Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany
Trial Monitoring Summary #40
Hearing Dates: April 24 & 25 & 27, 2023
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.
SJAC’s 40th trial monitoring report details days 66, 67, and 68 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany. The first day of this week was dedicated to the translation of a video that provided evidence related to the knowledge of Syrian military leaders of systematic torture. Moreover, the Greek prosecutor rejected a request by the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt to question a Greek judge but acceded to the court’s request to hear the interpreter in a hearing with the authorities. The Frankfurt Prosecutor then filed and read out a motion. It concerned the motion previously filed by the Defense in which it asked the Court to request the asylum files of three witnesses. The Prosecutor argued for the rejection of the Defense’s motion.
On the second day, the witness P15 returned to testify. He was asked to give details about several individuals and classify them as pro- or anti-regime and whether he had any contact with them after they left Syria. The Judges further wanted to know about specific events in which M. was allegedly involved and confronted P15 with previous statements from the IIIM and CIJA transcripts. The Court was also interested in comparing sketches and satellite imagery of the military hospital compound.
Day three of this trial week was dedicated to continuing the questioning of P15. He was again asked to draw and explain several sketches including the basement of the hospital where the surgery department was located as well as the first floor where the general surgery department was located, and where the detained patients were held. The witness was further shown video footage and photographs. P15 was able to identify the Military Hospital with a high degree of certainty. He also identified the head of doctors in a photograph at the martyrs' funeral processions which was affirmed by M. Before the end of the trial day, the witness was asked about the unloading of bodies in the hospital courtyard. This part of the day invoked difficult memories and the witness struggled at times. Before ending the session, P15 could confirm that he witnessed this event and provided details.
Day 66 – April 24, 2023
On this trial day, the Court resumed the proceedings with a short session that was dedicated to three issues. At first, the linguistic expert, P10, was summoned to read out the translation of a video from English to German. The video was published in 2018 by Channel 4 News and detailed an investigation into the knowledge of Syrian Military Intelligence leaders of the torture practice of detainees. The video is available on the website, entitled "Revealed: Syrian military leaders knew detainees were being tortured." The report by Channel 4 evaluated the significance of the documents that were made available to international investigators. These internal communication documents provided evidence showing that the Syrian military leaders knew about every individual that was being tortured in their custody. [Although all parties to the proceedings have knowledge of the English language, the translation into German is a necessary procedural step to introduce the content of the video to the hearing officially.] The parties to the proceedings did not have any questions or comments, and the linguistic expert was dismissed directly after reading out her translation. The translation overall was done accurately. One term, however, was translated incorrectly considering the context. The term “policy” which is a central component of crimes against humanity and was specifically addressed in the video, was translated as “regulation” [German: Richtlinie]. This term is not accurate in the context of the investigation, since it does not reflect the underlying evidentiary questions related to the legal elements.
After P10 was dismissed, Judge Adlhoch read out a file memo. It concerned a response of the Greek prosecutor in Athens to a request of the Court in Frankfurt. The Court intended to summon the judge and interpreter as witnesses who conducted a hearing with P1 in Greece. The Frankfurt Court based its request on the EU directive 2014/41/EU regarding the European Investigation Order in criminal matters. The Greek Office of the Prosecutor rejected the request partially. It stated that the request for the judge would be inadmissible arguing that the directive is incompatible with Greek law concerning organs of the judiciary. The interpreter will be summoned and questioned audio-visually. The date for this is to be determined.
Lastly, the Prosecutor distributed and read out a motion. In the motion, she requested the Court to reject the motion of the Defense to request the asylum interview transcripts of three witnesses. The Prosecutor based her motion on three main arguments. First, the Prosecutor stated that asylum interviews contain sensitive and personal data which exceeds the necessary fact-finding obligation of the Court. According to section 244 (2) German Code of Criminal Procedure, the court ex officio must consider all relevant facts to establish the truth. Yet, the court is not obliged to conduct “excessive fact-finding” [German: überschießende Sachaufklärung]. Introducing the asylum files would exceed the necessary level. Moreover, the Prosecutor argued that the asylum claims include facts distinct from those at question in the trial which means that the relevance of the information is questionable. Even if the asylum files were considered, the Prosecutor continued, any discrepancies that may arise would be of low probative value. Defense Counsel Al-Agi announced that he plans to reply to the motion.
Day 67 – April 25, 2023
On this trial day, the Judges resumed the questioning of the witness P15, M.’s former colleague. P15 was questioned about the individuals that he mentioned in the previous sessions. Among them, is a person the witness characterized as a supporter of the regime but not as one of the “most brutal torturers.” Moreover, the Judges showed P15 a photo array and asked if he could identify the three depicted individuals. P15 accurately identified all three of them, including Alaa M. Upon further questioning, P15 said that he did not see the picture nor the names before. Yet, P15 explained that he was not certain whether the police showed him the same photo array previously. The names were redacted in-court but the same photo array circulated in the media where the names appeared below each photograph.
The witness was further questioned about another individual, who according to P15, was part of the opposition. P15 recounted that this person left Homs for Aleppo and travelled further to Turkey. P15 could not recall a conversation about specific events related to the indictment after they had left Syria. He could only remember that they discussed the investigation by Al-Jazeera before it was conducted and published. Further questioned about another witness to the trial, P12, P15 recalled that P12 was seeking work in Turkey. He recalled that P12 contacted him for assistance but that he could not remember if they met in person. According to P12’s testimony, however, they supposedly met 2-3 times. One meeting allegedly included the third individual. P15 was confronted with P12's testimony which detailed that during this meeting they spoke about the allegations against M. concerning the burning of the genitals of a person. P15 reaffirmed that he could not recall a meeting in person with the two individuals.
Questioned about another person of whom the Judges only know the first name, P15 assumed that it concerned a person who was also working in the military hospital in Homs and gave the full name. P15 characterized him as pro-regime and recalled that he tortured patients. However, P15 explained that this was a general classification, he did not witness it or remember a specific event.
Confronted with a statement given at the IIIM, P15 could not affirm with certainty but estimated that M. had left the hospital in Homs in October or November 2011. P15 stayed in Homs until February 2012. He was further asked to describe M.'s appearance at the time. Again confronted with a previous statement, this time from CIJA, the witness recalled that M. was involved in the “daily routine of mistreatment”, but he did not remember a specific event regarding this claim. The Judges referred to another incident noted in the CIJA transcript. Allegedly, it happened inside the hospital where a patient died and P15 saw three doctors, including M. and one cleaning staff, and noticed the pool of blood. P15 recalled that this happened regularly at the beginning of the unrest, he was not permitted to enter the room, but it became a routine to beat and mistreat the patients arriving in the ER from Ar-Rastan. After several questions, P15 reassured the Judges that he personally saw M. being involved in these procedures at least once. After this statement, the Judges did not ask further questions and issued a break.
The second half of the day was dedicated to locating the different buildings in the hospital compound. First, P15 was asked to draw a sketch and subsequently explained the area based on his draft. Then he was confronted with a sketch he had previously drawn and asked to evaluate whether they aligned or if changes were necessary. P15 made slight changes and comprehensively explained why they deviated. Lastly, the Judges presented satellite imagery to P15 to compare the testimony. P15 had difficulties with this satellite imagery and hesitated at times to give statements. The Court understood that it was difficult to match one's own memory with real satellite imagery. The Judges then asked P15 to correct his own sketch according to the real images if necessary. P15 was able to explain discrepancies that arose between the sketch and the satellite imagery. One image that, according to the Prosecutor, showed a close-up of the ER, was so unfamiliar to P15 that he could not relate to it at all.
After a hostile comment by the Defense, the Presiding Judge requested the Counsel to take a look at the satellite imagery of Frankfurt to understand how irritating it is to see a familiar place from above.
Day 68 – April 27, 2023
On day 68 of the trial, the Judges resumed the questioning of P15. The first part of the day was dedicated to additional sketches. One concerned the basement area where, according to the witness, the surgery department was located. As in the previous session, this sketch was compared to a sketch that the witness drew during the police questioning. P15 corrected small discrepancies that arose mainly due to different scaling. In the previous sketch, one location was marked with an (X). Upon question by the Defense, the witness said that he does not recall what exactly it represented. Judge Rhode confronted him with the fact that the BKA apparently asked him to mark any location where he had seen detainees. P15 clarified that detainees were transferred to the basement for surgeries frequently, but they were not detained there.
The second sketch concerned the first floor of the military hospital - the general surgery department. The Judges asked P15 to draw the entire floor which according to him encompassed several patient rooms, the resident doctor's office, the head of the surgery office, and the room where arrested patients were held. This time he corrected his sketch before his previously drawn sketch was shown to him and both aligned. Upon several questions by the Judges, P15 recalled that the room in which detainees were held may have been filled with up to 6 persons after the unrest started in March 2011 while previously the room was equipped for 3-4 beds.
Subsequently, the Court inspected videos with the witness. The first one was partly known from the media and showed footage that was filmed in secret. It contained clips of detained patients who were blindfolded and locked up by the ankle. The witness said that from all the small details which he was able to identify, everything points to the Military Hospital in Homs. He further based his conclusion on the color of the walls and the blankets on the hospital beds. Plaintiff Counsel Reiger asked the witness if he knew that this was filmed and if yes whether he had information about who had filmed. The Prosecutor was irritated and requested an interruption. After a short pause, Presiding Judge Koller asked all parties to come forward and the parties discussed the matter in private. The Judges then publicly explained to the Defense Counsels that they can certainly raise these questions, but the Court was concerned about security issues for the person who has filmed if he/she was called out. Eventually, P15 did not answer the question, but was able to confirm that there were rumors about it. He recalled that during his employment in the hospital, the information that someone was filming circulated among the staff.
The Prosecutor introduced further videos and one image. The image concerned the martyrs' funeral processions. P15 identified a person in one of the photographs with a high degree of certainty. During this testimony, the Judges noticed that M. started nodding. Upon question, M. confirmed that the person was the head of doctors of the hospital.
In the last part of the day, the Judges questioned P15 about the unloading of bodies in the hospital courtyard after the military invasion of Baba Amr in February 2012. P15 took some time to think before replying. It was visible that he struggled with this memory. He then explained that it was one of the worst events that he had witnessed. Nonetheless, he gave details about the trucks that arrived fully loaded with bodies. P15 recalled that the smell was unbearable. He further remembered that soldiers unloaded the bodies and marked them with notes on their wrists and gave a number to each individual. Upon question by the Judges, P15 explained that he was standing next to other doctors and nurses for 5 - 10 minutes when this occurred to confirm that he had witnessed this in detail. Presiding Judge Koller interrupted after this testimony to end an overall intensive questioning.