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Syrian Torture Basement Testimonies before the German Judge

Joud Hassan
Palestinian-Syrian Writer and Activist
November 2, 2020
As much as it’s a painful experience for the witnesses, they felt, for the first time, that a judicial apparatus was interested in hearing their statements, their experience, and the violations they were subjected to ... This is the experience of a Syrian journalist, who was also a former detainee, following the trials of two Syrian officers.
It could get confusing for a Syrian journalist, who is also a former detainee, to follow up on the trials of two officers from the pillars of the Syrian regime in Germany, within what has become known as the Koblenz district. Is he covering the scene or a part of it? Jude Hassan fell into this dilemma while conveying to us what he saw that day in court, but he also told us what it felt like to confront his executioner, who was now accused, in the hands of German justice.

The Court’s Model and The Audience’s Roles

I always felt a similarity between a courtroom and a stage, but I did not dare express that, as my awareness of the difference between a theatrical narrative and real events overwhelms me with guilt for even making this comparison between the two places.

On the podium, and at the top of the hall, four women judges and an assistant judge, oversee a room with 110 seats, filled by prosecution teams, lawyers, witnesses, journalists, and activists.

Covid-19 was also present, so those in charge of the trial took a decision to limit the number of attendees to no more than 29. To the right of the hall, behind a glass screen, the two accused were seated, each with his own interpreter and defense lawyer team. The left section of the hall was reserved for public prosecutors. With the exception of the judiciary and the legal body, the rest of the audience occupied only 10 seats, among them journalists who were covering the event for various media outlets.

Patrick Krocker, a lawyer and legal advisor at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, discusses the importance of the event, as it was the first trial conducted by a judicial state apparatus against a former influential person in the Syrian regime, including crimes such as extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence in Syrian prisons. The attorney stated that the court had appointed two defense lawyers for each of them. He added that it was the first time that this amount of evidence was presented, and that it was being dealt with alongside a high degree of judicial accuracy. The court had asked experts and specialized researchers to write studies on the political and security situation in Syria, and on the nature of the relationship between the authority and the citizens, which included some studies dating back to Syrian history up until 1960. Crocker’s assistant, the Syrian human rights defender (Jumana Saif), pointed out that the prosecution office sought to include crimes of sexual and gender-based violence that had been absent so far on the indictment: “It is regrettable that sexual violence was not proven in the first trial of this kind.”

Attendees, Witnesses, Victims:

The audience were the witnesses themselves, which meant that they were also the victims. I thought of the oppressed people who, for the first time, enjoyed a courtroom listening to their testimonies, in a country where the voice of the law is believed to prevail above all other considerations. The attendees were the survivors, the plaintiffs, and the witnesses at the same time, and they were given the opportunity to discover the existence of others who support their cause. Still, the deepest thing that united them was the experiences that they, their friends, or loved ones lived through. The hall was to be attended by the families of the missing, relatives of the detainees, and the mothers of those who were killed killed. I wandered around the hall and felt close to them; I was surrounded by people who had gone through a similar experience, not necessarily in the same time period, but before or after in time, but yet the same experience. They shared with me what I went through, even if the details of each of our stories differed in one way or another.

The Syrian human rights defender (Joumana Seif) expressed the difficulty of the experience that the prosecutors and witnesses are experiencing, saying: “As much as it’s a painful experience for the witnesses, they felt, for the first time, that a judicial apparatus was interested in hearing their statements, their experience, and the violations they were subjected to. At first, many witnesses refused to participate because they had felt hopeless, but now they’re expressing their desire to participate in the prosecution and testimony. They truly believe that it is part of the way to justice. The trial is still open today to include other plaintiffs and other witnesses.” As for the testimonies of women and their participation in the course of the case, Saif said: “At the beginning, the female plaintiffs and witnesses expressed some concerns against partaking, but now we’ve seen an increase in their participation.” The lawyer also spoke about another type of plaintiff and witnesses, those who refused to participate for fear of the fate of their families in Syria.

The Accused:

Last year, the German government arrested the two suspects, and this took place in Berlin and in the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The trial began on April 23, 2020, the first trial of the two former officers from the ruling regime’s intelligence service in Syria, who are suspected of having committed crimes against humanity, torture practices, and sexual assault crimes.

The first accused: Anwar Raslan, 57 years old.

A former colonel in the State Security, he ran the Al-Khatib area security branch in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251”.

The charges: Torturing 4000 detainees in a branch of General Intelligence (Al-Khatib District Security Branch 251) in Damascus. Committing crimes against humanity in the years of 2011 and 2012.

Committing 58 murders.

Committing rape and sexual assaults.

It is reported that this branch witnessed the death of 58 detainees under torture.

Second defendant: Iyad al-Gharib, 43 years old.

The charges: Providing assistance to the first accused in committing his crimes.

Detention of protesters and handing them over to the Security Branch in the Al-Khatib area in the fall of 2011.

30 demonstrators were detained and taken to torture basements.

Practices of torture, beating, kicking, electrocution, sexual and psychological assault, in addition to threats to harm and abuse the family members of the detainee.

The Witness’s Concerns 

Ruham entered the interrogation room, accompanied by her lawyer, her free will and her personal decision to do this. She sat on the chair of her own free will, nothing restraining her vision, without restrictions on the movement of her hands, except for her concern about telling her story, giving her testimony, and demanding her right to sue the defendant Anwar Raslan. All Ruham feared was her neglecting the precise details of her detention experience in the Al-Khatib area security branch years ago. She feared the impact of time aging on her memory, as well as her anxiety about a possible psychological reaction to her trying to retrieve everything she attempted to bury while trying to move on in life. Ruham says: “Since we were raised as kids, we got used to losing our rights, and that no one would stand on our side. You’re afraid, even if you were right, because there is someone stronger than you threatening you, and threatening the lives of everyone you love. After the investigation, I spent a period of time lost, I didn’t know where I was and what had happened. All my memories came back as if they had happened right now, but at the same time there is a sense of victory. This feeling, that he’s in prison, that’s enough to make me feel like I’ve won.”

Anwar Raslan, one of the accused.

Ruham’s memory did not hesitate nor oversee, but rather her testimony brought back strong memories to my mind and senses. An experience from 10 years ago poured into my body and senses, exploding like a torrent, discharging in abundance. I saw myself sitting in the interrogation chair blindfolded, handcuffed, the interrogator moving around me in a circular motion without stopping, questioning me continuously. I lost sense of time. Day after day, during the fourth or fifth interrogation session, I lost count of the sequence of days. There is no importance to these events, just a trivial detail in the midst of current events I suppose.

Evoking Forgotten Pain

Witnesses and victims suffer the most during this type of trial, when they need to recall and narrate in detail the experiences they had struggled over the past few years to forget and overcome. In the court those events must be retrieved accurately and in detail, so it would be a fair and just trial.

Luay entered the investigation room of the German court as a witness. Five months separated these moments from his presence before the judges, and staring at the accused. Many years have passed and several events have occurred since his release from detention, and today he is forced to retrieve everything in meticulous detail and to tell his story in all its merits. That story that he struggled for years to hold back in his memory in an attempt to move on. There is no room for any small details to drown in the bureaucracy of the interrogation, otherwise everything he went through will be questioned, so he must act like a robot; As if retrieving what happened in torture basements was a story of someone who was unknown, with no personality or feelings.

At first, many witnesses refused to participate due to lack of hope. But now they are expressing their desire to participate in the prosecution and testimony. They believed it was part of the way to justice.

Loay spoke about the moment he entered the courtroom, seeing the six judges, the accused sitting behind the glass cage, and the seated attendance at the chairs; “I thought there would be five or six people in the hall, I didn’t expect this.” On the day of investigation, Loay comments: “It was a full day, they asked me, with very exhaustive details, I told her everything, and we had a conversation and they wrote about twenty pages. It’s really difficult to remember. There is no kidding around here, you have to remember everything one hundred percent until the time for court.” He continued, “But when I was a detainee, I was restricted, and my hands and feet were bound, but today the situation was different. They’re the ones in the cage and handcuffed while I’m outside. I don’t know … a strange feeling.”

After what Loay said, I found myself trying to relive his testimony. It was not a memory that attacked me this time; Rather, I decided consciously to picture what he said about the difficulty of recalling your memories, about telling others that: “Your hands are pulled back, and tied well. At that moment, you feel as though your hands could be separated from your body at any moment, and you are forced into blindness, it’s really disturbing. It’s dark, and you are in the most terrifying of places. Your eyes move at a high frequency, as if you are trying to penetrate that piece of cloth around your eyes, to see what’s happening around you, the shape of the room, the security personnel, the jailer, the interrogator.”

Looking at the Executioner to Get to Know Him

The process of identifying the perpetrator relates to a complex, mysterious inner psychological world that links each witness to the criminal himself. How does the victim see her executioner? Is it necessary to recognize him by sight? The fact is, the eyes of the male and female detainees are blurred, and they are always prevented from seeing in the torture basements, but how do they realize who is responsible for their pain? When the judge asked (Loay) to turn towards the accused and confirm their identity, he said: “I did not see them during the interrogation because I was blindfolded the whole time.”

“I Know Them Very Well”

Lina Muhammad entered the courtroom, baffled by the fact that she was truly facing the reality of what was happening, since today she was someone who had the right to demand the trial of her torturers. She sat in front of the judges staring at them, to her right in a small glass room, one body was sitting next to another, looking at her. “I know them very well”, then she looked away from them, took a deep breath, locked it in her chest, as she waited for the trial to begin.

A drawing from the court session of Salam Al Hassan.

Lina Mohammed, a former detainee in the Al-Khatib Branch, was the first woman to appear in public to testify in court. Twenty minutes passed before the witness was asked to enter the courtroom to testify. The attorney opened the door, preceding Lina. Everyone was here, the judges, witnesses, lawyers, the Public Prosecution Office, and the accused. “When they took me to the judicial palace in Syria, it was also a court, but the difference was at the time when I entered the hall, there was a judge sitting at his desk, seven cups of coffee sprawled in front of him, and people coming in and out of the hall. Meaning this was everything but a court, but in this one [in Germany], it was serious.” Lina described the scene as if she had been acting in a huge production. “You have to talk to people who aren’t Syrians, and they should take into account what you have to say, so I picked myself up and went in.”

The judge sits opposite the witness, and addresses her, “Anwar Raslan is sitting on your right among the audience, so can tell us which one he is?” Lina turns towards the accused, seconds separating the movement of her body and the dissolution of her memories of the time she spent in the Al-Khatib branch. She extended her hand straight, unfolding it intensely, as if she were catching him with her palms, stacking her feet downwards, in an attempt to confront her past firmly in her presence… until he smiled at her. The cunning smile of the criminal, his last weak weapon to remind the survivor of the power he had over her. All she could do was respond to him with a steady movement, restraining him with her motion, and confirming his guilt: “Anwar Raslan suddenly came up in my face, like a tape that rewinds in your head right before you die. All the details from back then were suddenly in front of me. I looked at him and told the judge that yes, I knew him.”

But what about me? Would I know my jailer if I met him? The idea of being able to see him with my eyes seemed superficial, and almost perhaps purely legal. I knew him in a deeper way, I knew his hands. He hit my head and face from time to time, placing his hand on my head and the other on my shoulder, and I could feel a thick ring digging into my skull when he was pressing hard, his voice very close to my ear, with my eyes still trying to see what this man looked like. My pupils calmed down, and sank into blackness. Would I know the culprit or not?

The Accused’s Speech

“But I dissented, and not only that, I became an activist in the opposition, supporting peaceful demonstrations, and helped many people get out of detention centers.”

The accused’s speech alternates between two levels that he seems to have accurately identified. The first level would be in what he is trying to provide from information he knows about the structure of the intelligence system. Here, he plays the role of collaborator, useful to the German authorities, as he offers this as leverage to arrive at the second level, which is his attempt to create a coherent story that distracts him from himself whenever the testimonies approach his role, only leaving doubts about their statements.

“I was just an employee in a regime older than me, like the hands that merely execute orders, the intelligence administrative system swallows everything up. The Republican Guard is the one responsible for what follows. More than once, especially at the time of the Al-Hawla demonstrations, I objected to their actions, I even released some detainees without a warrant. From then on, they threatened me, stripping me of all my powers. I turned into a writer of the summaries and notes of the interrogations performed by the interrogators. I would write one report on all the investigations, and I recommended the release of peaceful demonstrators as well as those who did not demonstrate.”

Regarding the defendant’s speech, the bureaucratic system, and the mechanization of torture, the Syrian writer Ammar al-Maamoun says: “There are authoring skills among security personnel related to the leakage of these documents, and ensuring the absence of official evidence of systematic violence, but it is known to a specific group within the system hierarchy, that every document has two meanings; firstly a linguistic one in which words coincide with their meanings, and another hidden one, which those involved in this hierarchy know about, so that the torture appears like a verbal command, which cannot be traced, as there are no documents about it. Here, we understand why the form of the official medical report was placed in the testimony, in a threat to the credibility of the written at the expense of the oral and the audio, at the same time not specifying the responsibility of those who did this accurately, but rather assigning the document to the branch. Also, it’s very well known that the causes of death are always the cessation of the heart and the breathing.”

What is the difference between the paper-based or oral bureaucratic system in which Ruslan served, and the German court system that is running before us based on the authority of papers, documents and the administrative hierarchy?

In Ammar Al-Mamoun’s opinion, the accused Ruslan has experience. In the past in Syria, he was the acrobat of administrative papers, and this skill also gave him strength in dealing with the German court. He talks at length about the Syrian regime’s hierarchical administrative structure, but once the testimonies reach that same structure, he contorts the accusations leveled against him as emotional or incoherent. He has the experience of accuracy, his words frequently employ dates and names that force the testimonies of the accused to not coincide with the actual course of events according to his allegation, employing other witnesses who defected or opposed in an attempt to support his stories.

So, it was all about the experience of dealing with the manipulation of documents and evidence. Still…I’m not thinking of the documents. I’m remembering the feel of my head hitting the ground, unable to move, and my blindfold only exposing to me a long corridor and still feet. I remember standing forever, a period when time stopped, in the cold. I heard two feet approaching me and a voice shouting: “Put your face to the wall.” He lifted me by my hair, then grabbed me by the shoulder and started throwing me against the wall. I heard the cracking of the bones of my nose, and it was more real than any document I possess now.

Whenever I clashed with the information, testimonies, facts, and stories, I looked in the hall for the journalist (Luna Watfah), who was also arrested in the Al-Khatib area security branch. She was the only Syrian journalist to document all of the Koblenz court sessions. She sat in the front seats, directly opposite the judges, taking her notes, staring silently at the witness who was narrating in minute detail the torture he was subjected to at the hands of the Syrian regime’s security personnel; she’d press the pen that would engrave itself firmly on the notebook, pulling her shoulders, writing, and ignoring the fact that her memory of what happened with her was attached to the details of the witnesses’ stories.

Luna listened carefully to the witness’s way of telling his story, speaking calmly with a confident smile. His phrases were clear, as if he was telling a story that had happened to someone else. He is silent from time to time, trying to balance the world he was speaking about in the past, and the world now before him in the courtroom. The more difficult it was, the more silence prevailed in the hall that affected everyone. So, the judge asked for a break. What the witness said seemed to weigh more on her than it did the witness himself, who was forced to reclaim his past. “The whole hall was silent, not just the judges, all silence. The witness’s wife is also crying with those present. He cried too. I can’t describe what happened during this meeting,” Luna commented. She felt that our united memory was more proof than any document would be, for the interaction between my memory and hers was the deepest form of evidence. We didn’t talk about it directly, but I realized that our memory was the evidence that would allow me to complete these trials, testimonies, anecdotes and opposing anecdotes, steadily.

The Testimony That Changed History

With each new witness, I wondered if I became more able to tell my story: “On that day, the cell door opened, and I was dragged with my eyes closed and handcuffed, to the interrogation room. There they called me a foreigner… they told me ‘this isn’t your country, would you like us to throw you on the border?’” The way back to the four corners was long, cold and darker, during which I bumped into other bodies that were cuffed and scattered at the edges of the long corridor, with the intermittent breaths of those behind the doors after their return from the torture sessions. Thousands of peaceful civilians, and many of my friends, were subjected to the same torture.

But it is necessary to testify against this corrupt regime, and reveal their secrets. Testimonies, although exhaustive, tiring, and destructive, can change history. What if all these witnesses had been silent and preferred not to experience the restoration and recall their harsh experiences from the past? A testimony must lead to a new path, like what happened this year on June 4, when the lawyer (Anwar Al-Bunni) gave his first testimony. His testimony lasted nearly six hours, in which he recounted his five years of detention until his release in 2011 and his emigration to Europe. Three months after the first testimony, another testimony appeared on September 16, this time for the lawyer and director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Mazen Darwish, who gave his testimony about his four years of detention between 2011-2015.

My testimony has no legal significance in the current Koblenz trials with the director of security for the Khatib District Branch. However, on today’s date, I am presenting this text, not as a testimony to persuade others or as evidence for the judiciary, but as an attempt to discover what happened with me in the Military Air Force Intelligence branch, so I would be a witness before myself, in a confrontation with my fleeing self from remembrance.

This article was co-edited by Alaa Rashidi.

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