Last Updated:
Source: Unsplash / STOP EXTREMISM

Trial in Germany on Torture and Suppression in Syria

Michael Laubsch

When the secret police cars rushed up, the demonstrators in Damascus city center had just started their journey. Several men jumped out and dragged Ahmad onto a bus. He had filmed the members of a women’s organization who protested against President Bashar al Assad, and his wife also participated in the demonstration.

Ahmad was brought to the complex on Baghdad Street, a fearful name like the Lyublyanka in Moscow: the address of a torture centre. The guards took Ahmad to the basement of the prison, and in the days after they hit him on the back and feet with electric cables until they were so swollen that he could no longer walk. At the end of the first week, they chased electric shocks through his naked body, poured cold water over him and switched the power on again. Once, the guards took him to the first floor, to the office of the man, who apparently been responsible for all the tortures: Anwar R., the commander of the prison. That was in 2011.

Nine years later, Ahmad and Anwar R. will meet again. But this time it is Anwar R., 57, who is in prison in Berlin. At the end of April, the trial against him and another former intelligence officer is to begin before the Koblenz Higher Regional Court. The German Federal Prosecutor accuses R. of being responsible for the deaths of 58 people and the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners. Ahmad will testify as a witness.

The trial is designed to bring justice to the victims. But it is also a signal to the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and other dictators that the world will not forget. And that German justice will not sleep if it learns of acts like that in the torture prison in Damascus.

Since 2002, crimes against humanity can be prosecuted by the German judiciary even if they have not been committed in Germany or if Germans are among the perpetrators or victims. “This trial against members of the Assad regime shows that we in Germany are willing to continue to pursue such crimes consistently in the future,” said Federal Attorney General Peter Frank. “We must not become a safe haven for war criminals or active participants in a genocide.”

Because Anwar R., 57, born in Homs, seven children, is not just a suspected perpetrator. Although he had served the Assad regime faithfully for years, he was also the first prominent deserter to leave Syria and defend himself to the opposition. He not only persecuted, he was also persecuted. When he came to Germany in the summer of 2014, he applied for political asylum.

In any totalitarian state there are men like Anwar R., who receive orders from above and yet have enough power to decide about life and death. Men without whom no totalitarian system can survive. Men who are rewarded for their loyalty. In early 2011, Anwar R. was promoted to colonel, now he was one of those men.

The Syrian uprising began shortly afterwards.

In March 2011, thousands of Syrians went to the streets, initially only in the small town of Dara, then everywhere, a breath of freedom wafted through the oppressed country.

In Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad convened the heads of the secret services, the police and the army. On April 20, 2011, the group decided to use force to quell the uprising.

Shortly afterwards, according to estimates, between 3,000 and 6,000 people gathered in Duma, northeast of Damascus, for a demonstration at the main mosque, people dancing on the street and shouting “Bashar, get away!”

At some point, a dark Mercedes pulled up, says the second defendant in the trial, Anwar R.’s former colleague Ejad A., who was there at the time. Hafis Machluf, Assad’s cousin, stepped out of the Mercedes, a submachine gun or a semi-automatic weapon in his hand, firing into the crowd and shouted: “Whoever loves the President should shoot the traitors.” Panic broke out. Five of the demonstrators slumped to death, Assad’s bunnies chased people through the streets and arrested those who could not escape in time. The prisoners were shooed into buses and taken to the prison on Baghdad Street.

The detention center consists of several buildings that lie behind a high wall and are interconnected. Anwar R.’s office was on the first floor, around 30 guards were on duty on the ground floor, and stairs lead to the basement where the cells are located, as former prisoners describe it. The complex is designed for a hundred occupants. But after the beginning of the Arab Spring, the prisoner numbers skyrocketed, so that more than 400 people crowded in the dungeon in the basement. Some of the cells were so overcrowded that the prisoners had to sleep while standing, toilet visits were only allowed once a day, and the hygienic conditions were catastrophic. In Department 251, there was practically no interrogation without torture, the indictment said.

Sometimes the interrogators used a method called “Dulab” in which the inmates are forced into a car tire and beaten and kicked. Another method of torture, the “flying carpet”, tied the prisoners to a board and maltreated them; a hinge allows the lower body to be spread open until the prisoners roar in pain. And then there was the “German chair”, in which the hands are tied behind a movable metal chair and the spine is stretched back until the vertebrae pop out – or the spine breaks.

The guards paid special attention to the prisoner Ahmad, who filmed the women’s demonstration in Damascus: He comes from a famous family, his grandfather was part of the Syrian government in the 1940s and 1950s. Ahmad himself ran a cosmetics company in the area around Damascus until his arrest, and his hand creams were exported to many Arab countries.

When the guards picked him up for questioning, an older inmate gave him advice: »In this situation there are only two options: either clench your teeth and show strength, or scream all the time.”

There were two types of intelligence officers in the prison. The guards who took care of the prisoners and abused them on instruction. And the interrogators who used the torture tools like a master butcher. “They laughed a lot,” says Ahmad, “they enjoyed it.” There was nothing that was not done to the prisoners, says Mahamad A., 37, who served as a security guard in prison and eventually deserted because he could no longer endure the atrocities.

The torture only ended when the prisoner fainted, recalls Ejad A., 43, the second defendant who served in various intelligence departments for 16 years before escaping to Germany.

At least 58 people had been killed in Al Chatib prison between the start of the Arab Spring and Ahmad’s escape in September 2012, the prosecutor’s indictment said. In their investigations across Europe, the prosecutors interviewed around a hundred witnesses, former civil rights activists and victims of torture, as well as defectors. The indictment is also based on the forensic examination of around 28,000 photos by a former Syrian military photographer with the alias “Caesar”, whose job was to photograph bodies and who smuggled the pictures out of the country – including many photos of dead people.

Shortly before Christmas 2012, Anwar R. fled to Jordan with his wife and five of his children – and made an astonishing change: he is now advising the Syrian resistance to Assad. Anwar R. was even appointed military spokesman for the exile opposition, says Kefa Ali Deeb, who was at the time leading the resistance. The German Foreign Ministry in Berlin also confirmed “an active and visible role of Mr. R. within the Syrian opposition”. The German Intelligence Service attests that R. has disclosed his inside knowledge from his 18 years to the secret service of the opposition.

Anwar R. flies to Geneva and Istanbul, to the United Nations Special Envoy’s international peace talks, wearing a suit and tie. The prison on Baghdad Street now seems very far away.

But not all believe in the miraculous change of the Assad servant to the system enemy. Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, for example, who was temporarily abused himself in Baghdad Street prison, claims: “It was known throughout Damascus that Anwar R. was the most brutal torturer of the regime.”

In the summer of 2014, Anwar R. moved to Germany with his family, applied for asylum and received a residence permit. In the northeast of Berlin, he and his family find an apartment in a quiet new development. A snow-white plush dog smiles friendly from the window sill at every visitor. The contrast to the civil war could hardly be greater.

However, the conflict has left its mark. R. has had high blood pressure for several years. In February 2015, he went to the practice of a Syrian doctor in Berlin-Tempelhof. When Anwar R. is sitting in the waiting room, he looks out of the window. On the street he thinks he can see two men walking up and down and staring suspiciously. When he leaves the doctor’s room, the men are still there, only when R. approaches them, they jump into a car and drive away.

A few days later, R. visits a dentist. When he emerges from practice late in the morning, two Arab-looking men stand in the way and stare at him, so he will report it later. R. is now convinced that the Syrian secret service is watching him. He reports to the police. And begins to tell, his statement is recorded. The interrogation minutes read as if R. was talking to the police mainly to make it clear why the Syrian regime is now looking for him. He tells of his time in Syria. From the secret service. And from department 251.

What R. does not know is that the German Attorney General is responsible for investigations into suspected espionage. And for investigations into war criminals too.

The prosecutors in Karlsruhe, where the HQ are located, are examining the report that the Berlin State Criminal Police Office forwarded to them. They refuse to take over the investigation on suspicion of espionage: the suspicion is too vague.

But when Anwar R. reports again in detail about his time in Syria during a second interrogation, the Attorney General initiated another investigation – against Anwar R. himself, because of possible crimes against humanity.

After months of investigations, he is arrested on February 12, 2019. The man who has served Syrian intelligence for so long, who had his office in a torture prison and now feels threatened by Assad’s men, has sought protection with the help of the German police – and ends up in prison himself.

When Anwar R. talks about himself and the prison on Baghdad Street, he hardly sounds any different than his former President. When Bashar al-Assad was asked about Anwar R.’s arrest by a reporter from a Russian television station in November 2019 and asked about the investigation by the German judiciary, the dictator said: „We do not practice torture. Why should we torture people? It is not our policy.“

The former prisoner Ahmad is terrified until today. After some time being arrested on Baghdad Street, he was transferred to another prison and released a few days later, in 2013 he fled to Germany via Lebanon. Today he lives in North Rhine-Westphalia, learning German and getting his driver’s license, he hopes to be able to work again soon.

Unlike many of the torture victims, Ahmad says he is happy to be able to personally participate in the trial. He was not afraid of meeting Anwar R. “For me, the fact that this procedure can take place at all is a form of justice, for which I thank Germany,” he says. The lawyers of Anwar R. and Ejad A. do not want to comment on the prosecution’s indictment.

Attorney General Peter Frank, who has also issued arrest warrants for several other high-ranking Syrian secret service agents, accuses Anwar R. of being guilty of “minor motives” for the murder and torture. If the court follows the indictment, R. faces life imprisonment, possibly even with subsequent preventive detention. He would then have to spend the rest of his life in a German prison.

Human rights organizations report that torture is still going on in prison on Baghdad Street.