In November 2021, the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, Germany, announced that a criminal trial prosecuting a Syrian doctor for torture and sexual violence would begin on January 19, 2022. This case is the second criminal trial of a Syrian regime affiliate to be held in Germany after the al-Khatib trial against Anwar R. and Eyad A.
Shedding light on the Syrian regime’s systematic and widespread policy of torture, the Alaa M. case will address new aspects of the regime’s violations, focusing on the violations of doctors and medical workers within the state-sponsored torture system. Pursuant to the earlier indictment dated July 2021, the Alaa M. case is also supposed to highlight the widespread—yet overlooked—perpetration of sexual violence against men and boys in detention settings. There is however uncertainty about whether the Alaa M. trial will adequately address these charges since sexual violence charges were not mentioned in the latest press release by the Court, increasing the risk of making these crimes against men and boys more invisible.
Alaa M. was arrested by the Federal Public Prosecutor on June 19, 2020, under the suspicion of crimes against humanity and has been in pre-trial detention ever since. Alaa’s case came to prominence after Al Jazeera Arabic released The Search for Assad’s Executioners, a documentary released in March 2020 tracing Syrian regime affiliates living in Europe. The documentary identified Alaa M. as a perpetrator enjoying impunity as a refugee in Germany.
In contrast to the al-Khatib trial, Alaa did not hold any military position within the ranks of the Syrian regime intelligence services. Instead, he worked as a doctor in Branch 261 of the Military Intelligence Service in Homs, and at military hospitals No. 608 in Homs and No. 601 in Damascus. He held this position until the end of 2012. Alaa left Syria in mid-2015 and later arrived in Germany where he continued to practice his profession as a doctor.
The role of doctors and health workers in state-sponsored torture
Doctors and health workers providing medical assistance to injured protesters and to communities living in opposition-held areas have been systematically targeted by the Syrian regime, not only through its arbitrary detention campaign but also through ground and aerial bombardment against hospitals and other protected objects. However, medical workers have not only been victims, but in many cases, they played a key role in the human rights violations committed by the regime.
In fact, within the al-Khatib trial, several testimonies have described hospitals as places of torture, and doctors as participating and being themselves responsible for torture and murder of detainees. In many cases reported by the UN and other news agencies, doctors were ordered to keep victims alive so that they could be interrogated. Military hospitals and the security agencies collaborated in the commission of torture and in impeding the access of detainees to medical care with allegations detailing doctors undertaking unnecessary surgical procedures on detainees, or the aggravation of existing injuries caused by torture.
According to the indictment dated July 2021, Alaa has allegedly committed numerous acts of torture and sexual violence in Branch 261 and in the two military hospitals in Homs and Damascus. Alaa M. exploited his role as doctor to torture detainees, to aggravate already existing injuries, and to administer substances and pills leading to the death of the victim. Acts of brutality committed by Alaa included physical torture—through hanging, beatings and burning of civilians—genital violence and mutilation, in addition to the forced sterilization of a minor. At least two of the victims had died.
As such, the Alaa M. case will shed light on the role of doctors and medical workers in colluding and aiding crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian regime. This case will follow on the footsteps of other previous criminal prosecutions of medical personnel involved in torture, such as the infamous “Doctor’s Trial” in Nuremberg, and in former dictatorship contexts in Chile, and Greece.
Sexual violence against men in Syria regime detention
In the earlier indictment in July 2021, the court announced that the Alaa M. case would largely focus on key episodes of sexual violence, including genital violence and mutilation, as well as forced sterilization and violations of reproductive rights against men and boys that occurred in Branch 261 and the military hospitals in Damascus and Homs. While sexual violence has been also addressed within the al-Khatib trial following a motion filed by sexual violence survivors, including two men, the Alaa M. trial could finally provide an opportunity to recognize in front of a court of law the systematic use of sexual violence against men and boys by the Syrian regime. Unfortunately, a week before the start of the trial uncertainty still remains about the extent to which these crimes will be addressed by the court.
Indeed, when announcing the start of the Alaa M. trial, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt also declared that they dropped ten charges from the earlier indictment that the German Federal Prosecutor had previously submitted. The court held that these charges lacked the necessary preciseness. While the court did not state which individual charges were dropped, this decision elicited several reactions among international and Syrian actors involved in and following the trial, primarily as a response to the fact that sexual violence is not mentioned at all within the latest press release of the court. Whether the court will include sexual violence charges or not in the Alaa M. trial remains unclear. However, the fact that the court did not even mention sexual violence in its press release to the public may suggest a lack of attention toward these specific type of crimes– feeding into an already common approach of overlooking the crimes of sexual violence when perpetrated against men and boys.
Indeed, while sexual violence against men and boys has been documented by the UN and international and national non-governmental organizations, a wrong assumption that men and boys are less vulnerable to sexual violence than women and girls still remains; this may lead to possible challenges in the documentation process and negative consequences in survivors’ ability to have access to justice and remedy in the future. In this regard, research conducted by All Survivors Project had shown that sexual violence against men and boys have been largely undocumented and that it has been more prevalent in Syria, especially in detention settings, than what has been previously acknowledged, while men and boys’ vulnerabilities to sexual violence has yet to be fully understood.
Rape and sexual violence against men and boys formed part of a wider pattern of torture used to generate fear, obtain information, and destroy the community and family relationship of the victims. In many cases, sexual violence against men was used with the intent to prevent the survivor to have children, and to destroy their sense of masculinity before the eyes of their communities and families. In a society like the Syrian one where masculinity has been frequently understood as the heroic man fighting for the regime, sexual violence against men and boys and the emasculation of the victim was frequently the main reason behind the action of the perpetrators, a pattern which has occurred in many other countries.
Within this context, if the court actually does include sexual violence in its charges against Alaa M., testimonies of witnesses and plaintiffs will shed the light on the need for urgent reparative measures to address the short- and long-term psychological harm and physical injuries of survivors of sexual violence, whose lives, ability to provide for their families, and relationships with loved ones, has been greatly impacted. Additionally, this case may possibly provide the input to transform the way Syrian communities deal with men survivors of sexual violence. The proceedings and the recognition of the harm they suffered may also assist many survivors in their own process of healing from feelings of shame and self-blame and coming to terms with what they have been subjected to. If the court fails to address sexual violence crimes, the danger of further rendering invisible these crimes and the subsequent inability to appropriately provide remedy to survivors exists and should not be accepted lightly by Syrian civil society actors.
Lessons not learned from al-Khatib trial
The Alaa M. case, being the second criminal trial occurring in Germany on crimes against humanity committed in Syria, should provide an opportunity for German courts to put in practice the lessons learned from the al-Khatib trial and address some of its shortcomings.
Indeed, while the al-Khatib trial holds a symbolic significance in Syrians’ fight against impunity, several measures taken by the German Court of Koblenz have obstructed its ability to play an even greater role within the Syrian community. Despite the demand by international organizations and Syrian civil society to record the final steps of the proceedings, including the judgement against Anwar R., the court has rejected such requests as it considers the trial not to have any special historical significance for Germany. In addition to this, public access to these proceedings—given the importance they play for Syrians—should also be improved. In a preliminary assessment of the al-Khatib trial, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) has highlighted several concerns regarding the extent to which the al-Khatib has been a “public trial,” following the lack of freely accessible interpretation for Arabic speakers and the exclusion of those unable to travel to Koblenz to follow the trial.
Unfortunately though, the earlier decisions taken by the Frankfurt Court on the Alaa case have reinforced obstacles to public access to the trial. First of all, no simultaneous translation from German to Arabic will be provided by the Frankfurt Court, following the decision by the accused to waive his right to translation. It is worth wondering why a decision taken by the accused should be allowed to directly negatively impact the right of Syrian victims to have access to information about the trial. Moreover, the court has also decided to ban spectators from taking notes during the hearings, stating that only in exceptional cases with proven scientific interest an exception could be made.
Given the importance of the trial—and also the quite complex discussions that may arise from the trial, mainly concerning the prison sentence of Eyad A., which has been considered by many Syrians too short, and the upcoming sentence of Anwar R.—Syrian communities should have greater access to information about the trial in a way that is comprehensive, accessible, and objective–rather than having to rely on social media posts that may be incorrect and/or unable to explain relevant legal issues.
The same principle applies to improve participation of Syrians within the trial, including those who may not have a direct linkage to the specific case as victims but whose experiences as survivors and their healing process may benefit from being able to have access to the Court and follow the proceedings. In other words, the Alaa M. trial and stakeholders involved in such a process may ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.
Veronica Bellintani is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on victim and survivor-centric justice in Syria.