In a groundbreaking development, French criminal investigative judges have issued arrest warrants for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad, and two other senior officials in connection with the use of banned chemical weapons in the town of Douma and the district of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013. These attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people.
The French judiciary’s issuing arrest warrants against a sitting head of state and top officials represents a historic legal precedent. The move has been hailed as a victory for the victims, their families, and survivors, and a significant step towards justice and sustainable peace in Syria.
Lawyer Mazen Darwish, founder and director-general of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), expressed the importance of the French judiciary’s decision to hold those responsible for such crimes accountable, emphasizing that no one is immune from justice.
The arrest warrants target President Bashar al-Assad, Maher al-Assad, General Ghassan Abbas (Director of Branch 450 of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center), and General Bassam al-Hassan (Presidential Advisor for Strategic Affairs and liaison officer between the Presidential Palace and the SSRC). The charges against them include complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.
This judicial action follows a criminal investigation initiated by the Specialized Unit for Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes of the Paris Judicial Court into the chemical weapons attacks of August 2013. The investigation was prompted by a criminal complaint filed in March 2021 by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) and Syrian victims, with support from the Syrian Archive and the Open Society Justice Initiative, among others.
The complaint was accompanied by extensive first-hand testimonies from survivors, as well as a comprehensive analysis of Syrian military chains of command, the government’s chemical weapons program, and numerous items of documentary evidence, including photos and videos.
Hadi al-Khatib, the founder of the Syrian Archive and Managing Director of Mnemonic (the project’s host organization), welcomed France’s actions and stressed the importance of holding officials accountable for crimes committed a decade ago.
Steve Kostas, Senior Managing Lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, noted the historic nature of the case, as it marks the first time a sitting head of state has faced an arrest warrant in another country for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Aida Samani, Senior Legal Adviser at Civil Rights Defenders, expressed hope that the arrest warrants would send a clear message to survivors and victims of these attacks, assuring them that the world has not forgotten them and that the pursuit of justice continues.
The principle of extraterritorial jurisdiction has been invoked in this case, allowing French courts to investigate and prosecute international atrocity crimes committed on foreign territory under specific circumstances.
This development follows similar complaints filed in Germany and Sweden regarding other chemical attacks in Syria, with evidence from extensive investigations forming the basis for these legal actions.
The victims and civil parties in the current case are represented by Paris-based lawyers Jeanne Sulzer and Clémence Witt, with additional victims represented by Clémence Bectarte.