Syria: “Every trial keeps the search for justice alive”
Hussein Ghrer is a software engineer and former blogger and human rights activist from Syria, where he was arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared and tortured by the Assad regime.
Originally from Aleppo, Hussein currently resides in Germany. He was one of the joint plaintiffs in the historic trial in Koblenz on 13 January 2022, resulting in the conviction and life sentence of former Syrian colonel Anwar Raslan for crimes against humanity.
In this interview, Hussein shares his response to the verdict and what should happen next for true justice to prevail.
On 13 January, a German court handed a guilty verdict and life sentence to Anwar Raslan, the former Syrian intelligence officer at the Al Khatib prison where you were detained. Can you describe your feelings when you heard the verdict?
I needed some time to process the verdict, to understand what happened. I was struggling with many feelings: I felt happy, sad, angry.
Of course, I was happy that Raslan was convicted for his crimes, but I was also disappointed that his lawyers can still apply for early release. I also know the conviction of an individual will not change anything for the detainees still being tortured.
That said, the verdict has wider significance. A reputable court has acknowledged that the Syrian regime has been committing systematic crimes against humanity, which by definition cannot be committed by individuals. This sends a powerful message.
Does this case set a precedent for other trials?
The verdict will not automatically result in more trials, because each case has to be constructed individually.
However, some of the evidence from the Al-Khatib trial can be used again, and make other trials go faster.
There was already plenty of documentation of human rights violations in Syria, especially by Caesar [the Syrian military photographer who smuggled out images showing crimes against humanity in Syrian prisons]. But for the first time, these documents have been recognised as solid evidence.
They may be used again in other trials, such as the Alaa M. trial [the Syrian military doctor currently on trial in a court in Frankfurt], without having to be verified again.
We no longer need to prove the regime has been committing systematic crimes.
There is a risk the international community will say “the job has is done” and “justice has been served” for Syrian victims. What should happen for true justice to be achieved? What should the international community do next?
Our wish is to refer the Syria war crimes file to the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, as Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the ICC has no jurisdiction to adjudicate such crimes.
The only way around this is for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer the situation to the ICC, but this has been vetoed by Russia and China.
International players need to keep reminding politicians the regime is committing crimes. Foreign governments also must not normalise relationships with the Assad regime, because this sends the wrong signal.
But as we await these structural changes, having a verdict that proves the regime should be held accountable for war crimes gives hope that justice is possible.
International organisations and politicians should be clear this is just the first step. We must continue to seek justice and push to hold the regime to account, especially high-level officials.
Universal jurisdiction [where a state can prosecute crimes regardless of where they were committed]
is also important. Every trial is unique and significant. It reveals more truth and keeps the search for justice alive.
Read a statement by five associations of Syrian victims, survivors and family members in response to the Al Khatib trial.
Image © Paul Wagner/ The Syria Campaign