12 min read
Inside the Ahmad H. Trial #2: The First Witness’s Unsettling Video Documentation
Higher Regional Court in Hamburg, Germany

Inside the Ahmad H. Trial #2: The First Witness’s Unsettling Video Documentation

Hanseatic Higher Regional Court – Hamburg, Germany

Trial Monitoring Summary #2

Hearing Dates: May 29 & 30, 2024

CAUTION: Some testimony includes descriptions of torture.

Note that this summary is not a verbatim transcript of the trial; it is merely an unofficial summary of the proceedings.

Throughout this summary, [information located in brackets are notes from our trial monitor] and “information placed in quotes are statements made by the witness, judges or counsel.” The names and identifying information of witnesses have been redacted.

[Note: SJAC provides a summary of the proceedings while redacting certain details to protect witness privacy and to preserve the integrity of the trial.]

SJAC’s 2nd trial monitoring report details days 2 and 3 of the trial of Ahmad H. in Hamburg, Germany. On the first day this week a Syrian researcher, the first witness of the trial, was questioned.  The witness was questioned by the Judge on her research strategies and findings. The witness testified to having found several videos depicting brutal killings and torture of Syrian civilians through her research on the Syrian conflict. Four of 27 available videos that were admitted as evidence were watched in court.

On the second day, the witness's questioning and the examination of video evidence continued. Ahmad H. was identified by the witness on one of the videos shown. While the questioning of the witness by the Prosecution took very little time, the Defense interrogated the witness for the rest of the day, questioning her credentials as well as her sources. Due to a new decision of the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH), the witness did not have to reveal her source’s identity. The questioning of the witness by the Defense will continue in the trial process.

Day 2 – May 29, 2024

Today’s trial session took place in a different courtroom, which was much smaller and more modern than the last one. Besides SJAC's trial monitor, two spectators were present in the public gallery.

Like on the first day of the trial [see Trial Report #1], Ahmad H. appeared in prison clothing, which visibly angered Defense Counsel Schaper. It turned out that the box with Ahmad H.'s clothes could not be found by the prison staff. Schaper talked to one of the guards and made it clear to him that this was unacceptable. After the session was opened at 9:00 AM, the Judges explained that the prison was severely understaffed.

Judge Sakuth swore in a new interpreter named Said Belkhayat substituting Adnan Haloui who was present in the previous hearing. Both are certified court interpreters for the Arabic language. Following this, the Defense Counsel filed a motion to suspend today’s and tomorrow’s trial day arguing that the translator Belkhayat spoke “modern standard Arabic”, but the Accused only understood and spoke a Syrian dialect. He claimed these are two different languages and thus, Ahmad H. would not be able to follow the trial. When the Judge asked the Accused whether he could understand the interpreter, Ahmad H. said he spoke an Arabic dialect. The Defense expressed the need for an expert opinion on whether there are communication problems between the interpreter and the Accused.

Moreover, the Defense argued that Ahmad H. was suffering from cancer and health problems and that another expert opinion would be needed to examine whether Ahmad H. was fit to stand for trial. The Counsel stated that Ahmad H. suffers from headaches and from the injections he received as part of his treatment but that the Defense does not actually know the exact type of treatment. He further argued that the doctors responsible for Ahmad H.’s therapy were not communicating with the Defense Counsel at all. Furthermore, the Defense pointed out that the Accused was not provided with his glasses and claimed that he desperately needed them as he normally always wears them. The Defense thus filed a motion to issue a break for Ahmad H. to be taken to the outpatient clinic of the detention center where he is currently being held and has access to an interpreter who the Accused fully understood. The Judges granted this break.


[60 - minutes - break]


During the break, the situation in the courtroom got heated. For unknown reasons, Defense Counsel Schaper got very angry and told one of the Judges to “stop smiling like that, there is nothing to smile about.” In response, the Prosecutor shouted out that this behavior was unacceptable. Counsel Schaper exited the room shouting back that he did not care. Upon return from the break, Ahmad H. was wearing his glasses and had received two pills for his headache.

The Presiding Judge resumed the hearing by issuing two decisions:

1) The Court denied the motion to suspend the trial to find another interpreter. The Judges reasoned that the interpreters have been working with the Court interpreting for witnesses and accused individuals who spoke diverse dialects for several years and there have never been any problems or complaints. The Judge stated that if terminology was unclear, it would be the task of the Accused to ask the interpreter to rephrase.

2) The Court denied the Defense's motion to suspend the trial as a doctor examined Ahmad H. during the break and found that the Accused only suffers from a headache, for which he had now received medicine.

The Defense Counsel replied that this doctor was not an expert and doubted whether he had psychological training. The issue for Ahmad H., the Defense Counsel argued, was psychological stress resulting from the detention conditions and his illness. Ahmad H. himself added that he was suffering from a severe headache and that he was not well today.

Again, the Judge denied any motion for a trial suspension and went on with the questioning of the witness. P5, a Syrian researcher, was represented by an assigned lawyer from Hamburg, Mr. Adrian Alhorn. The Judge explained that P5 is under protection due to her sensitive research and due to fear of retaliation by the Syrian military. She arrived at the courtroom with two security people who accompanied her. According to the Judge, this also meant she did not have to reveal her current address or location. Judge Sakuth stated that being represented by a lawyer was her wish. The Judge started questioning the witness on the thematic of her research and the research strategies. She testified in Arabic which was translated into German by the same interpreter translating for the Accused. She explained how she would get in touch with i) Syrian army personnel, as well as ii) victims of the brutal attacks by the militia, via the Facebook platform and through a fake identity that she created.

During the questioning of the witness, video footage (several videos), which the witness received from a specific, unnamed source became central. The Judge asked the witness if she could identify two people by the names of Amjad Y. أمجد ي and [redacted name] (nickname “[redacted name]”) in any of the videos. The witness affirmed that and stated that [redacted name] died in 2015. Both individuals, she explained, were part of the Shabiha. She was in contact with Amjad Y. during her covert research and presented him with a screenshot and a snippet of the video that was sent to her. According to P5, Amjad Y. was surprised by it and after her research ended, she received threats from him.


[60 - minutes - break]


After the break, the Judge asked if the witness published the videos and she confirmed, but added that it happened by accident on Facebook, Twitter and The Guardian. She also testified that in 2022, she provided the German Federal Police Office (BKA) and the Dutch Federal Police with the videos. The Judge inquired why she sent the videos to the German police, to which she answered that her source had told her that one of the persons in the video was living in Germany.

The Judge asked the witness what she knew about Ahmad H. She recalled that according to a person in video "T" his nickname was “Abu Haider Trucks أبو حيدر تركس” and that he played a role in the massacre. The witness also said that her source identified Ahmad H. in a video but was only certain about the last name. According to the witness, Ahmad H. was not doing anything in the video, only standing there next to another person. The witness's source, however, told her that Ahmad H. often stood at the checkpoint, tortured people, delivered them to a point where they had to undertake forced labor and helped dig the trenches in which individuals were buried.

The Judge read out a few statements made during her police questioning, which detailed that P5’s source redacted some statements he had made in relation to the role of Ahmad H. in “coming up with the idea of the trenches.”

The Judge then warned the trial monitors that five extremely brutal and explicit videos would be shown. He added that trial monitors could stay in the gallery and watch but were not obliged to.

[CAUTION: The following report of the videos contains descriptions of violence and killing, also against children which may be disturbing to some readers.]

Video 1 showed a person in civilian clothing, tied up with his hands behind his back being led blindfolded to a trench, presumably a mass grave. An individual in military clothing brought him to the edge of the trench and told the individual to keep going. The individual in civilian clothing fell on top of other individuals who were already lying in the grave while being shot twice. The video showed how this procedure was repeated with ten other individuals.

Video 2 showed a big fire surrounded by darkness. Something undecipherable was being burned. After the video ended, the Judge read out the description of the video which indicated that dogs were being burned as a sacrifice to the militia’s leader (unclear which) in the video.

Video 3 depicted several dead children lying next to each other. Some had bloodstained faces. The description of the video, as the Judge read it, was “sacrifice for Martyr Youssef”.

Video 4 depicted a naked man kneeling in the dirt with his hands tied behind his head. A man of whom only the hands were seen, cut the individual's throat with a large knife from behind until the man died.

In Video 5 a group of men were filmed smoking cigarettes and shisha. The camera then moved into a room that looked like a prison cell with bars, where two individuals were sitting. A younger and an older man. The group of men came in and sang “happy birthday”, after which the two individuals were slapped in the face multiple times. Both the younger and older man were being beaten, slapped in the face, pushed to the floor. The younger man was thrown against a narrow wall with his legs spread apart.  Both men were pleading for mercy and telling the perpetrators that they do not know anything and do not have anything.

[Note: end of video description. General descriptions of torture and violence might follow.]

After each video Judge Sakuth read out the respective audio tracks. He also asked the witness who she could identify in the videos. Either the voice or the face of Amjad Y. was identified by the witness in every video.

The Judge then announced that the questioning of the witness would continue tomorrow morning at 9 am. The Prosecution stated it had some questions and the Defense Counsel stated the Defense Team had several.

Before the trial was adjourned, the Defense Counsel read out the motion to dismiss the next trial day because the ability of the Accused to stand trial remained unexamined. The Defense argued that the witness hearing seemed more important to the Judge than the constitutional protections of the Accused. This was left uncommented by the Judge before the proceedings were adjourned.

The proceedings were adjourned at 4:00 PM.

The next trial day will be on May 30, 2024, at 9:00 AM.

Day 3 – May 30, 2024

On the third day of the trial, the questioning of P5, continued for the entire session.  Before the Prosecution and the Defense Team started its questioning, two more videos were examined:

Video 6 showed a person driving an excavator, digging up dirt, dumping it over an accumulation of skulls and bones. The witness identified both Amjad Y. and [redacted name] by their appearance and their voices.

Video 7 (video "T") showed a man sitting in and steering an excavator and another man hanging outside of the excavator's door, waving to the person behind the camera. The former was identified by the witness as Amjad Y., while the other person was identified as the Accused, Ahmed H. The Judge read out the audio track of the video, in which a voice says "Abu Haider?" and the other man laughs. According to the sources interviewed by the witness, “Abu Haider Trucks” was Ahmad H.’s nickname. The last word also means an excavator in Arabic, she explained.

After the videos were shown, the Defense requested to read the transcript of the video recordings from the witness’s interviews with Amjad Y. The Judge made it clear to the Defense that it could submit the motion but that the Court would not be able to get that material today. Hence, the questioning for the remainder of the day would be the questioning of the witness, the Judge said.

Then, the Prosecution questioned the witness. The Prosecution wanted to know who had made the video of the massacre public. The witness recalled that it was done by mistake and that her colleague published it without her permission, but that she took full responsibility for it. The Prosecution also wanted to know whether the witness found out why Amjad Y. had murdered the civilians [referring to the massacre of At-Tadamon التضامن]. The witness testified that he had told her he did it out of revenge, for the fact that his brother was killed, but also that he was simply following orders. The Prosecution also asked why the crimes were filmed. The witness answered that it was a sign of demonstrating to the militia leaders that they [the Shabiha militias] were doing their work, thus a type of “work reference”. The witness pointed out that often in the videos you would hear the militia members greeting their leaders and shouting “I kiss your eyes”.

After this relatively short questioning, the Defense took over and questioned the witness until the end of the session. During and after the session, the witness appeared to be fed up and exhausted by the questions [as perceived by the trial monitor]. The Defense Counsel questioned the witness extensively and meticulously on where she had lived, her career history, education, and publications.


[5 - minutes - break]


During the break, the Defense told the Judge that Ahmad H. suffered from water deposits in his legs resulting in swelling and asked if H. could walk around or lie down to put his feet up during the breaks. The Judge consented and offered the Accused that he could sit in the row behind the Defense and put up his legs during the session. The Accused thanked him and did so. [Despite yesterday’s claim that H. urgently required his glasses, he did not wear them at any point today].

After the break, the witness was asked by the Defense to demonstrate where the massacres happened, where the “frontline” was and where the mass graves were located on a digital map. Since this map did not make sense to the witness, she was asked to explain it on a paper map [The demonstration was done close to the Judges’ bench and was hardly understandable for observers in the public gallery.]

Subsequently, the Defense Counsel started reading out phrases translated by the interpreter from yesterday's session, which had no verb and were difficult to understand. The Defense used these examples to argue that the translator was not translating the witness’s testimony correctly and that this would make his translations inadmissible. The Judge wondered why this point was not raised yesterday and made clear that he would not spend time reconstructing things the witness had said in yesterday's session. If things are unclear, the witness would need to be asked to repeat her testimony.

The Defense then asked the witness why Amjad Y. was the only person who had opened up to her about being part of the secret service (Branch 227). The witness was not able to answer that question. The Defense also asked the witness if she knew that many people lied about having been part of the militia for personal advantage at the time. She answered that she did not know this. A back and forth between the Defense and the witness about whether Amjad Y. was part of the militia, or the secret service ensued without leading to clarification.

The Defense also wanted to know names of the interview sources the witness gathered for her research. The witness did not reveal their names and explained that she was obliged to keep their identity hidden. As a response, the Defense claimed that the witness would be required to reveal the names. The Judge argued that according to a recent decision of the German Federal Court of Justice [BGH] regarding legislation on scientific freedom and source protection, she in fact did not have to reveal their identity. The Defense requested a decision by the Judges.


[60 - minutes - break]


After the lunch break the Judge issued a decision that rejected the motion to reveal the witnesses’ identities, specifically due to the recent decision by the German Federal Court of Justice and witness protection legislation.

In response, the Defense referred to Art. 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR], the right to a fair trial, and argued that the present case was a decision on principles and that the concealment of identities of the sources would be a violation. The Defense also filed a motion to acquire a confirmation by the [redacted information] stating that the witness worked there between [redacted time].

The Defense then asked the witness extensively about what her sources had told her about the Accused Ahmad H. Once again, there was a lot of back and forth about the exact phrasing of the sources' statements in relation to Ahmad H. and him working for Amjad Y. The witness recalled that the sources told her that Ahmad and Amjad Y. had a close relationship, that they were friends and always together and that the Accused had worked for the NDF of which Amjad Y. was the leader. She also recounted that the sources had told her that Ahmad H. was also friends with [redacted name]. She further remembered that, according to her sources, Ahmad H. arrested people who were supposed to undertake forced labor. The sources said he took part in the massacre and helped to dig the mass grave. She added that the Accused plundered neighborhoods together with [redacted name], and together they robbed and blackmailed people in At-Tadamon, according to her sources.

After a long day, the Judge stated that the witness questioning will continue, but not exactly when. He also mentioned that the Court planned to hear two other witnesses today, which were canceled because it took too long for the first witness to be questioned. One of the witnesses who had traveled from South Germany was sent home, the other witness was informed before he/she got to Court.

The proceedings were adjourned at 4:00 PM.

The next trial day will be on June 5, 2024, at 9:00 AM.


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