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Inside the Alaa M. Trial #45: Witness Intimidation

Inside the Alaa M. Trial #45: Witness Intimidation

Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany

Trial Monitoring Summary #45

Hearing Date: June 1, 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 45th trial monitoring report details day 75 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany. On this trial day, a witness who is a former colleague of the Accused and worked with him in Homs Military Hospital appeared in court. The Judges started the session by asking about the work in Homs Military Hospital, then proceeded to ask about the incidents in which doctors mistreated detained patients. The Judges stopped the session after observing some hesitation on the part of the witness. The Presiding Judge then informed the parties about a suspicious leak of information by one of the parties to the proceedings. When the Presiding Judge inquired about the matter, the witness confirmed that he received threats. After a statement by the Presiding Judge asserting the Court’s obligation to investigate the truth and an attempt to reassure the witness, the Judges resumed their questioning. They inquired about incidents in which detained patients were mistreated, particularizing incidents pertaining to the Accused and the mistreatment he allegedly committed.

[NOTE: SJAC impartially reports on the content of the proceedings and usually gives the full account of each witness as long as it is respecting the integrity of the trial. Several witnesses to this trial have received threats and a recent investigation conducted by SJAC has intensified the concern about witness intimidation by the Syrian regime. SJAC therefore decided not to disclose the full testimony in order to protect the witness and his relatives.]


Day 75 – June 1, 2023

On this trial day, witness P18, who is a former colleague of the Accused and worked with him in Homs Military Hospital, appeared in court. At first, the Judges wanted to find out more about the background of work at the hospital at the outset of the events in Syria. P18 explained his working routine in the hospital and how the war affected his work there. The Judges wanted to know if both military personnel and civilians received equal treatment at the hospital. P18 explained that this was generally the case, however, he heard of ‘exceptional cases’, none of which he witnessed. When the Judges inquired about what P18 meant by ‘exceptional cases’, he explained that he had heard about cases of abuse and beatings of patients, most of the individuals who committed them were from the military and nurses. P18 added that the hospital administration did not concur with that and would reprimand anyone it heard that was doing this. When asked by the Judges whether those practices had ceased after the reprimand, P18 replied that he had heard about the matter[1] from the media but had not witnessed it himself.

Based upon hesitation exhibited by the witness, Presiding Judge Koller announced a short break for the Judges to discuss. Upon his return, Koller informed the witness that the Judges had the transcript of his police questioning, in which the witness apparently provided responses that were different from his testimony before the court. The Presiding Judge said that the Judges’ questioning would proceed with quotations from the transcript. The Defense Team objected, arguing that the witness was recounting what he knew at the present time.  Presiding Judge Koller agreed to resume the questioning without quoting - for the time being. Proceeding with their questioning, the Judges continued to ask about the work and shifts in the hospital. P18 clarified these matters and explained that patient abuse occurred either in the Emergency Department or the detention section at the General Surgery Department, nonetheless, he did not see cases that lead to death. The witness described how the unidentified detainees were chained to their beds. P18 enumerated names of some doctors who abused patients, including M., and stressed that he has not been in contact with any of them since he left work in the hospital. The Judges wanted to know how often the abuse occurred. P18 explained that he was not often in the Emergency Department where it took place. The Judges indicated that P18 made different statements during his questioning by the police, from which one would conclude that P18 was there on a daily basis.

The Presiding Judge halted the session, announcing a short break, and asked the parties to approach the Judges' bench for a discussion. He then turned off the microphone and addressed the parties. Afterwards, it became clear that he had not informed anyone that the witness was to be summoned for this day, except for the parties to the case via an email that he sent to them. He added that this information - apparently - had been leaked by someone, and therefore either his email was hacked or one of the parties to the proceedings has leaked the information that found its way to the Syrian Intelligence Services. The Presiding Judge asked the parties to utilize the break to reflect on the matter because he wanted to know who did it. He added that the witness was obligated to tell the truth, otherwise he would be subject to penalties. [The parties dispersed during the break and talked to each other. Defense Counsel Endres asked the Accused if he had spoken to someone about the issue during a call he apparently had the day before yesterday, M. denied].

After the break, Presiding Judge Koller wanted to confirm whether the witness had been threatened, the witness affirmed. Koller asked P18 to tell him what happened. [Note: The following statements are withheld to protect the witness.] Koller wanted to know whether P18 felt that his freedom to provide full statements was restricted, P18 confirmed.

Presiding Judge Koller said this was problematic because the law necessitates the Court to investigate the truth. Judges are obliged to raise questions and the witness is obliged to answer. The German state may provide protection for witnesses and their relatives who reside in its territory. Therefore, the Judges were cautious when they notified the parties to the proceedings about today's session and did not inform anyone publicly. The Judges suspected that one of the parties at the receiving end of the Court’s email had leaked that information. The Judge referred to the Public Prosecution and indicated that they have the authority and responsibility to carry out prosecutions in this regard, in case there is a suspicion of a criminal act. Koller asked P18 to allow him to ask questions even though he knew the difficult situation P18 was going through. Koller recalled similar situations with a former witness, when the Court had to postpone the testimony of a witness for a few weeks because of similar issues. Koller went on to say that the Syrian government seeks recognition by the international community, and some governments have already welcomed Al-Assad. Koller assured that the Court would not acquiesce to the Syrian regime. He added that if someone in Syria was harmed because of P18's statement in the case in Germany, he would raise his voice. The Syrian regime should know that if it attempted to obstruct the work of the Court, it would be brought before the Security Council. Koller concluded by expressing his appreciation for P18's presence in court.

After the statement of the Presiding Judge, the Judges resumed the questioning and asked P18 about incidents he witnessed or heard about in which doctors mistreated detained patients, including the incident in which M. allegedly burned the genital area of a patient. After that, the Judges asked about surgeries that doctors, including M., performed on patients without anesthesia. The Judges asked in detail about the surgery that M. performed, and wanted to know its type, time, place, and who participated in it. Alternating between them, the Judges proceeded from time to time to quote from the transcripts of P18’s police questioning and P15's in-court testimony and compared them with P18’s statements in court.

[1] It seemed that P18 referred here to “the mistreatment” rather than “the reprimand by the hospital administration.”


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