Friday, 15 June 2018

Building the case against Assad's régime


 '20, 21, 24, 28, 34, 36, 40, 41, 83, 90, 92, 124 and 126. Yazan Awad repeats the days he was tortured like a mantra; the days the military prison guards smashed his legs with a club for six hours solid; the days they suspended him from the ceiling and beat him; the days they pushed a Kalashnikov up his rear. And the worst day of all; day 36.

 Awad joins other victims, witnesses and lawyers in Germany where the legal battle against Bashar al-Assad’s government is being waged. Almost 1.5 million refugees have flooded into the country over the last two years, and many are living proof of the atrocities committed in the regime’s prisons. Their presence, along with thousands of photos and Germany’s universal justice laws, has not only meant that cases such as Awad’s are being heard, but that the first international warrant has been issued for the arrest of a high-ranking official in the al-Assad regime.

 In a room a thousand kilometers from Berlin, the evidence needed to nail the culprits is stored in hundreds of cardboard boxes. This ‘who’s who’ of torture consists of hundreds of thousands of documents that have been smuggled out of Syria over a period of years showing who designed the gruesome game plan, who issued the orders, who carried them out and who turned a blind eye.

 These documents have been classified by veterans of the international justice system and are now driving investigations in a dozen different countries against middle-ranking Syrian government officials who have moved to Europe. But, more importantly, they are being used to construct a case against the al-Assad regime in order to avoid a Yugoslavia or Rwanda scenario, where a lack of evidence meant delaying justice for decades and, in many instances, forever. These documents mean that when the time comes for justice to be done, the evidence will be ready and waiting – the loopholes plugged.

 The first body of evidence against the Syrian regime is contained in the victim’s statements, which depict its repressive apparatus in grisly detail and reveal a pattern of systematic abuse. Over and over, their stories recount the pipes on the ceiling and the cables used to hang prisoners for beatings; the relentless cries of those being tortured; the overcrowded cells rife with infection; the uncertainty of not knowing if they would be alive the next day; the disappearance of fellow prisoners; the confessions wrung from them. And now, a desperate faith in justice that is keeping their spirits from breaking.

 Awad is a big guy; a 30-year-old who sought refuge in Germany two years ago after being imprisoned in the al-Mezzeh airport – which was under control of the Syrian military air force – for 137 days. “As soon as I arrived, they beat me for six hours. They lay us on the ground and beat us with pipes. They beat the soles of our feet. Then they put me in a cell with 180 people. The pain was terrible. I couldn’t go to the toilet. Two people had to drag me there.”

 Awad’s story pours out of him. “They beat me like crazy – my head with their boots and with the butts of their Kalashnikovs,” he says. “They stuck an AK-47 up my ass and I ate nothing for two months. It was dangerous to ask to see the doctor; for every 10 that went, only one would come back alive. They gave us 10 seconds to go to the toilet. In that time you had to drink, tend to your injuries, go to the bathroom and clean up.”

 On Day 36, “They told me they were going to kill me,” he says. “I was still hanging from the ceiling and they put a gun in my mouth and they told me to recite the shahada [the Islamic profession of faith]. I couldn’t stop stuttering and it took me more than 15 minutes. Someone fired a shot. They had cut the rope and I was on the ground. I thought they had killed me. They took the bandage from my eyes and I ran after them. I needed to see their faces so I could explain to God who they were on Judgment Day.”

 Awad had been a regular guy, living an ordinary life. Then, on April 29, 2011, he joined his first demonstration against the regime. The Arab Spring had seen the fall of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and suddenly anything seemed possible, even in Syria. The photos portraying the torture of the Daraa children acted as the catalyst. These were 14-year-old schoolboys whose only crime was to deface a public wall with the slogan, “Your turn doctor,” referring to Bashar al-Assad’s training as an ophthalmologist.

 “When I saw the photos of those children, I decided to fight the regime,” says Awad. First there were the demonstrators, like Awad, then came those who would help the demonstrators escape arrest and, finally, there would be a network of underground doctors and hospitals to tend to the injured involved in the protests.

 The start of the conflict in Syria was infused with hope, a sentiment that has been stamped out along with the lives of around 400,000 people. Now, in its eighth year, the conflict has also forced 11 million from their homes, amounting to almost half of the population. But perhaps worst of all, there is still no political solution on the horizon and no end to the suffering in sight.

 Despite all this, Awad is filled with a sense of purpose. “My friends are still in jail and I promised I would get them out. My dream is to speak in front of the UN Security Council. In 2012, they stopped the torture for two weeks and we were able to sleep because the cries and screams also stopped. And they gave us food. It was only in case UN inspectors came to check out the prison. Those two weeks were incredible. Paradise in hell.”

 After seeking asylum, Awad encountered the renowned Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni – who had also moved to Germany – through the internet. His strategy began to take shape. “My time had come,” he says.

 In Damascus, al-Bunni was the go-to defense for political prisoners and when he got to Europe, the refugee community quickly sought him out. Soon he was inundated with messages from fellow Syrians who, like Awad, wanted his help and were keen to talk.

 In next to no time, he was able to compile first-hand accounts from all over Europe. From his office in the north of Berlin, where the only decoration is the Syrian flag, al-Bunni explains: “We are preparing witnesses in Norway and also in Stockholm. There’s a case going on in France brought by two victims with French nationality…” In total, there are five Syrian lawyers working in Berlin and another 30 scattered across the rest of Europe. He explains that among the 27 they are seeking to indict is Bashar al-Assad himself.

 Activism runs in al-Bunni’s blood. Between himself, his four brothers and his sister, they have chalked up 75 years in jail. Back in Damascus, al-Bunni was director of a well-known human-rights center that acted as a point of reference for western diplomats and European institutions. Accused of seeking to debilitate the country and of collaborating with international organizations, he spent five years in prison between 2006 and 2011. During that time, he says they tried to kill him twice.

 Al-Bunni was actually behind bars when the revolution took off in Syria. Following his release, Germany offered him asylum – his work had previously been recognized by the German Association of Judges. But al-Bunni stayed. Demonstrators were being arrested without any guarantee of charges or trials and al-Bunni made it his business to find them and secure their release. In 2012, his partner and friend Khalil Maatouk disappeared. Al-Bunni kept going until 2014 when the government ordered his arrest. Aware that his life was on the line, he fled to safety with his wife and children.

 “We know there are more than 60 people from the regime in Europe, but I am not scared of them,” says al-Bunni. “They should be afraid of me. They know me from my time in prison. They interrogated me every day and they know that the only way to shut me up is to kill me. If they kill me in Germany, it will be easy to catch them and they will go to jail and I will have achieved my goal.” He laughs. “I promise I will put them in jail, dead or alive; these people cannot be part of the political transition.”

 Al-Bunni is convinced there is a lot at stake for Europe too. “If we let the al-Assad regime go unpunished, it will be like giving carte blanche to the world’s dictators. If international law collapses, what will become of our societies?” he says.

 Al-Bunni is also part of a project that makes use of his contacts among the refugee community to track down criminals coming to Europe in the guise of refugees. These could be either officials from the regime or members of Islamic State and al-Nusra – Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. “We know that more than 1,060 people with refugee status here have committed crimes,” he says. “And there’s a lot of evidence to prove it.”

 Among the documentation with the Attorney General is a crucial package containing 26,948 photos. Almost half of them show the dead bodies of detainees. They are known as the Caesar photographs, after the military defector who smuggled them out of Syria.

 Caesar was a forensic photographer with the military police. Between 2011 and 2013, his job was to photograph the corpses from the different prisons arriving at the 601 Military Hospital in Mezzah and the Tishreen Military Hospital, both in Damascus.

 Besides providing proof of identity, the images offer evidence of systematic abuse and the subhuman conditions within Syria’s detention facilities. Most of the bodies are emaciated, their bones jutting and their skin showing infection and sores as well as evidence of torture. There are marks indicating strangulation, burns and beatings; mouths whose teeth have been smashed and eyes filled with blood.

 In another corner of Europe whose location is being kept under wraps, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) carefully files the documented evidence of abuse. One-hundred-and-forty-five legal experts from around Europe and the Middle East have already compiled 800,000 pages of incriminating evidence.

 Bearing the initials of Syria’s National Security department, one lists categories of people to be detained, including demonstrators and people in contact with foreign journalists. “Clean all sectors of these people,” one document reads. Another asks that any new names extracted from interrogations be sent to the National Security office. There are also notes taken during interrogations.

 “The culprits aren’t going to be able to be tried in absentia, but the international arrest warrants send the message to the perpetrators that the crimes will not go unpunished,” explains María Elena Vignoli, an expert in international justice from Human Rights Watch.

 As such, for many Syrian refugees, the German justice system is currently its only hope. Maryam Alhallak is one of them: in 2012 they took away her son.

 Last July, Maryam Alhallak testified in court, explaining how she managed to confirm that her son was dead after seeing him among Caesar’s photos. Prior to this, she had spent three years in Damascus searching for his body in vain. “The government was looking for me and wanted to arrest me,” she says. “I went to call on all the officials, which is why they were after me and threw me out of my home.”

 A “mother courage” figure who nobody wanted to listen to. However, the German justice system has been keen to hear her story and that of her son, who was a supervisor in the Odontology faculty. “There were no charges against him,” she says. Her voice breaks.

 She takes a deep breath and, referring to the trial, continues: “I am very hopeful. Justice is all that is left to us.” '

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