The Koblenz Trial

On January 13, 2022, the world’s first criminal trial over torture in Syria’s prisons ended with a guilty verdict and life sentence for a former Syrian intelligence officer. The ruling came in a German case against Anwar Raslan, who was accused of more than 30 counts of murder, 4,000 counts of torture and charges of sexual assault from when he oversaw a notorious prison in Damascus in 2011 and 2012. The landmark trial marked the first time a high-ranking former Syrian official faced Syrians in open court in a war crimes case.

The groundbreaking trial was based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, according to which national courts can prosecute individuals responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture (regardless of where they happened and of the nationality of victims and perpetrators) on the grounds that it is in the interest of humanity as a whole to do so.

The process in Koblenz began with documentation. Our team, in coordination with our network on the ground was able to work with the military police photographer, code name Caesar, to document almost 55,000 photographs of torture victims in addition to many documents of command responsibility. We also identified victims’ families and survivors that were willing to pursue legal efforts to hold perpetrators accountable. In addition to what our team was able to directly document, we also worked with multiple partners within our network including the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) and others to further strengthen our cases. Germany was identified by our legal team, led by Ambassador Stephen Rapp, former US War Crimes Ambassador-at-large, as a potential country that has the ability to use universal jurisdiction in prosecuting the perpetrators we identified during our documentation efforts.

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