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Unforgotten: Syria’s war crimes | How the chief of a notorious Damascus torture unit was put on trial thousands of miles away, in a German courtroom

Unforgotten: Syria’s war crimes

Unforgotten: Syria’s war crimes

How the chief of a notorious Damascus torture unit was put on trial thousands of miles away, in a German courtroom

Why this story?

It is estimated that 88,000 civilians in Syria have been killed by torture in government-run prisons. A decade into the brutal war forged by Bashar al-Assad’s regime against his own people, the testimonies of brave survivors and whistleblowers have provided a glimpse of what goes on inside these notorious sites.

The Caesar photographs, smuggled out of the country by a military photographer, documented the deaths of thousands of people, their lifeless bodies evidence of the brutality unleashed against detainees. Across the country, documented use of chemical weapons – corroborated by the UN and the OPCW – have killed civilians in towns such as Douma, Khan Skaykhun; the deadliest, in Ghouta, with the use of sarin gas. More than 100,000 families are stuck in a cycle of torture, with loved ones forcibly disappeared. And internationally? A catastrophic failure to hold Assad’s regime to account. UN Security Council resolutions have been ignored. Syria’s neighbours have begun restoring diplomatic and trade links. So the question of justice for Syria feels academic. And yet, in Germany, a commitment by an ambitious chief federal prosecutor with history weighing on his shoulders, may be sending an important signal: that crimes against humanity will not go unpunished in Germany’s courts. Basia Cummings, editor 


Transcript

Basia Cummings, narrating: Koblenz is a small town in west Germany. It’s a place where a lot of river cruises stop off, the kind that you see advertised on daytime TV, I guess you would say, targeted at retirees.

By a strange quirk, I actually found myself living there for six months a few years ago. And I can say first hand that not much happens there. The pace is slow. Tourists come and go. 

The thing that is special about it – and it’s in the name, which comes from the word ‘confluence’ – is that it’s where the Rhine and the Mosel rivers meet, flowing into each other at a single point, before joining up for their final stretch to the North Sea. 

And it’s here, inside a rather unassuming redbrick courthouse next to Straße der Menschenrechte – the street of human rights – that a historic trial has been running for nearly two years, with teams of lawyers, victims, legal observers and five German judges.

A case examining the gravest of charges – crimes against humanity. And against a man, a Syrian, called Anwar R. 

Balkees Jarrah: There is no doubt that the people are starved, were beaten, were tortured.

Whitney-Martina Nosakhare: This place was truly a place of horror. 

Wafa Ali Mustafa: I do nothing else in my life, but seek an answer for this question: is my dad alive?

Basia Cummings, narrating: I’m Basia Cummings, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast.

In this episode: the German people vs Anwar R.

***

Sound of a driving car and traffic whooshing by

Basia Cummings, narrating: We’re in Syria’s capital: Damascus. 

On a busy street, Baghdad Street in the al-Khatib neighbourhood, sits Branch 251. 

Behind its exterior walls are two buildings, separated by a courtyard. 

Downstairs in the basement is the prison – the cells and most of the interrogation rooms. Men and women are held separately, but everywhere there is squalor.

This is a place of torture. 

Since well before the revolution in Syria began in 2011, when peaceful protesters took to the streets to demand change as part of the Arab Spring, Branch 251 has been a tool of the Syrian regime to inflict pain.

And it’s not unique. 

Branch 251 is part of an industrial-scale network of interrogation facilities – sometimes described as black holes: places where civilians are taken and disappear.

Basia and Wafa exchange greetings

Wafa Ali Mustafa: So my name is Wafa Ali Mustafa. I’m a Syrian journalist and activist. I’ve been in Berlin, Germany, for the past almost six years.

Basia Cummings, narrating: At first glance, Wafa appears to live a fairly normal life. She’s in her early 30s. She shares a flat with two housemates in Berlin. Her bedroom wall is covered with photos of things and people that she loves.

But one face features more than others. 

Pictures of a man in his 50s. 

Wafa Ali Mustafa: I mean, my dad has always been a very caring dad in his own way. My dad was quite strict, I would say. He doesn’t show his emotions in a very expressive way. But I would say that we had a special relationship.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Wafa’s dad is an outspoken critic of Bashar al-Assad – the president of Syria. 

He dreams of a free country. He dreams of Assad being ousted – like Hosni Mubarak was in Egypt. He welcomed the revolution in 2011.

Wafa Ali Mustafa: Everyone knew my dad. He got arrested even before the revolution. He was also detained at the beginning of the revolution. So it was quite difficult for him to move around. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: Wafa grew up with her dad, her mum and her two sisters in a place called Masyaf, an ancient city in northwest Syria. It’s a pretty striking place. A huge medieval fortress looms over it. And it was once used as a location in the video game Assassin’s Creed.

When the revolution started… 

Sound of chanting

…The Syrian government responded to the protests with absolute violence. 

Sound of gunfire

By June 2012, Syria was officially in a state of civil war. 

People like Wafa’s dad – who were known to criticise Assad’s government – they were now in grave danger. 

In a hotel room in Berlin, where I went to meet her, she sort of levitated off the sofa when she talked about him, almost physically lifted by her memories of him. 

As we talked we propped up an A4 sized picture of him she’d brought with her against a water bottle – so he was present. 

She told me that when the protests began, to her surprise, her parents let her join. 

Wafa Ali Mustafa: Many people wanted to go to protests and stuff, but their parents wouldn’t let them. Then my friends, I remember a couple of people asked me: “How come your father and mother don’t even tell you that you should not [protest].” People were getting killed, obviously. So there is a valid reason. And I remember, I asked once: “Don’t you love me? Aren’t you scared for me? Something would happen [and] I might get arrested or killed?” And I remember clearly, he said: “Of course I do, but this doesn’t mean I will allow myself to tell you that you should not do that. But if you do it, you take responsibility and you are fully aware of the consequences. You might get arrested, you might get killed.”

Basia Cummings, narrating: The thing about Masyaf is that it’s really tiny. Just 22,000 people live there. 

And so Ali Mustafa thought it would be safer for him to hide in the noise of Damascus. But also he could be of more use there. 

For a time, Wafa and her dad were living together in an apartment. Just the two of them. 

Wafa Ali Mustafa: He was different. The one thing that I kept and I keep thinking about is how crazy the fact is that someone could actually like love and live life to its limits – but, at the same time, be very willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in. And I knew and I know that heroes are like this. Heroes I read about in books, in novels and we see in films. To me my dad is the live example of this.

My dad was 20 – just 20 – [when] he left Syria to Lebanon to fight the war of the Israeli occupation in Lebanon in 1982. This is not like a far history and this is not something that happened to someone else. This is my father.

Basia Cummings, narrating: The thing is, when I interviewed Wafa, I thought that she would be one person amongst many who could help me understand the connection between Branch 251 and a German courtroom – and I thought that this was a very courtroom drama about the very principles of human rights, and justice. 

But when I spent time with her, and I think you can hear it when she speaks, that all shifted. To speak to Wafa is to be hit by a force that is as impressive as it is utterly painful. 

I realised, of course, that the story that I need to tell you is not about a hunt for a war criminal – though we’ll get to that. It is at its core, about love, between a father and his daughter – and about how that love took Wafa to Koblenz, to sit outside a courtroom near Straße der Menschenrechte, holding a picture of him. 

***

By the summer of 2013, the revolution in Syria was two years old. The world knew about the killing of protesters. About torture. About mass suppression. 

That year the UN confirmed the worst chemical attack in a quarter of a century, by the regime, using sarin gas. 

And that summer the UK prime minister at the time, David Cameron, narrowly lost a vote that would have taken military action against Bashar al-Assad. 

The vote in the UK parliament left President Barack Obama isolated and without support. Assad had stepped over Obama’s red line in using deadly chemicals to attack civilians – and yet nothing happened.

Wafa, meanwhile, was 23. And she was struggling. A good friend of hers had been killed in a bombing, and she collapsed. Mentally, physically, she just shut down. 

Wafa Ali Mustafa: You know at that point I refused to engage in any form of life.

Her dad was looking after her. Literally, feeding her, taking her to the toilet, she said.

Wafa Ali Mustafa: my dad had to walk me to the bathroom.

Caring for her in the most basic, most intimate way a parent can care for their child. 

After a few months, he pleaded with her to go to Lebanon with him. So that they could say goodbye to her younger sister, who was travelling to the US for a workshop.

Wafa Ali Mustafa: I remember that he said: “This is the first and the last time I’ll ask you for anything. Just come with us. You don’t have to go out, you don’t have to see anyone. Let’s just spend this one day together. And then tomorrow we’ll come back to Syria.” So I remember even in the car, I refused to look from the window – and I just felt very sad. And in these situations, any form of action feels like a betrayal for those who died.

We actually spent not even a day [there]. It was less, and then the next day my sister went to the US and we came back. And we took this picture – actually my sister took it – and you should see me. I look very sad and very tired.

I think we came back and it was the point when my dad said: “Okay, I just cannot see you like this anymore. I want you to do one thing: I want you to go to Masyaf, my hometown, and see a doctor. And I will only let you come back to Damascus if you see a doctor, because it has been three months and that’s enough. So I said okay. I went with my younger sister to Masyaf.

And like a day or two later, my dad called my mom and said: “We’ve been separated for a couple of months. Why don’t you come to Damascus? We [can] spend some time together alone.” Obviously my dad convinced her. I remember we – my sisters and I – were telling people that my mom was going to Damascus to have this new honeymoon and everything. And this is something my dad didn’t fully appreciate. And he was, like: “Stop it.” 

And my mom prepared my dad his favourite food and his clothes and everything. And she went there and on the way, like 15 minutes before she arrived, she called my dad. And she said, I need 15 [minutes] to be there and I need you to come downstairs to help me with what I have.

And he told her that everything was perfect. He cleaned the house and he’s just waiting for her. And 15 minutes later, my mom called my dad and he didn’t respond. And then she called me and said: “Can you call him on the landline?” So I did and he didn’t respond.

And I think there was a moment of silence where both of us realised that it happened. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: A neighbour, who knew Wafa’s mother, who recognised her standing on the street, came outside.

Wafa Ali Mustafa: And then my neighbour saw my mom and asked her: “Are you waiting for your husband?” And my mom said yes. And then she said: “Just a bit earlier a group of armed men attacked your place. And they went downstairs with your husband and another person. That other person was my dad’s best friend.

Basia Cummings, narrating: On 2 July 2013, aged 51, Ali Mustafa disappeared.

He was taken with his best friend, a man who later, Wafa learned, had been killed in one of Syria’s detention centres.

Wafa Ali Mustafa: Unfortunately Hassam’s family was told a couple of years earlier that he died. Obviously that meant that he was killed under torture in a security branch, but we did not hear from my dad.

Basia Cummings: How many days is it now?

Wafa Ali Mustafa: Today is 3135.

Basia Cummings: 3135…

Wafa Ali Mustafa: So that makes eight years, six months and 29 days. 

Basia Cummings: Today?

Wafa Ali Mustafa: Today.

Basia Cummings, narrating: The Assad family has run Syria for decades. 

Before Bashar, it was Hafez al-Assad, and it was under his three-decade rule that the Syrian regime really developed a taste for detention centres. 

This is Anwar al-Bunni…

Anwar al-Bunni: Yeah, for sure, I’m Anwar al-Bunni, Syrian lawyer from Syria…

Basia Cummings, narrating: He’s a Syrian human rights lawyer. 

And on a Zoom call from Germany, he speaks with energy and force, and he’s casually puffing on a vape that’s sending this thick grey smoke across the screen. 

And he’s telling us about his life, through a translator, how back in the 1980s he helped build the now notorious Saydnaya prison, initially meant to be a humane jail.

This is one of the world’s most notorious prisons. There are almost no pictures of its exterior and none from inside.

Amnesty International video on Saydnaya prison

Basia Cummings, narrating: And his brothers, it turns out, were some of its first residents. In fact his family have spent, collectively, more than 70 years in prison. 

Anwar himself accounts for five of those years.

His stint started in 2006, when his work against the regime – representing people as a human rights lawyer – caught up with him. 

Anwar al-Bunni: I was kidnapped off the street, like what happens in Chicago. I was leaving my house to get in my car that was parked on the side of the road. Suddenly, a rushing car stopped at me, its doors were opened, and two people got out.

Basia Cummings, narrating: He was forced into a car, and driven away. Just like in the Hollywood movies, he says. 

Anwar al-Bunni: I was shouting: “Who are you? What happened? Where are you taking me?” And I heard a voice from the front seat saying: “You don’t know what you did? You are a murderer, a predator and a rapist. You are about to see what will happen to you. You criminal.” I continued yelling: “I didn’t do anything.” After that, I started thinking: “Where is the car going?” When we entered the building, they locked me in a cell, and only then did they remove my blindfold.

Basia Cummings, narrating: He was taken to a room. 

Anwar al-Bunni: A voice asked: “Tell me, what is the problem with human rights in Syria?” I answered him saying: “The human rights situation is excellent. And there’s no clearer proof than me standing before you today in this situation.”

Basia Cummings, narrating: Anwar al-Bunni had been arrested by a man called Anwar Raslan.

A man who became the chief interrogator at Branch 251. Colonel Anwar Raslan. 

***

Following the uprising in 2011, things deteriorated rapidly in Syria. 

Beyond Branch 251, beyond Damascus, the regime was obliterating the country. 

Ismail al-Abdullah: Many times I was close to death. I experienced people suffering, people bleeding. I saw a lot of kids without heads. I saw children without arms, legs, elbows.

This is Ismail, who works for the White Helmets, an organisation helping civilians caught in the civil war. He’s currently in northwest Syria. 

Ismail al-Bunni: This incident took place in 2014, when a chopper dropped a barrel bomb on a crowded street, which was the main road to get out of Aleppo city. People were crowded trying to escape, flee, from Aleppo. When the barrel bomb hit the road, when I arrived, I saw that situation – a mother trying to hold her baby to protect him. And they were burned completely. 

This picture is still haunting me now after maybe eight years or seven years.

Basia Cummings, narrating: An official (and low) estimate suggests 350,000 civilians have been killed by the Syrian regime.

More than six and a half million Syrians have fled the country. 

And Anwar al-Bunni is one of them.

He knew it was only a matter of time before the Syrian police tracked him, caught him and detained him… So he escaped in 2014. 

Anwar al-Bunni: It is a matter of life and death. The situation involves killing. Nobody gets into prison and leaves it alive. Right then, I decided that I should leave the country.

Basia Cummings, narrating: He kicked into action straight away, making sure his family got out of the country first…. 

Anwar al-Bunni: I had to send off my wife and kids before me. They would have taken them hostages, if I left first.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Only once they were safely out he changed his appearance, put in blue contact lenses, dyed his hair blonde and jumped in a car with his friend to go to a meeting point. Not for the first time, his story sounds like the stuff of films. 

Anwar al-Bunni: I took an identity to cross the borders, from Sham to the Lebanese borders. There are about six checkpoints. I travelled with a friend of mine and her husband; she was driving.

Basia Cummings, narrating: They left at six in the early evening, with the sunlight fading.

He allowed the smugglers to think he was a military defector – if they knew they were smuggling a famous human rights lawyer, the price would have been higher. 

Anwar al-Bunni: Of course, he took a lot of money; he just didn’t know who he was smuggling. In this situation, $2000 would be enough. If he had known it was Anwar al-Bunni he would have turned me in for $10000.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Once in Beirut, he was able to get a visa to fly to Germany. 

And by the end of 2014, Anwar al-Bunni was one of around 120,000 Syrians living in Germany.

The following year, Angela Merkel made her now famous speech… with three, utterly transformative words: Wir schaffen das. 

Angela Merkel speaking in German

Basia Cummings, narrating: The German chancellor was opening the door. An act of domestic policy that would arguably reshape the German political landscape, and come to define Merkel’s chancellorship. 

And it’s where these three crucial people to our story:

Anwar al-Bunni…

Anwar al-Bunni speaking in Arabic

…Wafa Ali Mustafa… 

Wafa Ali Mustafa: The group [I was working with] was able to come to Germany under some kind of protection.

…and Colonel Anwar Raslan, regime interrogator, torturer… converge. 

Figuratively, but also literally, on the streets of Berlin.  

Anwar al-Bunni: I left my apartment heading for the outside gate of the complex. On my way, I met someone with his wife. I knew the person, but I couldn’t remember who he was. My wife was with me; I told her I knew the guy. I didn’t remember who he was – it seemed like a familiar face.

Basia Cummings, narrating: In 2012, Anwar Raslan had left Branch 251, defected from the regime, and joined the opposition. 

And like thousands of others, he went to Germany and claimed political asylum. 

Now, thousands of miles away from their first, brutal encounter, Anwar al-Bunni found himself living in a refugee complex on the outskirts of Berlin, alongside his former interrogator.

Anwar al-Bunni: Two weeks later, I was with some friends of ours who knew who arrested me. Right then, I remembered that person I saw. It was Anwar Raslan.

It is not a personal matter to me; he is not my rival, not my enemy. There are many people like him in the system. Many people like him have hurt people. He wasn’t my enemy, or else half of the Syrian people would be my enemies.

Basia Cummings, narrating: It’s a remarkable moment. But Anwar al-Bunni didn’t do anything about it at the time. He didn’t go to the police. Something else happened. 

Anwar al-Bunni: He went to the police, and he told them everything. Police were astonished as to why he was there. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: Anwar Raslan feared he was being followed. 

He believed that Syrian intelligence was on his tail.

And so he went to the police himself. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: And when they began looking into Anwar Raslan’s story, they began to come across victims of his.

And in 2019, Anwar Raslan was arrested by German police. Germany has a special war crimes unit, tasked with chasing these kinds of cases. 

German prosecutors contacted Anwar al-Bunni – he was to be the trusted link to Syrian witnesses, those who would be willing to testify against Anwar Raslan.

And you might think: well, why? 

Why does the German state care? 

These were not crimes committed on German soil, against German nationals. 

Well, it turns out, the German state really did care. 

And German federal prosecutors really did care. 

They cared so much that they decided to put Anwar Raslan on trial. 

In a historic case –  the first anywhere in the world prosecuting a senior Syrian regime figure for crimes against humanity. 

***

Philippe Sands: I’m Philippe Sands. I teach international law at University College, London, and I am a barrister at Matrix Chambers. I’ve done many cases about crimes against humanity and genocide across the world. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: It’s the principle of universal jurisdiction underpins the case against Anwar Raslan. 

It allows a domestic court – in this case, a German one – to try someone for crimes that have happened in a different country. It’s based on the idea that some crimes are just too serious to be left to national governments alone.

And there is, of course, some historical symmetry here. 

Because universal jurisdiction is an idea that really took hold in the aftermath of the Second World War. After the darkest period in modern European history. 

Philippe Sands: By the early part of the 20th century it had already begun to be established as a basis for the idea that certain human actions were so egregious and horrendous that the courts of any country in the world could in principle exercise their jurisdiction – criminal, but perhaps also civil – over actions of that kind. 

So by the time of 1945, and in the years that followed, universal jurisdiction was extended to war crimes in certain contexts, that’s to say, crimes committed in the context of war and armed conflict, to crimes against humanity (the destruction of individuals) and the crime of genocide.

Basia Cummings, narrating: At the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Nazi war criminals were pursued as part of a military tribunal.

“Are you telling the tribunal on your oath that you knew nothing about the effect of military pressure on Austria?”

“I wish to stress again that I knew nothing about military measures and that if I had known something…”

Question and answer from Nuremberg trials

Claus Kress: When international criminal justice entered the international legal scene, Germany was not a driving actor… Germany was the accused.

Basia Cummings, narrating: This is Claus Kress, a distinguished law professor at the University of Cologne.

Claus Kress: German crimes were the subject matter. When the actual breakthrough happened in Nuremberg, it was of course a trial dealing with those unprecedented horrific crimes committed in the name of Germany.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Nuremberg laid the foundations. 

It took another 50 years for the principle to become enshrined in international law. And Philippe Sands, as a young lawyer in his 30s, was at the heart of it. 

Philippe Sands: If you look at the statute of the International Criminal Court and read the preamble, you will find a line in it, which expresses the view that it is the duty of every state to investigate acts that amount to international criminality. I actually drafted that line with my friend and colleague Andrew Clapham. We drafted the preamble in Rome in 1998. 

No one changed in a line of what we wrote. It all passed. I don’t think it reflects well on the rigour of the international legislative system that a couple of teenagers from London and Geneva can engage in such activity and change the world.

Basia Cummings, narrating: That preamble formed part of what is called the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It set the legal parameters for universal jurisdiction. 

In Germany, Claus went about putting Philippe Sands’s line into practice.

Claus Kress spent a year and a half seeking to enshrine this principle within German law. The draft code then went to the Bundestag…

Claus Kress: It was spectacular to see that the German parliament by unanimity adopted this code. One important parliamentarian rose during the debate and said: “Well, we had a number of controversies on a number of issues, but not on this one. On Germany’s contribution to the establishment of a global system, trying to deal with the issue of impunity, there is a consensus in this house.” And that, of course, was a wonderful basis to start from.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Dr Peter Frank, Germany’s current chief prosecutor, told Philippe Sands in a rare interview a few years ago that it is precisely because of Germany’s history that it should be setting precedent in the pursuit of war criminals. 

But it’s one thing to try someone.

It’s another thing to build a case strong enough to convict them.

***

It’s 23 April 2020. In Europe the first wave of Covid has hit.

In Koblenz in western Germany, where the two rivers meet, a man steps into a courtroom kitted out already in perspex panels – and German justice tries to rule on Syrian injustice.

It’s a disarmingly sunny, warm day for April. And because of the pandemic, just a few people are allowed inside. The trial gets started at 10am.

Whitney-Martina Nosakhare: So my name is Whitney-Martina Nosakhare, and I’m an assistant counsel with the International Justice programme at Human Rights Watch. The programme has been monitoring the trial at Koblenz from the beginning.

Basia Cummings, narrating: One of the people who attended the trial in the later hearings, when it moved to the higher regional court, was Whitney-Martina… 

Whitney-Martina Nosakhare: Something that really struck me was that on the left side of the courtroom you can see two words on the wall, fiat justitia, which is Latin for “do justice” or “justice should be done”.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Whitney was watching Anwar Raslan. 

From photographs, he appears thin, with a thick grey moustache and a distinctive birthmark under his left eye. 

Whitney told me that he rarely showed emotion. He was calm. He took notes, looked around, he watched the public gallery. 

And about a month into the trial, Wafa arrives. 

She travels from Berlin to Koblenz, because she knows this is an important moment. 

All this time, she has been waiting. Obsessed, by her own admission, with trying to find her dad, who remains lost somewhere between life and death… Stuck in her own cycle of torture. 

She doesn’t know if he has been inside Branch 251, but it’s likely he’s being held – or been held – somewhere like it. 

I’m battling with my tenses here, because I don’t know which one to use. Wafa talks about her dad Ali in the present tense, so I will too. 

She goes to the courtroom, she told me, because she wants, simply, for her dad to be a part of it. 

Wafa Ali Mustafa: I wanted to go there to give my dad the chance to be part of the moment. And, as I said, I do things and it makes me feel better.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Inside the courtroom, in a room which used to be a library and is still lined with books, evidence of torture, of mass killings, of sexual violence, rape, electrocution is all being pored over. It’s being tested and cross-examined by prosecutors. 

Human Rights Watch shared extensive trial notes with me, that have been taken by lawyers at the legal firm Clifford Chance. 

And I lot of it, I have to say, I found almost unreadable. I can’t imagine what it was like in court, filled with survivors, listening to it.

I was able to read that on day 41 of the hearings Markus Rothschild, an esteemed forensic expert who examined mass graves in Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 90s, gave evidence. 

He was there to give a Powerpoint presentation, presenting his analysis of the Caesar files – 53,000 photographs, taken by a military photographer codenamed Caesar, that had been smuggled out of Syria in 2014.

These images, showing the “systematic killing” of an estimated 11,000 detainees, were shown to the court. Detainees some of whom had been through Branch 251. 

It revealed a scale of violence that I could not comprehend. 

And Anwar al-Bunni also gave evidence. 

Anwar al-Bunni: I stayed for two days testifying about the whole security system. I told them everything. Everything we have talked about here is a part of the testimony. They know that this branch arrested me and that Anwar Raslan is the one who did it. The prosecutor called through ECCHR and took my testimony. He also asked me about other victims of the branch. I know them because I defended them when they were in prison. I was their lawyer.

Basia Cummings, narrating: There were moments of absurdity, too. 

In one document, it reads: “The day is taken up by the testimony of a single witness referred to as Witness Z. In order to conceal his identity he is wearing a wig and a fake beard. The attendees seemed to be shocked that someone in such danger would have such an unprofessional disguise.”

I couldn’t get an answer on why a fake beard made an appearance, but… it did. 

***

Wafa, meanwhile, had been sitting outside the courtroom for some of the days of the trial. 

And she was finding the whole experience deeply complicated. 

On the one hand, she was pleased. This was a man, who was being held accountable for his crimes. Nine of his victims were joint plaintiffs in the case – and they could see their torturer in the dock. 

On the other hand, it was an intensely uncomfortable experience. She feared she was losing sight of her dad. That he was becoming just an abstract part of an abstract crime, that was too big to remember the individuals within it. When she speaks, she returns again and again to a feeling of dislocation; of unreality.

Wafa Ali Mustafa: I just realised that I saw this bigger picture of what they call ‘Syria’s disappeared’. And somehow [it was] as if they all become one picture. They were not individuals anymore. They just formed a bigger, more painful picture. And it felt like my dad wasn’t my dad anymore. He just become part of this far, very painful picture.

Basia Cummings, narrating: After 110 gruelling days in court, the judges reach a verdict. 

It’s 13 January 2022. 

There’s a queue outside the courtroom since 3am. 

There is a video that’s taken from inside the room, just before the verdict is handed down. And the room is packed. Anwar Raslan arrives in a green padded coat. He confers with his lawyers. 

Noise from inside the court

Basia Cummings, narrating: Finally, the presiding judge announces: “The following verdict is handed down in the name of the people: The defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity in the form of killing, torture, serious deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault in combination with murder in 27 cases, dangerous bodily harm in 25 cases, particularly serious rape, sexual assault in two cases, deprivation of liberty lasting more than one week in 14 cases, taking of hostages in two cases and sexual abuse of prisoners in three cases.”

And the trial notes say: “The Syrians outside the courtroom expressed satisfaction with the verdict, but the reaction was very subdued. It seemed clear to all that, in context, this was a very small step. They all looked simply exhausted.”

In Europe, the case, I would say, may modest headlines.

“The former officer Anwar Raslan was accused of overseeing a detention centre where prosecutors said at least 4000 people were tortured and nearly 60 were killed. He was sentenced to life in prison.”

American news clip

Basia Cummings, narrating: In Syria, it mattered. 

I asked Ismail, of the White Helmets, about the reaction back home.

Ismail al-Abdullah: This was one of the good news [stories] for all the Syrians, even for me, even for the families in the whole regime-controlled areas. Everyone Syrian family was happy at the news that Anwar Raslan was found guilty for killing and torturing people. All the people talked about.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Anwar Raslan has appealed the verdict. 

But already, in Frankfurt, another trial is underway against a Syrian doctor who faces 18 charges of torture – and one of murder by lethal injection.

And last year, an Iraqi member of the Islamic State was found guilty of genocide in a Frankfurt court. Lawyers proved, among other crimes, that the man had enslaved a five year old in 2015, chaining her up and leaving her to die of thirst. It is the first conviction for genocide against the Yazidis. 

And so Germany is sending a clear message: we are going to pursue crimes against humanity. 

There are more cases coming, lawyers told me. 

But is this justice? 

I couldn’t help but hear Wafa’s fury. These cases are individual, and specific. 

There is a divergence, it seems, between holding one or two or ten men accountable… and justice. 

And it’s a question I put to Philippe Sands.

Philippe Sands: For me accountability defines a process whereby a particular individual is subject to some sort of process to determine their responsibility for having been involved in a particular act. 

Justice is a much broader concept. It’s a legal concept. It’s a philosophical concept. It’s a moral concept. It’s a political concept. It means all things to all people. Accountability is part of any system of justice.

In the sense of determining the question: “Has justice been done?” Justice may have been done in the case of one individual, but there remained hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands or more of others who have not been caught by a formalised system of justice – and hence justice in the round remains not done. But in one case there has been accountability and emblematically that is important, I think. I think it is very important to victims. It is understandably not going to be enough to deal with the census of grievance and hurt and pain and horror, but it’s the beginning and it’s better than nothing.

Basia Cummings, narrating: These concepts, he said, are fluid.

Philippe Sands: I think life is not binary. It’s not either or. Justice and accountability are sort of like rivers that flow into and out of each other.

Basia Cummings, narrating: When he said this, I thought: right that’s it. Justice and accountability, two rivers, meeting.. in a case held in Koblenz, at the confluence of two rivers – where the enormity of the war crimes in Syria have been distilled into the actions of one man, who has been held to account. 

But it’s not time to celebrate. 

And Wafa, in that hotel room in Berlin with me, articulated this with real fury.  

Wafa Ali Mustafa: I was very disappointed, especially on the day of the verdict, because of the amount of celebration, and I understand where it comes from, but there are still hundreds of thousands inside detention centres, and there are still millions of Syrians like me waiting for an answer. The trial is very important, but if it’s not used politically to stop the massacre in Syria, then what is the point? 

And that was my question on the day of the verdict. I had high hopes at the beginning of the trial that it will definitely push Syria’s case on a political level a step forward. That did not happen. Two years, two years, nothing has changed. We have not seen any updates or changes about the way the international community has been addressing Syria. I mean nothing.

I’m really angry because am I expected just to accept it? Am I that naive? Do they expect me to just give up on my dad’s right to saved, for this crazy celebration of what they call justice? This is not justice for Syria. This is just a first step. We’re not even close to justice. To be honest, I find it very condescending. Like how dare you say that this is justice.

We are achieving justice for Syrians.” No, you are not. And I doubt that there is a single Syrian who sees this as the justice. It’s a step, obviously. It’s an attempt, obviously. Is it enough? No. What is missing a lot is missing.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Her torture continues. And to be honest, it left me speechless.

Wafa Ali Mustafa: And in my case we paid more than you can imagine for lawyers, for people from the regime, for people who said they have connections with people from the regime… it came to the point where they started coming to us to say: “We know you have someone in the regime’s prisons. And we can get you information if you give us this and this and this.” And the point is that you can never say no. In many cases, we knew that they were lying, but you can never say no. Guilt will just eat you up. You cannot.

And it’s crazy. This is something that’s not talked about. Even like logistically, financially, it’s draining. I know people who sold their houses to pay for someone to get them information. And it’s even worse because you don’t get the truth. They don’t tell you the truth. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: After our interview finished, Wafa and I said our goodbyes. It had been a long interview, intense, and she had places to be. 

And a few minutes after she’d gone, I realised she’d left her A4 picture of her dad. 

So I texted her and said: “Wafa, you left the picture. Can I find you and maybe return it to you tomorrow?”

She replied that, if I wanted, I could keep it. 

I replied to her: “I’ll keep it, and while I’m writing the podcast I’ll keep it beside me. 

And that’s what I did. 

Ali Mustafa will turn 60 this year, and remains missing.

More than 100,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared. 

Bashar al-Assad remains in power. 

Syria has fallen out of the headlines. 

Wafa remains searching for her beloved dad. 

Justice for Syria remains far away. 

***

This episode was written and reported by me, Basia Cummings, and my colleague Xavier Greenwood. It was produced by Matt Russell, with sound design by Tom Burchell. 

It was made with the support of Balkees Jarrah and Mei Fong and Human Rights Watch. And special thanks to Joumana Seif from ECCHR who was incredibly generous with her time. To read more about Human Rights Watch’s work on international justice, go to hrw.org.