with the closure of all means of justice and other courses of litigation and with the presence of nearly 800,000 Syrians in Germany and many defendants on its territory.
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The Syrian Observer: Several human rights groups, as well as Syrian and foreign human rights activists, have joined forces to reach January 13th. How did we reach this stage? What is your organization’s role in this regard?
Joumana Seif: Indeed, this sentence is the result of collective efforts. Here it must be noted the most important role is that of the survivors, who have given evidence and testified in court courageously, despite all the challenges and trauma caused by the exhumation of bodies and the reliving of painful memories. The court was also presented with many Syrian and international human rights reports, in addition to Caesar’s photographs of the victims who died in al-Khatib’s branch. The photos, which were presented with a special forensic analysis in Germany, contributed significantly to the body of evidence. As for the role of ECCHR, it has driven the investigation and preservation of testimonies and evidence since 2012, operating alongside the official investigations brought by the federal prosecutor. In addition to continuing cooperation with the Public Prosecutor’s Office in directing investigations and building a large database of evidence and testimony, these efforts managed to identify the various types of crimes and how they were committed in the branch. Some survivors later learned of Anwar Raslan’s presence in Germany and informed the ECCHR. Then, as Anwar Raslan applied for police protection, investigations that led to his arrest and subsequent trial intensified. At the trial, ECCHR supported 29 survivors during the investigation, 14 of whom were plaintiffs and active participants. Today, we can say that we are pleased with what has been achieved because we felt that the survivors were satisfied with the result after years of hardship.
The Syrian Observer: Colonel Anwar Raslan is a middle-ranking officer in a hellish machine of oppression.
Joumana Seif: Frankly, before I agreed to work on this case with my colleagues at the center, I paused a lot at this question. But after listening to the testimonies of many survivors, and the physical and psychological torture and contempt for their dignity – I decided that I would always stand with the victims, without any hesitation. I believe that those who sat in the courtroom – who heard testimonies, saw with their own eyes the effects of this cruel experience on the victims, and saw Caesar’s photographs of those who died under Anwar Raslan’s watch – can only rejoice at the verdict and see some hope for justice. Anwar Raslan, as well as Iyad Ghraib, were not forced to work in the intelligence branches. They sought this job to obtain personal benefits and privileges at the expense of the Syrian people and their dignity. They knew very well that the requirements of this position meant giving their prior consent to murder, torture, rape, and humiliation of Syrian women.
The strategic objective of our work remains to target key perpetrators at the highest levels. We are trying to establish this accountability, but we will not miss any available opportunity – even if it achieves only a very small element of justice.
The Syrian Observer: Is the provision of transitional justice in Syria part of the transitional justice mechanism? Does the application of criminal justice contradict the application of transitional justice?
Joumana Seif: Transitional justice requires a political transition, which is unfortunately not on the horizon for now. But, without a doubt, Anwar Raslan’s judgment can be used to analyze the general context and facts that have been established in court.
As to the second part of the question: criminal justice is an essential part of transitional justice measures. I believe that transitional justice cannot be conceived independently of criminal accountability. The atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its security services can be neither forgiven nor forgotten. We are talking about millions of victims, who have been targeted with all kinds of weapons, and now find themselves displaced. Is it be conceivable to forgive the regime and its leading perpetrators? Knowing the scale of the crimes and following human rights reports, I am convinced that this would be impossible. Of course, this reality does not negate the need to bring to justice the perpetrators of other parties, who have committed similar crimes. That being said, the magnitude of their crimes is not comparable to what the regime has committed.