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A review of Universal Jurisdiction for Syria in 2023

A review of Universal Jurisdiction for Syria in 2023

Even before SJAC began monitoring the daily proceedings of key Syrian trials, it has comprehensively surveyed the justice landscape to compile the most complete set of data on Universal Jurisdiction trials related to and impacting Syrian victims. Some of these trials, such as the trial of Anwar Raslan and Alaa M. have reached a general audience and obtained a level of international notoriety. Other cases go underreported.  SJAC has documented over 300 domestic Universal Jurisdiction cases involving crimes committed by multiple sides since the start of the conflict. In 2023, SJAC recorded, updated, and mapped 52 UJ cases with recorded activity. From Australia to Kosovo and beyond, individuals, government officials, and multinational corporations were tried this year in relation to crimes committed in Syria. While findings in SJAC’s previous analysis of 250 UJ cases remain consistent, it is valuable to analyze key developments and highlights in Universal Jurisdiction for Syria in the past year.

The 52 cases added to SJAC’s UJ map in 2023 show similar trends to previous years, with males making up the majority of accused suspects in Syria-related UJ prosecutions. States have begun to address the persistent issue of so called ‘ISIS widows’ returned to their countries of origin. As a result, in some instances this year, more females than males were charged with the core international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In Germany, a female ISIS member Nadine K. was convicted for terrorism, war crimes, as well as multiple charges of crimes against humanity, and genocide, for her crimes in Syria against a Yazidi woman. For these crimes, Nadine K. was sentenced to 9 years and three months of imprisonment. Notably, this was the only recorded case in 2023 in which the accused was convicted of genocide charges. A similar case in the Netherlands entered the pre-trial phase last year. Female ISIS member Hasna Aarab will be tried for membership in a foreign terrorist organization and crimes against humanity for enslaving a Yazidi woman. Aarab was among twelve women repatriated from Al-Hol and other ISIS refugee camps by the Netherlands in 2023. However, despite similar circumstances to the Nadine K. case, Dutch prosecutors have yet to announce whether they intend to pursue charges of genocide against Aarab. This is the first time Dutch prosecutors have brought a case for crimes against humanity committed against Yazidis.

ISIS and other Salafist-Islamist terror groups continued to make up the vast majority of Universal Jurisdiction prosecutions in 2023. This corresponds to the landmark case in France and the United States against French cement manufacturer Lafarge, which was ordered to pay over $700 million USD in fines by the US Justice Department for paying groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusrah bribes to continue operation of their cement plant in Northern Syria. Recently, Lafarge's appeal to dismiss charges of complicity in crimes against humanity was rejected by a French court. Another emblematic case was the indictment of New York City resident Victoria Jacobs AKA Bakhrom Talipov, who is charged with providing over $5,000 USD to Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) as well as laundering an additional $10,000 USD for the group using Bitcoin. This marked one of the first cases in which the use of cryptocurrency used to finance a terror group, was prosecuted.

Finally, SJAC recorded seven UJ cases prosecuting Syrian government members and associated organizations such as pro-government militias (Shabiha). This included the issuing of arrest warrants by both Switzerland and France for high ranking members of government including those in the Assad family. In Switzerland, an arrest warrant was issued for Rifaat Al-Assad (Paternal uncle to Bashar Al-Assad) for his role in orchestrating the 1982 Hama massacre. Rifaat fled France to Syria in 2021 after years in exile to avoid prosecution in France and is unlikely to leave Syria before his death. A trial court in France also issued arrest warrants for members of the Assad family this year, including President Bashar Al-Assad himself as well as his brother Maher for war crimes and crimes against humanity linked to chemical weapon attacks on civilians. While both cases are important, , the issuance of arrest warrants by states for top officials in Syria is likely symbolic as it at least controversial whether it is consistent with international law for Switzerland or France  to apprehend members of the Assad family travelling outside of Syria.

In general, it was low-level fighters for the Syrian government who were brought to justice in 2023 rather than those who gave the orders. This was the case in Germany, where a Berlin court sentenced Moafak D. to life imprisonment for firing a grenade launcher into a crowd of civilians in Yarmouk refugee camp in 2014. Moafak was a member of a Palestinian pro-government militia, likely the Free Palestine Movement, and was commander of a checkpoint overseeing the distribution of food aid when he fired a grenade into a crowd of civilians killing four and injuring two others. Similarly, in the Netherlands, a member of Liwa Al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigade), a different pro-government Palestinian militia named Mustafa A, was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity for arresting two people who he turned over to Syrian Air Force Intelligence. The two arrested individuals were subsequently beaten and tortured in prison.

The past year has seen notable successes and continued challenges for Universal Jurisdiction cases related to Syria. While the number of countries repatriating former terrorist fighters (FTFs) and their families is still low, efforts in 2023 made by countries in Europe such as the Netherlands are commendable. A key challenge in establishing justice for crimes committed by ISIS has been establishing the responsibility of guilt for the wives of ISIS fighters, convictions such as those levied against Nadine K. set an important precedent for future cases. Prosecution of those accused of funding terrorist groups in Syria became even more difficult and varied as cryptocurrency continues to be adopted across the globe, providing further means of funding to sanctioned groups and near anonymity to donors. The symbolic issuing of arrest warrants for high-ranking Syrian government officials contrasts with instances where individuals were held accountable for their direct involvement in crimes. Despite progress, the complexity of UJ efforts underscores the ongoing challenge of holding top officials responsible for orchestrating atrocities.


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