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Inside the Alaa M. Trial #54: To Err Is Human, But to Persist, Diabolical

Inside the Alaa M. Trial #54: To Err Is Human, But to Persist, Diabolical

Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany

Trial Monitoring Summary #54

Hearing Date: September 5 & 7, 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 54th trial monitoring report details days 90 and 91 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany.  On the first trial day, screenshots of conversations between P19 and Anwar Al-Bunni were displayed in court. Additionally, a summary of the interview Al-Bunni’s center conducted with him was translated. Subsequently, the Accused made a statement explaining what contradictions he found between previous statements of some witnesses and their testimonies in court. Lastly part of the interview with P15 conducted by IIIM was shown and translated, however, the rest of the video was postponed to a later session.

On the next trial day, Anwar Al-Bunni appeared as a witness before the Court. He was questioned about the circumstances under which the witness P19 was interviewed by his organization, the Syrian Center for Legal Research and Studies (SCLSR). The Judges and the Defense were interested in the strategy that the SCLSR pursued. Al-Bunni explained that they listened to those who wanted to testify and forwarded interview transcripts to the police and prosecution after having assessed their credibility. The Judges and Defense were irritated that Al-Bunni decided who lied and who did not and firmly criticized that he pre-filtered the witnesses’ statements. They were concerned that Al-Bunni's organization was taking over investigative tasks of the state. The Prosecution rejected this allegation. The Judges and Defense further wanted to know if Al-Bunni had contact with witnesses about the content of the trial or otherwise influenced them, which he denied. He explained that he only spoke about general aspects and published only procedural aspects or reports that were already online. The Presiding Judge decisively told Al-Bunni that his behavior may endanger the integrity of the trial.


Day 90 – September 5, 2023

At the beginning of today's session, screenshots of conversations between P19 and Anwar Al-Bunni that took place via WhatsApp and Facebook were shown in court, the linguistic expert appeared to translate them. The conversations revealed that P19 reminded Al-Bunni that he contacted him a year earlier regarding M.’s case, told him that he was detained, and that Al-Bunni promised to contact him so that he could testify in the case. P19 later asked Al-Bunni to send him the summary and video recording of the interview which Al-Bunni’s Syrian Center for Legal Research and Studies (SCLSR) conducted with him. After that, the phone calls history between P19 and Al-Bunni, which showed the date and duration of the calls, was displayed.

After that, the Accused, M., wanted to make a clarifying statement. He read out his written statement from the paper in front of him. [At the beginning of the session, the statement was copied, and photocopies were distributed to the parties to the proceedings.] M. indicated at the beginning of his statement that following the report by Der Spiegel, his lawyer at the time advised him to collect some evidence, such as those showing the places and times he worked in Syria. M. stressed that at that point, there were no accusations of torture against him by P1 and P4.

Subsequently, M. said that P8 and P11 claimed in their statements to the police that they were detained in the Military Security Branch in October, however, they altered that statement and claimed in court that their detention was in November. M. suggested that the reason for the alteration in their statements was a report, published by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) which was referred to by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, stating that people were detained that month. M. claimed that someone told both witnesses about that report.

After that, M. said that P19 claimed that he met someone during his detention, referring to P8. M. argued that P19 must have obtained information for the internet which he based on the fact that there was confusion about the name of the witness and this was reflected in an online publication.

M. emphasized that he did not laugh at P19 during his testimony, but was merely surprised by a discrepancy between P19’s statement during his interview with the Al-Bunni’s Center pertaining to a certain point and his in-court testimony. M. added that it has been many months since he was arrested and that this is a fateful matter for him. He does not have the desire to laugh as he is in a “heart-bleeding” situation.

M. referred to a document whose content he discussed in a previous session. It allegedly showed that P4 was arrested in Syria for a criminal offense. M. believed that the date of P4’s arrest for that offense is consistent with the date of arrest given by P4 in court. Therefore, M. assumed that P4 altered his account to seem as if it indicates that he was arrested [for being anti-regime.] Nonetheless, M. claimed that this in fact indicates that P4 was arrested for that offense. M. added that P4 testified that he was traveling in two countries neighboring Syria for work, but the records of the Immigration and Passports Administration in Syria indicate that P4’s last entry to one of those two countries preceded the year that P4 stated in court by many years and that P4 never visited the other country. M. urged the Court to contact the governments of those two countries to verify the matter and asked the Judges to add that document to the evidence, since the taking of evidence was still open.

Presiding Judge Koller wanted to know how that document was issued and how the Accused obtained it. Counsel Al-Agi said that M.'s father contacted a lawyer in Syria who obtained that document. Koller asked Al-Agi about the lawyer’s name, but Al-Agi circumvented the answer. M. intervened and mentioned the name of the lawyer. Koller wanted to know how that document was authorized, noting that the Accused provided a copy of an authorized copy, not the original document. M. replied that the Judicial Office or the Public Prosecution Office in Homs was the one who validated/notarized it, noting that he gave a general power of attorney to his father to acquire documents like these. M. noted that he had submitted that document beforehand to the Court, but it was rejected.

After that, the Arabic version of the written summary of the interview conducted by Al-Bunni’s Center with P19 was displayed and translated by the court interpreter.

Lastly, the translation of the video of the interview conducted by the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) with P15 was resumed. P15 was asked who had access to the prison in Homs Military Hospital and about the hierarchy in the hospital administration and its prison. P15 was then asked to describe the general situation in the hospital and how it changed since the outset of the revolution.

Due to personal circumstances of one of the Judges, the video examination was not completed and deferred to a later session. The Presiding Judge adjourned the session.

Day 91 – September 7, 2023

On this trial day, the Presiding Judge Koller welcomed Prosecutor Schrunz, the Senior Federal Prosecutor at the Federal Court of Justice who substituted Prosecutor Zabeck. It was unclear why such a high official was present on this trial day, yet her attendance may have had an influence on the course of the hearing. After this official opening, the witness, Anwar Al-Bunni appeared before the Court. Al-Bunni was summoned because the witness who had testified in the previous sessions, P19, had given details about his first interview which was conducted by Al-Bunni's organization, the Syrian Center for Legal Research and Studies (SCLSR).

[Background note: When P19 appeared before the Court, he informed the Judges that he spoke to Al-Bunni. The organization had interviewed him via Zoom in Arabic and a written summary of this interview was created. This summary was translated to German and forwarded to the Court. Due to a lack of having followed minimum standards, the summary was deemed insufficient to confront the witness with its content. P19 subsequently forwarded the full Zoom recording which was translated to German and read out in court. In the last session with P19, the content was evaluated and P19 confronted with the fact that a detail appeared in the written summary but not in the Zoom recording. P19 did not know how this information was inserted into the summary and told the Judges to inquire Al-Bunni about the matter. Al-Bunni was therefore summoned to clarify the circumstances of the questioning of P19.]

At the beginning of the session, Anwar Al-Bunni was asked to provide details about his personal background and the Syrian Center for Legal Research and Studies where he serves as the director. He explained what the Center’s objective is, and how it is organized and financed. Among other objectives, Al-Bunni mentioned that the SCLSR is seeking justice for the victims of grave violations and crimes. Presiding Judge Koller critically questioned what kind of strategy the Center is following, and he explained that there are commonly two policies non-governmental organizations (NGOs) pursue. Koller explained that the first one was what he called the neutral policy which meant that these NGOs document information and critically question and reflect on it. The second policy, Judge Koller was familiar with, is what he called the partial one which he described as including those NGOs that believe everything a victim says without questioning it. Koller provided an example and said that there are organizations that document sexual violence and abuse of children. These NGOs do not question the testimony of the child victims, they believe everything they are told [note: Judge Koller was most likely referring to the recent turn to adopting a “believe survivors” strategy. It emerged from the MeToo movement and recognizes the prevalence of sexual violence in our culture..].

Against this background, Al-Bunni explained that the SCLSR principally serves the victims, but based on his and his employees’ experience they can detect lies. He added that they conduct thorough research to corroborate the witnesses' testimony and thereby evaluate the truthfulness. Quite irritated, the Presiding Judge asked what the purpose of the documentation of witnesses’ testimonies was. Al-Bunni replied that the purpose is to find out the truth, to seek justice, to seek compensation for the victims, to give hope for peaceful resolutions, and to de-escalate tensions. After this reply, Presiding Judge Koller decisively stated that in a state following the rule of law, all these objectives are fulfilled by state institutions such as the BKA and the Federal Prosecutor. He also directly and firmly told Al-Bunni that he was very critical about his work where he was taking over investigative tasks. Since Al-Bunni was not licensed as a lawyer in Germany and could therefore act in a partial capacity as a mandated lawyer to his client, the Judge expressed his disagreement and found Al-Bunni's partiality to be questionable. Anwar Al-Bunni attempted to explain that they were not conducting questionings similar to the police, yet, Judge Koller intervened and said the video recording which the Court received proves that they do. Al-Bunni insisted that the witnesses came to them on a voluntary basis, and at the Center, they simply listened to their stories. When the Center identified a relevant statement and deemed it credible, it was forwarded to the German Federal Prosecutor. Judge Koller was unable to hide his skepticism about Al-Bunni’s work and he moved on to question him regarding P19’s recording and transcript – the reason why Al-Bunni was summoned in the first place.

Judge Koller asked Al-Bunni how the process with P19 went until the creation of the transcript. Al-Bunni provided details on how the SCLSR commonly proceeds when a witness wants to speak to them but could not recall details about P19 specifically. He remembered that he limited contact with P19 via messenger and WhatsApp, but Al-Bunni neither conducted the interview himself nor ever saw P19 personally. According to Al-Bunni, the Center built and supports several cases in Germany and other states such as France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, so he does not recall details about specific matters. The Judges then wanted to know how it was possible that the written summary which was forwarded to the Prosecutor included information that was not mentioned in the Zoom recording. Al-Bunni replied that generally, this is not possible. He added that he could only imagine that the witness may have recalled something after the video call ended. He may have wanted to add it after the recording was stopped on the same day or several days later. However, Al-Bunni was unable to give details regarding the specific case of P19.

Al-Bunni explained that he and his colleagues forwarded only those interviews from persons they characterized as credible. The fact that they made a judgment about credibility and thereby pre-filtered witnesses’ statements caused agitation among Presiding Judge Koller and Defense Counsel Endres. Both firmly criticized that Al-Bunni and four other mainly Syrian lawyers (according to him) decided who told the truth and who did not. They wanted to know on which basis he believed that he was able to judge credibility. According to Al-Bunni, based on his experience of having defended thousands of members of the opposition and his own personal experience of having been arrested several times. Al-Bunni continued explaining that when problems arose, for instance, when they were unsure about the credibility of a witness, they gathered in the group of jurists and jointly discussed. However, Al-Bunni added, he was the one who always made the final decision. Presiding Judge Koller was visibly shocked and expressed his objection to this procedure because the SCLSR clearly took over tasks of state authority institutions wondering whether that was done with the knowledge or in cooperation with the investigation units. The Senior Federal Prosecutor Schrunz vehemently rejected the accusation.

After this interaction, the Judges and the Defense asked detailed questions about the potential contact between Al-Bunni and the witness, P19, investigating whether Al-Bunni had influenced the witness. The Presiding Judge as well as the Defense wanted to know whether Al-Bunni was preparing witnesses for their testimony. They asked if he told the witnesses what to say in court or how to behave. Al-Bunni generally denied but admitted that he told every witness to focus on the judges’ questions, meaning that they should answer as precisely as possible to the concrete question instead of telling their entire story. Al-Bunni rejected the Court’s assumption that he spoke to witnesses about the content of the trial. The Court confronted Al-Bunni with several names of witnesses except for those who were anonymized in the files. Those who were under protection were not mentioned in this session, but the Court may refer to some of the persons in future sessions if they are cleared. Other individuals such as Patrick Kroker were mentioned as well. Al-Bunni explained his relationship to the individuals and if they had contact. He emphasized that he did not have contact with the witnesses about the proceedings. However, he added that sometimes he learned some details from friends and acquaintances who attended the sessions. Upon questioning, Al-Bunni testified before the court that he only published or republished information that was already available online. He further explained that he only published details that concerned procedural aspects of the trial, for instance, that the trial continues or that a witness appeared, and that he reposted what was online such as the indictment. Judge Koller commented that this may be problematic. When Al-Bunni innocently asked “Why?”, Koller became angry again and told Al-Bunni that his behavior is questionable due to the potential influence on witnesses and firmly informed him that his work was endangering the trial.

The Defense intervened by asking about the first sessions of the trial and if Al-Bunni had published detailed content about it. Presiding Judge Koller replied before Al-Bunni could answer that in the beginning, SJAC published long reports, but the NGO was in contact with the press officer and took the long reports down, which Judge Koller regularly checked.

At last, M. was given the right to ask questions. He named several individuals and wanted to know if Al-Bunni knew them. It was unclear to everyone what M. intended to prove with this. Before the end of the session, M. mentioned Mazen Darwish and wanted to know if he was with CIJA, Al-Bunni denied and explained that CIJA was an American NGO, and he knew the director. Al-Bunni said he was called Mohammad Al-Abdallah [Executive Director of SJAC], but since they did not agree on issues related to the Koblenz trial, their relationship broke. [note: CIJA is the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, and its founder and executive director is William H. Wiley.]

Before Al-Bunni was dismissed, the Judge told him that he will have to return for further questioning because they did not have the time to inquire him sufficiently. Due to a full schedule, Al-Bunni will probably be summoned for a session in December.


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