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Inside the Alaa M. Trial #51: It's all Greek to me

Inside the Alaa M. Trial #51: It's all Greek to me

Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany

Trial Monitoring Summary #51

Hearing Date: July 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 51st trial monitoring report details days 85 and 86 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany. On this trial day, the police officer who conducted the questioning with P18 was summoned. He explained to the Court that the police found the witness because he was mentioned in an exhibit confiscated from the Accused. The officer told the Judges that the police questioning lasted for 10 hours. Although the witness was offered small breaks, water, and snacks, a questioning at this length is exhausting. When asked to recount what the witness stated during the police questioning, the officer was unable to recall most of the details. When confronted with the transcript to refresh his memory, he confirmed the content.

On the next trial day, the interpreter who was present at P1’s asylum interview in the country of his first reception provided her testimony by video call. The witness had no memories of the interview and could not recall any details. After that, a linguistic expert appeared in court to read and evaluate the German translation of that interview’s transcript. However, the linguistic expert disappointed the Judges since he came to the session unprepared, and his translation was full of errors that angered the Judges.


Day 85 – July 25, 2023

On this trial day, Mr. Kesel, a 24-year-old BKA investigator who conducted the questioning with P18 appeared before the Court and was asked to provide the details of the questioning. First, the Judges wanted to know how he prepared for the hearing. Mr. Kesel explained that the questioning took place in May 2021, therefore he read the transcript again since he was unable to recall all of the details. Despite the preparation, in several instances, Mr. Kesel did not remember what P18 had said during the questioning and was confronted with the respective section from the transcript to refresh his memory.

The Judges then wanted to know how the BKA found the witness. The police officer recalled that P18’s name appeared in one of the exhibits which was confiscated from the Defendant. After confirming that the witness was a former colleague and worked in Homs in the relevant period, the Prosecutor authorized the questioning.

Subsequently, the Judges asked the BKA officer to elaborate on the circumstances of the questioning. Mr. Kesel explained that the questioning was scheduled for 9:00AM but that the witness did not appear. After a phone call, it turned out that P18 missed the appointment, but agreed to appear as soon as possible. P18 arrived at the police office at around 10:00AM, the questioning started at 10:20AM and lasted 10 hours including the re-translation of the transcript. The BKA officer assured that the witness was offered small breaks, water, and snacks. Nonetheless, a questioning of this length is challenging and exhausting. Considering a longer lunch break or splitting the questioning into two shorter days would have certainly been helpful for the witness and is supported by international standards on witness questioning.

Kesel further recalled that the witness and the interpreter were able to communicate well, but the witness's German was so advanced that he could correct errors directly. According to the police officer, the witness also corrected the transcript himself during the re-translation, but only minor changes were made. After a break, upon questioning by the Judges, the officer had to clarify that the interpreter noted the changes.

The Judges then went through the transcript and asked for the details of the statements. Among other points, the questions concerned how P18 met M., the general circumstances of P18’s work in the hospital and his departure from Syria. The Judges were further interested in P18’s recollection of the beginning of the mistreatment of patients generally as well as the concrete incidents related to M. Throughout the testimony, Kesel either confirmed the transcript's content or was unable to recall the details. When confronted with the respective section, he acknowledged that it must be correct as it was noted.

After the Judges' questioning, neither the Attorney General nor the Plaintiff Counsel had questions. For the Defense Team, only Counsel Al-Agi asked one question related to the timeline of two events, namely if M. had bragged about the fact that he had invented a new torture method before or after a meeting with the department head took place. However, the BKA officer was unable to answer it. The witness was dismissed, and the proceedings adjourned.

Day 86 – July 27, 2023

On this day, the interpreter who was present during P1's asylum interview testified in court. The witness gave her testimony by video call from Greece. A camera was set up in the Courtroom to transmit the scene inside it, including the Judges, the parties to the proceedings, as well as the Accused. An interpreter appeared in the courtroom to translate between Greek and German.  Presiding Judge Koller started the questioning by asking about personal information. Then he wanted to know when the witness started working as an interpreter. The witness replied that she worked in the field of translation for approximately twenty years but resigned two years ago due to health reasons. The Presiding Judge asked her if she still remembered the interview with P1. She denied, adding that she sometimes forgets to take her medication. Koller tried to refresh her memory by providing keywords and recounting some of the incidents that P1 mentioned in his asylum interview. He kept trying again and again, but his efforts were in vain.

In his ensuing questioning, Judge Rhode asked a few questions and the witness responded that she was born and lived in Iraq until she came to Greece in 1993. Upon questioning, she explained that her mother tongue was Arabic, which she speaks without using a specific dialect, and that she did not learn Greek in school, but rather through her daily life. Presiding Judge Koller thanked the witness before dismissing her.

[Note: The witness was elderly and appeared fatigued as she leaned on a cane. She did not seem to speak Greek fluently, which was pointed out by the interpreter in the courtroom. However, the Presiding Judge told the interpreter that he would ask him about this later when he is to return as a linguistic expert. Although the official court interpreter, who had been translating between Arabic and German during previous sessions, was present in the courtroom, and despite the fact that he was summoned for this session specifically to translate the witness’s testimony - as the Court was aware that she spoke Arabic, the Presiding Judge preferred to proceed with the translation of her statements into German from Greek instead of Arabic, despite the fact that the witness’s Greek was poor. In addition, the veracity of P1’s claim that the interpreter’s dialect was not understandable could not be tested in court as she only spoke in Greek. If she were asked to testify in Arabic, the official court interpreter would have been able to refute or confirm this claim, and it would have been possible to hear whether she spoke standard Arabic without a dialect or whether she used a certain dialect. The official court interpreter was dismissed after dismissing the witness without benefiting from his linguistic expertise, as he sat trapped in the bench until he was dismissed.]

After a short break, the interpreter, who translated the witness’s testimony from Greek to German, was questioned as a linguistic expert. Judge Koller referred to the expert’s comment on the witness's language during her testimony and asked for elaboration. The linguistic expert said that the Greek language spoken by the witness was grammatically poor. He added that the witness tended to use simple terms and did not understand specialized terms he used. He concluded that the witness’s Greek was “limited.”

Subsequently, the Judges displayed the transcript of the interview conducted with P1 in its original Greek language and asked the linguistic expert to read the German translation that had been sent to him and he examined earlier. [The transcript was translated by a certified translation office, and the Court sent the translation to the linguistic expert for review.] The linguistic expert seemed distracted and paused frequently during the translation to rearrange the transcript’s papers in front of him, because he lost the paragraph he was supposed to read. The Presiding Judge noticed this and offered him a neat copy. Nonetheless, the linguistic expert's errors continued. He sometimes missed translating words and mistranslated others. For example, the linguistic expert kept translating the possessive pronoun as “I recognized the doctor from my treatment” instead of “I recognized the doctor from his treatment.” The Judge drew his attention to the matter in a lengthy discussion and issued a break. However, even after he was given a clearer copy which the expert acknowledged, he mistranslated once again. The Presiding Judge became angry and wondered how a linguistic expert would come to the session without prior preparation and thereby wasting the Court’s time. The linguistic expert said that he had a reason, but he could not reveal it in public. Thus, he was given permission to approach the Judges’ bench and confided it to them. After the break, Presiding Judge Koller asked the linguistic expert if everything was fine, and he confirmed. However, back to square one! The expert continued his careless translation. In his final assessment, the linguistic expert concluded that the translation was done well and that he only disagreed with a single sentence. After the interview’s transcript was fully introduced, the Presiding Judge adjourned the session.


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