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Inside the Alaa M. Trial #53: Al-Bunni's Methods Questioned

Inside the Alaa M. Trial #53: Al-Bunni's Methods Questioned

Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany

Trial Monitoring Summary #53

Hearing Date: August 8, 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 53th trial monitoring report details day 89 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany. This day marked the last session of P19’s questioning. At the beginning of the session, documents belonging to the witness were displayed in court and translated into German. This day was mainly dedicated to the Defense Team’s questioning but included questions from the Judges. The Defense Team's questions focused on the incidents that the witness had previously spoken about in an interview conducted with him by Al-Bunni's Center and in his in-court testimony. The Defense Team concentrated most of their questions on finding out about the nature of the communication between the witness and Anwar Al-Bunni. After that, the witness took screenshots of the conversations between him and Al-Bunni and voluntarily provided them to the Judges. The Accused seemed upset, which showed in his hand movements and shaking his head. The Presiding Judge acknowledged that the Accused was under pressure, however, reprimanded Al-Agi for making similar gestures and demanded that he refrain from doing such acts. Later, the Presiding Judge asked two people in the audience, including the trial monitor, if they were connected to Anwar Al-Bunni. At the end of the session, the Presiding Judge dismissed the witness, announcing the end of his questioning.


Day 89 – August 8, 2023

This trial day marked the last questioning session of P19. Before the witness entered the courtroom, the Presiding Judge started the session by displaying several documents in Arabic that P19 previously submitted to the Court and dated back to the time of his detention. The documents were translated into German by the Court's linguistic expert. After the examination of these documents was completed, Presiding Judge Koller asked the Defense Team to announce the question before asking it when it included a quotation from the witness’s statements, so that the Judges could refer to the minutes of the relevant session and ensure that the quotation was correct and accurate before allowing it.

After P19 entered the courtroom, the Defense Team started its questioning. Counsel Al-Agi took the lead and as he was asking his first question, the Judges stopped him and indicated that they had just notified the Defense Counsel not to raise questions that included quotations before consulting the Judges. After discussing what Al-Agi wanted to quote, Koller requested him to ask a direct question. [Throughout the session, this occurred several times. After discussing the selected quotes, the Judges sometimes allowed and sometimes disallowed the questions.] The Defense Team asked about details of people or incidents that P19 mentioned in his in-court testimony or previous statement during his interview. P19 clarified any ambiguities.

Most of the Defense Team's questioning revolved around the communication between P19 and Anwar Al-Bunni. Defense Counsel Bonn recalled that P19 mentioned earlier that he contacted Al-Bunni initially, and on another occasion, P19 contacted him once again and started the conversation by asking, “Have you forgotten me?” Bonn wanted to know what P19 meant by that. P19 said he called Al-Bunni who asked him if he was willing to testify, and when P19 affirmed, Al-Bunni told P19 that he should wait for the police questioning. After a year passed, P19 contacted Al-Bunni again, introduced himself, and then asked Al-Bunni, “Have you forgotten me?” Bonn wanted to know how Al-Bunni reacted when P19 asked him about this. P19 said that Al-Bunni told him that did not forget him, he would record his testimony, and the police would then contact him. Bonn wanted to know whether Al-Bunni or the two interviewers shared information with P19 pertaining to the progress of the case. P19 denied this and said that Al-Bunni asked him if he had family in Syria because the relatives of some people had been harassed. That was when P19 stated in court that there were people “here” [in court] leaking information abroad which resulted in the harassment of families in Syria. Bonn concluded his set of questions by noting that at the end of the interview conducted with him by the Al-Bunni’s Center P19 was asked whether he knew people affected and related to the case against M., and whether he could connect them with the Center. P19 replied that he neither knew such people nor connected anyone to the Center.

Defense Counsel Al-Agi proceeded with his questions and started by inquiring about the reason that prompted P19 to contact Anwar Al-Bunni in particular. P19 responded that Al-Bunni is regarded among Syrians as an honest person who defends activists in Syria, in addition to the fact that he was arrested several times. Al-Agi wanted to know when Al-Bunni sent the summary and video recording of the interview to P19. The witness replied that he requested the video recording during the sessions to confirm what he had stated - yet he did not want to alter his statements - and that he had requested the written summary earlier. P19 explained that he found spelling and contextual errors in the summary. Furthermore, the chronological order of some events was different from what he stated during the interview. P19 stressed in court that his statements in the interview were brief and devoid of clarification.

M. appeared to be upset. Judge Adelhoch noted that M. was making hand and head gestures. Presiding Judge Koller noted that he could understand the frustration and the pressure on M., however, the fact that such actions and gestures were made by Al-Agi was unacceptable and Koller ordered Al-Agi to desist. Koller wondered whether P19 could search his mobile phone and tell the Court when Al-Bunni sent the summary and video to him. P19 confirmed and Koller announced a break.

After the break, P19 informed the Judges about the day Al-Bunni called and sent the video to him. Presiding Judge Koller wanted to ascertain whether P19 watched the video on the same day it was sent to him, which P19 confirmed. Koller pointed out that P19 was asked questions in court which he answered, so Koller wanted to know specifically whether P19’s answers were based on what he recalled from his experiences or what he watched in the video that was sent to him. P19 emphasized that his answers reflected his recollection of what he went through. P19 noted that when he watched the video, three sessions of his in-court testimony had already passed in which he stated everything.

Referring back to the contact between P19 and Al-Bunni, Koller wanted to know how it took place, how often, and its content. P19 answered that their contact was on the phone before and after the sessions. P19 added that Al-Bunni would ask him about his health before the sessions and whether he was ready to go to court. Furthermore, Al-Bunni wanted to assure that P19 returned safely to his home afterward. Koller wanted to know whether P19 discussed with Al-Bunni the content of the sessions. P19 denied, indicating that their conversation was brief, and that Al-Bunni did not ask him about the subject in detail, instead, Al-Bunni only recommended P19 to answer the Judges’ questions to the extent required.

P19 added that he believes that people “here” [in court] were telling Al-Bunni about the subject matter. Koller assumed that this means that P19 did not tell Al-Bunni himself about the content of the sessions. P19 responded that he would sometimes tell Al-Bunni, for example, that he became certain of M.’s identity after looking at his face. P19 stressed that the phone calls did not last long. Koller said what perplexed him and could not fathom was why Al-Bunni maintained such a close relationship with P19. P19 justified that he and Al-Bunni speak the same language and that he could not speak to a lawyer or a court, in addition to the fact that Al-Bunni was the one who introduced P19 to the police. Koller wanted to know if Al-Bunni counseled or instructed P19 on what to say in court, which P19 denied.

Koller asked P19 to understand that it is the Court’s duty to investigate the truth and it is important to the Court to know whether the witnesses’ answers were based on their recollections or influenced by someone. Koller expressed his understanding that P19 and Al-Bunni speak the same language, nonetheless, Al-Bunni made a mistake when he communicated with him because Al-Bunni could cause him trouble by influencing him. Even if it was unintentional, the memory could be influenced which would lead the witnesses to recount what was said in his presence and not what they remember. That is how the brain works, according to Koller. Once again, Koller wanted to verify whether P19 based all of his statements on his recollection or if there were certain facts that he did not remember with 100% certainty. P19 confirmed that he experienced and eye-witnessed all the events and names he mentioned, and that what he mentioned to Al-Bunni does not amount to a quarter of what he explained in court. P19 said he had evidence indicating the first contact between him and Al-Bunni and that he could read it to the Judges. Koller announced a short break to discuss with his colleagues.

After the break, Judge Koller asked the witness about the means of communication between him and Al-Bunni. P19 explained that the communication took place via WhatsApp and Facebook in addition to phone calls. Koller asked the witness if he could provide the Court with screenshots of the conversations or give his mobile phone to the police to examine it, however, Koller did not favor the second option because he was sure that the witness needed his mobile phone in his daily life. Koller gave P19 a break to discuss the matter with his attorney. Defense Counsel Endres interjected saying he would like to ensure that screenshots of the phone calls are taken as well so that the history and duration of the calls can be determined. Al-Agi further asked whether the conversations included audio clips. P19 denied having audio recordings between him and Al-Bunni. After counseling with his attorney, P19 informed the Judges that the screenshots were ready.

Nevertheless, Endres was not satisfied with only requesting the screenshots, indicating that the Defense Team does not trust the witness and believes that Al-Bunni had a hand in the matter, and when the role Al-Bunni played with P19 is known, the role he played with other witnesses will be disclosed. Therefore, the Defense Team filed an official request for the witness’s mobile phone to be confiscated and examined. Endres also demanded that their request be officially recorded in the minutes. Both Prosecutors objected to this request, arguing that the phone would not contain information relevant to the trial other than what the witness had voluntarily offered to provide, and that, on the contrary, the phone would contain personal information irrelevant to the case. The Plaintiffs Counsel, Reiger and Bessler as well as the witness’s attorney concurred with the Prosecutors. The Presiding Judge announced a break to discuss the matter with his fellow Judges.

Upon their return from the break, the Presiding Judge announced that the Judges rejected the request put forward by the Defense Team in accordance with Section 244 of the German Code of Criminal Procedure. The Judges reasoned that the mobile phone may contain contacts that should not be disclosed and personal information that is irrelevant to the case, noting that P19 had voluntarily offered to provide the Court with screenshots.

Since the Presiding Judge asked the Defense Team to refrain from raising questions about Al-Bunni and to reserve them until he appears in court, the Defense Counsel followed up with questions about other incidents. Counsel Bonn recalled that P19 stated in the video interview that he later learned of the death of one of his fellow detainees. Bonn then pointed out that the summary of the interview provided additional details about the death circumstances, stating that the detainee died under torture.

Bonn wanted to know how the interview summary included details that were not mentioned in the original interview. P19 responded that what he mentioned in the interview was brief. Presiding Judge Koller intervened and clarified the question, saying that this information was not mentioned in the interview in the first place in order to be included in the summary. Thereby Koller assumed that the information was inserted into the summary later. Koller wanted to know whether P19 told Al-Bunni this information later on the phone or after the interview recording finished. P19 denied knowing how this occurred and suggested that Al-Bunni be asked about it. Koller said that P19 was right and that they would indeed ask Al-Bunni about that.

Meanwhile, M. was seen sulking and whispering to his Counsel, Bonn. It was only a moment before Presiding Judge Koller abruptly suspended the session. Koller stared at the audience and then asked the trial monitor if he was related to Anwar Al-Bunni, which the trial monitor denied. The Presiding Judge asked him who he works with. The trial monitor replied that he works with the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) on a joint project with the Independent News Team (INT). After that, the Presiding Judge asked another spectator if he was connected to Al-Bunni, but the person denied. Koller followed up by asking the person who he worked for. The spectator replied that he attended the sessions for personal interest. Because the person was not accredited by the Court, Koller asked him to cease taking notes. No other members of the public were asked questions.

Referring to the interview that the Al-Bunni’s Center conducted with P19, Defense Counsel Endres recalled that the interviewer told P19, “We will proceed step by step.” Endres wanted to know how P19 understood that phrase. P19 said he understood that the police would contact him first, take his statement, then take him to court, and so on. Endres wanted to know how P19 responded to that statement in the interview. The question was vague and P19 asked for further clarification after he reiterated a general answer. Koller said that P19 explained what he had, and that there was no response in the interview. Endres denied, saying that there was a response at the time as P19 said, “May God provide us with strength.” The parties to the proceedings marveled at Endres's wit. Presiding Judge Koller explained that it was obvious that this response was equivalent to saying "Tschüss [Bye!]" in German. Prosecutor Zabeck added that even she might use a similar expression in German in her daily life. Endres pointed out that the interviewer said that M. would be held accountable in this life and the afterlife. Endres wanted to know how P19 understood that phrase. P19 wondered how he would understand such a phrase other than that the state is the one that can hold everyone accountable, a state ruled by law, not Al-Assad’s farm.

Al-Agi concluded the Defense Team’s questioning with a question about a specific person that P19 did not know, but preceded it with a question about Zaman Al-Wasl’s reports. Al-Agi wanted to know whether P19 found those reports himself or if someone suggested them to him. P19 responded saying that he read the report while browsing the news on Facebook, and that no one showed him the reports, because he is neither paid nor a mercenary, but rather one of the victims who rose from the dead. P19 gave an example that just as Al-Agi is interested in his work and so are the Judges in their work, P19 is also interested in this case. P19 added that he lost the most important things he had such as his job, his relatives, his homeland, all mainly because of mercenaries. Thus, he does not accept anything from anyone in exchange for saying something, but rather makes an honest living.

The Presiding Judge concluded the session by thanking P19 and announcing the end of his questioning in court. Yet, Koller added that he would be summoned again if something changed after Al-Bunni appeared in court and the Judges needed to resummon him. Koller wished P19 and his family good health and solace for the loss of his cousin. Presiding Judge Koller thanked P19 on behalf of the Judges and then dismissed him. After P19 was dismissed, the court interpreter was questioned as a linguistic expert. Koller indicated that the court interpreter made a commentary during the testimony that the meaning of “tomorrow” in Arabic may not necessarily mean the next day. Koller asked the linguistic expert to elaborate. The linguistic expert explained that the word could be used to refer to the future, and said that some Arabs may ask: “Tomorrow, tomorrow? Or tomorrow?”


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