November 16, 2023
WASHINGTON D.C.— French magistrates from the Specialized Unit for Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes of the Paris Judicial Court have issued arrest warrants for Syrian President Bashar al Assad as well as three other senior regime officials for their complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity in a criminal investigation resulting from the chemical attacks in Douma and the district of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013 which took the lives of over a 1,400 people and left thousands injured.
While heads of state generally enjoy immunity from prosecution, this can sometimes be waived in the face of serious violations of international law.
The case was filed by survivors with the help of Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). The case was supported by the Syrian Archive, Open Society Justice Initiative, Civil Rights Defenders, members of the Association of the Victims of Chemical Weapons (AVCW), and legal experts including Stephen Rapp, a member of SETF Board of Trustees, and the former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes. Mazen Darwish, lawyer and founder of SCM affirmed that these are the first warrants to have been issued over the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta.
Syria joined the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2013 but the investigative team at the OPCW has repeatedly found the state to be in violation of their obligations. In addition, the United Nations also found evidence of the use of sarin gas on civilians in the attacks.
The French judiciary recognizes these attacks as part of a pattern of deliberate, widespread and systematic attacks against civilians in areas held by opposition forces. Thus the warrants target individuals with direct culpability in the attacks. Bashar al Assad through his role as President, his brother Maher al Assad as head of the fourth armored division, Ghassam Abbas as director of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), the agency that established Syria’s chemical weapons programme, and Bassam al-Hassan as chief of security and liaison officer. The four individuals can be arrested and brought to France for questioning by the investigative judges.
Alaa Makhzoumi, a survivor of the chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta hopes that “all countries will contribute to the implementation of the decision by arresting Assad if they have the opportunity”.
This decision comes at an opportune time for the international community to bar Bashar Al Assad from attending the COP28 summit in the UAE due to his regime’s consistent use of bombardment against civilian populations which comes at a great cost to the environment.