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A Tortoise File

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

First published
Monday 7 February 2022

Last updated
Sunday 6 February 2022

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