Over a year ago, on April 23, 2020, the first trial against Syrian regime officials for their involvement in crimes against humanity began in the small town of Koblenz, Germany. The defendants—Anwar Raslan and Eyad Al-Gharib—worked in one of Syria’s notorious intelligence branches, where peaceful protesters, activists, and civilians were detained and subjected to mistreatment and torture. The trial in Koblenz, which led to the conviction of a former regime official earlier this year, may represent a first step, or “a drop in the ocean,” towards what it will take to achieve justice for Syrians. However, it is far from a comprehensive form of justice sought by Syrians who have endured over a decade of trauma, displacement, and torture at the hands of the Syrian regime. Trials in foreign courts do not come with accountability measures inside Syria, at the hands of Syrians. Nor have they seen higher level perpetrators and decision makers being held to account.
“Transitional justice” refers to efforts emerging during and post-conflict to hold perpetrators of international crimes and human rights violations accountable. The violations that occur during periods of conflict can be so severe and numerous that normal justice systems do not have the capacity to handle deliberation over such cases. As a result, alternative methods of justice emerge in the post-conflict phase—ranging from prosecutions before international tribunals, universal jurisdiction, or the formation of specialized tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). It can also take the form of nonjudicial mechanisms such as truth commissions (such as the Tunisia Truth and Dignity Commission) or reparations for survivors in the form of monetary compensation and other government services, including access to healthcare and psychological support. These measures are intended to address some of the injustices faced by survivors.
Rehabilitation is also considered a part of transitional justice, with the aim of supporting survivors of human rights abuses with the reconstruction of any aspect of their lives that have been impacted as a result, including to their mental health and well-being. These forms of transitional justice are not mutually exclusive—they can work in parallel, as each plays a different role.
According to Veronica Bellintani, a transitional justice expert and legal analyst at the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP) and a TIMEP Nonresident Fellow, the trial in Koblenz plays multiple roles within a transitional justice framework, which is comprised of four primary “pillars”: truth-seeking, criminal prosecutions, reparations, and reform. The decision against Al-Gharib plays an important role in shaping the narrative of what happened in Syria —an important step when it comes to truth-seeking, according to Bellintani. While there is no “right to truth” enshrined in international law relating to international crimes or human rights abuses (except for in the Convention for the Protection against Enforced Disappearances), state practice in post-conflict justice efforts demonstrates that truth-seeking is an essential element in achieving justice following conflict or mass atrocities. Witness testimony and Eyad’s role in the Syrian government’s crimes are enshrined in an official decision. Bellintani says this is important as it represents an official recognition of the experiences of Syrian survivors and of their government’s crimes.
Criminal prosecutions are more impactful when filed against high-level perpetrators. For this reason, many Syrians saw the case against Anwar Raslan, the alleged head of investigations within Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, as a more effective and impactful criminal prosecution than that against Eyad Al-Gharib, a former lower-ranking intelligence officer. While Raslan once held a high position in the Syrian security apparatus with decision-making power and the authority to order others to perpetrate human rights abuses, Al-Gharib claimed that he was merely executing orders being given to him by people like Raslan.
That said, criminal proceedings have shortcomings. While they serve an effective role when carried out, action against high-level perpetrators is rare and infrequent, as they are more likely to be safeguarded from accountability. According to Bellintani, in the context of large-scale atrocity crimes such as war crimes or crimes against humanity, no criminal sentencing can make up for the crimes they committed. For example, the Koblenz court sentenced Al-Gharib to four and a half years—a dissatisfying sentence for some, as it did not correspond to the gravity of the crime and his involvement.
Moreover, criminal prosecutions on their own are not effective because victims and survivors of crimes being tried often do not gain anything tangible from the court’s decision. Those directly affected by the crimes of the accused may feel a sense of justice and comfort knowing that their oppressor has been given a sentence. For others, however, the court’s decision may have less of an impact. In the context of the Koblenz trial, survivors of crimes identified by civil society organizations and immigration authorities (sometimes without the knowledge of the survivor) were required to appear in court and testify against the perpetrator, encouraged to not do so anonymously in order to increase the credibility of testimony. This raised several concerns regarding guaranteeing the protection of survivors and their families, particularly those with family and friends still inside Syria.
For Syrians who have been personally affected by human rights abuses and international crimes in Syria, efforts toward justice can invoke many responses. Noura Aljizawi, a Syrian researcher with Citizen Lab, spoke to the fear and disillusionment among Syrians regarding the outcome of the Koblenz trial. “From the perspective of transitional justice or accountability in the long-term, there are a lot of questions. Particularly for survivors and victims’ inside Syria…we [still] have a lot of fear about the future. We don’t have proper answers, because there is no discussion or debate for our future as Syrians.”
Feelings of distress, fear, and uncertainty regarding the future are not uncommon among Syrians who have been personally impacted by the events following the beginning of the uprising in 2011, including those who remain displaced inside Syria as well as those who have claimed asylum in countries like Germany, where the trial is taking place. While the trial has presumably brought a sense of hope to Syrians who have been intimately impacted by these crimes, Aljizawi speaks to the guilt felt among survivors of such crimes, including herself, regarding those who remain imprisoned inside Syria. “Survival is not only about them being released, but also about the others and the ones we left behind. We have all of these questions to raise — what about the others still being tortured?”
In March 2021, a few days following the outcome of the Koblenz trial, the Commission of Inquiry of the Syrian Arab Republic released a report detailing a decade of arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances in Syria, as well as comprehensive evidence regarding abuses committed in over 100 detention facilities, including torture, sexual violence, and death. These harrowing findings serve not only as a reminder as to why trials continue to be critical in holding the perpetrators of these crimes accountable, but also indicative of the suffering endured by those who are key to the procedures and outcomes of the trial. In fact, those who have survived torture inside Syrian prisons and are asked to testify in front of their perpetrators are among those most at-risk during the transitional justice process.
Aljizawi reflects on her own experience hearing the results of the trial as a survivor of torture as well as supporting a family member who testified in the trial, “It is unfair to bring traumatized peopled and ask them to testify in the court. During the trial preparation process, people are experiencing breakdowns. People are taken from their normal lives and have to speak again and again and undergo pressure from police or court and to go through a lot of detail and recall their suffering.” She emphasizes the importance of family and social support mechanisms for individuals that testify in court. “For my sister, I was the one standing next to her. I know how tough it is to recall all of these details.” She also mentions the struggles faced by those who cannot testify or are afraid of doing so due to stigma or potential legal or social repercussions of sharing personal details, “There are many who might be suffering silently who are unable to share their perspectives. I cannot imagine what they are enduring daily, whether they have access to social services.”
The trial also plays a role when it comes to reparations, which are mechanisms undertaken to compensate survivors in an attempt to repair the injuries perpetrated against them. Reparations are intended to place an individual in the state that they were in prior to the injury, such as through financial means or housing restoration. Reparations can also serve to rehabilitate by ensuring that services and care are provided to survivors. “Collective reparations” may include symbolic gestures, such as public demonstrations, museums honoring victims, or truth-seeking activities that recognize the extent of the crimes committed.
The decision in the case of Al-Gharib plays such a role, especially as it relates to recognizing the extent of the crimes committed against protesters. While Raslan was a higher-level official, Al-Gharib’s prosecution is more symbolic for many Syrians because of the role that security agents like him played in targeting peaceful protesters, according to Bellintani. The court holding Al-Gharib accountable for being a part of these actions can play a symbolic role in recognizing the harm that peaceful protesters and their families faced at the hands of perpetrators.
Post-conflict justice cannot be achieved through one trial or even through trials alone. Transitional justice measures should reflect the varied and diverse needs of Syrians—particularly those who are testifying at the stand. Procedures taking place during transitional justice process, including testimonies made by survivors of torture and sexual violence, including those testifying for the first time, must account for their mental health and psychosocial support needs of these individuals and their families. As Aljizawi notes, “If we really want to talk about a transitional justice approach, this approach should be about the victims. We should think about how to make it about the victims, care for the victims, and take their hand and support them in the process of healing. Access to justice is not the only approach or outcomes these victims are expecting. They also need to be supported through this journey psychologically, as well as through psychosocial support provided by their families and their hosting communities.”
Justice actors also have an incentive to guarantee protection and provide psychological support for survivors of crimes throughout the transitional justice process. The court in Koblenz provides witnesses with a psychological trial assistant, who accompanies the witness during proceedings, providing them with information about the judicial process, familiarizes them with the courtroom, and provides any other support the witness may need. However, there has only been one instance where a witness has taken advantage of this, likely because of lack of awareness of this kind of support. Moreover, many witnesses who had been slated to testify during the Koblenz trial backed out, likely as a result of lack of protection and support from the court.
Efforts toward justice require a comprehensive approach. Bellintani points out that those working toward justice in the Syrian context have focused their work on criminal prosecutions and, while these will be beneficial, they represent only one element of what should make up transitional justice efforts. Aljizawi concludes that transitional justice requires support for survivors and individuals testifying in these trials on behalf of generations of Syrians. She emphasizes the need for a community that stands behind survivors and one that advocates for survivors participating in trials within the host community, as well as programs and expertise in place to support Syrians with their mental health. Only then can further steps be taken to restore some semblance of justice for and among Syrians.