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Inside the Alaa M. Trial #55: Understanding the Syrian Conflict – Better Late Than Never

Inside the Alaa M. Trial #55: Understanding the Syrian Conflict – Better Late Than Never

Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany

Trial Monitoring Summary #55

Hearing Date: September 18 & 19, 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 55th trial monitoring report details days 92 and 93 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany. At the beginning of the first trial day this week, the Presiding Judge asked the Defense Team to summarize what it finds problematic within the reports published on the website of Anwar Al-Bunni’s Center so that they could be translated. After that, the examination and translation of the final remaining part of the interview conducted by the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) with P15 was completed.

On the following trial day, expert Dr. Steinberg testified in court. Dr. Steinberg delved thoroughly into the Syrian context explaining details pertaining to the trial proceedings. Dr. Steinberg went on to give background on Syria's political history and the figures that Bashar al-Assad kept close to him in power. Subsequently, Dr. Steinberg provided details regarding the Central Crisis Management Cell (CCMC) in Syria. Moreover, he explained in depth the different intelligence services in Syria, military hospitals, detention centers, and military prisons, indicating their functions, successive directors, and many other details. After concluding his extensively informative lecture, Dr. Steinberg answered questions from the parties to the case, which revolved around details provided by witnesses during their testimonies in court.


Day 92 – September 18, 2023

At the beginning of today's session, Presiding Judge Koller told Defense Counsel Bonn that the content of the five reports by Anwar Al-Bunni’s Center that he submitted to the Court was extensive. Koller suggested that Bonn and his colleague Al-Agi discuss those reports and inform him later whether there was anything they considered problematic in order to translate that particular part. Subsequently, copies of a report by the expert in the Syrian context, Laura Thurmann, were distributed to the parties of the proceedings. In case the Accused would not understand the German copy handed to him, Judge Koller told M. that he should inform the Court so that Koller could ask the Accused’s interpreter to translate it for him.

Subsequently, the video recording of the interview conducted by the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) with P15 was displayed in court to resume its examination and translation. P15 was asked about the corpses in the hospital and the process of issuing death certificates there. P15 was then asked about the military service booklet, for instance which information is noted in it and how it is issued. Furthermore, P15 denied possessing evidence such as documents or photos related to the case against M. After that, names of people were mentioned and P15 was asked to share what he knew about them. When asked if he knew anyone who might have information pertaining to the case against M., P15 named some people. At the end of the interview and upon request by the IIIM investigator, P15 affirmed the validity of his statements and consented to the IIIM sharing the interview with the relevant authorities if necessary. Since none of the parties to the proceedings had a question concerning the interview, the Presiding Judge adjourned the session. Thereby, the examination and the translation of the interview, which spanned four sessions, was concluded.

Day 93 – September 19, 2023

In today's session,  appeared in court to testify as an expert on the Syrian context. Dr. Steinberg started the session by introducing himself and giving an overview of his personal background and professional career. He is an Islamicist and an expert in so-called Islamic and International Terrorism. He worked as an advisor in the German Federal Chancellery in this field, and currently works at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin. [Note: Dr. Steinberg spoke Arabic fluently, studied in Damascus university, and lived in Syria, which speaks for the credibility of the expert.] Before Dr. Steinberg proceeded to give his lecture, Defense Counsel Endres wanted to know whether Dr. Steinberg had been threatened by Islamists, which Dr. Steinberg confirmed.

Dr. Steinberg began his lecture by shedding light on Syria's political history and Hafez Al Assad's assumption of power in the country that he bequeathed to his son, Bashar. Dr. Steinberg said that Bashar had a circle of relatives close to him, who were from the Alawite sect, such as his brother Maher, his cousins Rami and Hafez Makhlouf, and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat. In addition, there was another circle of people loyal and close to him, mostly Alawites, but also people from other minorities and Sunnis, such as Hisham Bekhtyar, Ali Mamlouk, whom Dr. Steinberg compared to , Jamil Hasan, and Rustum Ghazala. Dr. Steinberg said that the hierarchy between some individuals was sometimes unclear to him. He added that the bureaucracy in the agencies in Syria borrowed a lot from the Nazi Party.

Dr. Steinberg went on to elaborate on the Central Crisis Management Cell (CCMC), its tasks, members, and those who perished in the bombing that targeted its headquarters. With help of documents from the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), Dr. Steinberg could determine the hierarchy between individuals and agencies in Syria, as well as their tasks. He recalled hearing talks about the possibility of an officer of a certain rank commanding a higher-ranking officer, which Dr. Steinberg deemed utter nonsense. [Note: Dr. Steinberg seems to have been referring here to the Koblenz trial, where it was often alleged that Colonel Hafez Makhlouf had commanding authority even over officers with ranks higher than him. Dr. Steinberg referred to the Koblenz trial in his lecture. However, if that was the case, then this opinion is debatable: on the one hand, it was argued in the Koblenz Trial that Anwar R. did not have the same authority as Makhlouf, although both shared the same rank. On the other hand, one would argue that ranks play a major role, but so does the relationship or connection, which means that the rank is not the only factor. For example, Makhlouf, a colonel, may not have authority over Ali Mamlouk, a major general. However, he could have authority over some of the other figures with ranks higher than him, had it been somebody else.]

Subsequently, Dr. Steinberg explained that the intelligence services in Syria are divided into the General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and Political Security. He added that they used military forces - such as the Fourth Division - and paramilitary to quell the demonstrations. Dr. Steinberg provided information about the agencies in general, then delved into the details of them, indicating the successive directors of each one, its tasks, branches, and personnel. When Presiding Judge Koller inquired about the paramilitary, Dr. Steinberg said their remuneration was trivial. Koller concluded that the motive was not money, but rather to support the Syrian regime, which Dr. Steinberg affirmed.

Judge Koller turned to the military hospitals and asked Dr. Steinberg to expand on the topic. Dr. Steinberg explained the intelligence services and elaborated on the military hospitals such as Tishreen, Al-Mazzeh and Harasta in Damascus, and others in Aleppo, Tartous and Homs, which he explained in detail because it was relevant to the trial. Dr. Steinberg then proceeded by explaining the detention centers and military prisons.

After Dr. Steinberg concluded his extensive and informative lecture, the Judges followed up with clarifying questions. In his response, Dr. Steinberg clarified the functions of military hospitals, and the torture methods used there, which were mentioned in testimonies and reports. Dr. Steinberg predominantly focused on Homs, Al-Mazzeh and Tishreen Military Hospitals.

After a short break, the Presiding Judge asked Dr. Steinberg to read answers he had prepared. It seems like the parties to the proceedings had sent their questions to Dr. Steinberg beforehand so he could prepare the answers. Dr. Steinberg read each question quickly and followed up with a detailed answer. The questions revolved around individuals, locations, or details mentioned by witnesses during their testimony in court, which the parties wanted to verify or know Dr. Steinberg’s expert opinion. For example, one witness stated during his testimony that the reason he was arrested was simply because he was from a certain city and due to his family name, which was noted on his ID card. Dr. Steinberg said that such a scenario could occur and that it was something that he often heard about. Dr. Steinberg acknowledged that someone could be arrested just because they were from that city and family, because both characteristics were attributed to an anti-government affiliation.

At the end of one of the longest trial sessions to date, and after Dr. Steinberg addressed all the questions sent to him and answered the questions in-court, Presiding Judge Koller thanked the expert for his detailed and meticulous lecture and adjourned the hearing.


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