The Higher Regional Court of Koblenz has recently denied yet another request to allow for audio recordings of the Koblenz Trial. By that, it maintains its attitude to refuse the documentation and preservation of the trial through the production of original documents.
Criminal trials are not generally recorded in Germany, however, German law allows for audio recordings for scientific and historic purposes of trials that are of paramount significance. Based on that provision, SJAC and several other international human rights organizations and academics requested that the Court may allow for the audio recording of the trial at least three times, but the Court has rejected all the requests.
Since the Court first argued it predominantly fears the possible effects that recording might have on witnesses and thus the undisturbed course of the trial (a concern that can at least not be ruled out, see e.g. TR #20 where P21 detailed being intimidated by journalists, and TR#46 [forthcoming] detailing witnesses’ reasons to decline testifying in court), the recent request was aimed at recording the final stages of the trial following the conclusion of the hearing of evidence, namely the final statements and the announcement of the verdict. The petitioners stressed the outstanding historical significance of the trial for the development of international law, for the reappraisal of state-organized injustice and the transitional process into a post-conflict Syrian society.
Being the first trial ever to cover state-executed torture in Syrian prisons, the Koblenz Trial is unquestionably of outstanding importance to the international community and the Syrian society in particular – even the Court acknowledges that in its recent decision. In order to fulfill its role as a significant measure of transitional justice for Syria, the proceedings would, however, have to be visible to the public and information on it openly accessible.
Public access to and media coverage of the trial have faced obstacles from its very beginning. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, seats in the public gallery had to be reduced drastically. Even though Syrian society is most affected by the crimes subject to the trial, the Koblenz Court has granted only severely limited access to Arabic-language interpretation, making it difficult to follow the trial difficult for many in the public gallery. This despite a successful challenge to the German Constitutional Court which required an interim measure that interpretation be provided to Syrian journalists at least (a full decision remains pending). Original records of the trial would produce an additional way to access the trial for a wider public and also for future analysis. All international tribunals have acknowledged the importance of preserving trials through the production of original recordings to assist (future) transitional justice processes and social and historical reappraisal.
The trial before the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz has now lasted for one and a half years. The duration alone shows how laborious and resource-consuming the investigation into the system of Syrian state-torture is. Now, once again, the Court has denied the production of audio recordings that would have served to preserve the proceedings and its findings, which would have also increased the trial’s outreach and impact.
The Court based its recent decision (which is not publicly available) on the argument that the trial – although generally historical – is not of significant importance to the Federal Republic of Germany itself, which the Court upholds is a requirement for admissibility of recording a trial in a German court. However dissatisfactory and unconvincing, the Court’s decision on this matter cannot be appealed (§ 169 (4) StPO). Future trials in Germany should do more to increase public knowledge and transparency. Considerable effort and expense have gone into investigating and prosecuting these trials. It would be a significant loss if the knowledge gained, and justice administered were limited to the four walls of the courthouse when the broader German public as well as the international community, including Syrians could enjoy substantial benefits merely by cracking open the door.