Jan 13, 2022 - World

Assad regime officer sentenced to life in prison for Syria war crimes

Campaigner holds picture of Syrian war victims

Yasmen Almashan, a Syrian human rights campaigner, holds a photo of victims of the Assad regime outside a German courthouse. Photo: Bernd Lauter/AFP via Getty Images

A German court has sentenced a former Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for crimes against humanity, making him the first person criminally convicted over the Assad regime's torture program.

Why it matters: Anwar Raslan, who fled Syria in 2012, was accused of overseeing a detention center that tortured over 4,000 people during the first year of Syrian unrest that eventually devolved into a devastating, decade-long civil war.

  • He is the first member of the Assad regime to stand trial for war crimes in a foreign criminal court, which was made possible by Germany's application of "universal jurisdiction" for certain egregious crimes.
  • Human rights activists say Raslan's conviction is a watershed moment that could spur other European courts to pursue action against alleged war criminals associated with the Assad government or other regimes not party to the International Criminal Court.

Background: Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled their country during the civil war, Raslan claimed asylum in Germany in 2014.

  • He joined the exiled Syrian opposition and lived peacefully in Germany until authorities uncovered his role in the Al-Khatib torture facility in Damascus.
  • After Raslan's arrest in 2019, dozens of Syrian survivors came forward to testify against him during the extraordinary trial in Koblenz, a city in western Germany.
  • Prosecutors said at least 58 people were killed under Raslan's watch. He denied the charges.

The big picture: Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power more than 10 years after the uprising began, propped up by his allies in Russia and Iran.

  • The regime remains under tough international sanctions, but several Arab states have begun the process of normalizing relations with Syria in recognition that Assad is here to stay.
  • This week, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees wrote to President Biden raising "urgent" concerns about his Syria policy — including what they called his "tacit approval" of the Arab world's push for normalization.

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