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Inside the Alaa M. Trial #61: When the Plaster Starts Crumbling

Inside the Alaa M. Trial #61: When the Plaster Starts Crumbling

Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany

Trial Monitoring Summary #61

Hearing Date: November 14, 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 61st trial monitoring report details day 103 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany. This hearing was dedicated to analyzing documents from Syria submitted by the Defense to the investigative judge at the Federal Court of Justice. The document detailed the verdict against the witness P4 and, according to the Defense, aimed to prove that the witness was not credible. The linguistic expert, Mr. Farrag, examined and presented errors page-by-page and characterized them as either a lack of diligence or serious in nature. He provided his own conclusion on the reasons for these errors. Mr. Farrag also evaluated a German translation of this verdict done by a Berlin-based sworn translator. He concluded that the translator made two additions to the German document which were deviating from the Arabic original which he deemed serious because the translation did not indicate that they were made by him.

The overall atmosphere was uneasy due to the questionable behavior by Defense Counsel Al-Agi in the previous session. The sentiment that these documents may not be authentic remained. Aware of the serious implications resulting from this, Counsel Endres admitted that the entire defense strategy may be at stake. However, decisively, he stated that the Defense would make every effort to prove the authenticity of the documents – apparently even by requesting the Court to take actions which they are legally not able to fulfill.


Day 103 – November 14, 2023

For today’s session, the translation of documents from Syria and the read out of a report were scheduled. After the last trial day, on which Defense Counsel Al-Agi was questioned, it was surprising that he was not present when the session started. Presiding Judge Koller noted it and moved on to ask the linguistic expert, Mr. Farrag, to provide testimony about an incident about which he informed the Judges in the aftermath of the last trial day. Mr. Farrag was informed about his rights and duties as a witness for this specific event.

Mr. Farrag explained that frequently, after sessions, the Defendant said or mumbled words when passing him. Usually, Mr. Farrag added, he ignored the comments except for one time, when M. allegedly said, “I will never see my children again”. After this incident, he informed the Judges about the comment because he was worried that M. would harm himself. After the last trial session, Mr. Farrag recalled that M. passed him and without looking at him, he said “don’t correct too much” [note: during the last session, the verdict related to P4’s conviction was subject to scrutiny. The original document in Arabic was translated to German by a sworn translator from Berlin. The Defense Team submitted the German translation to the investigative judge at the German Federal Court of Justice. Mr. Farrag was requested to analyze the Arabic original against errors. He provided the results during the last session for the first part. The second part was the subject of today’s hearing.] After this testimony by Mr. Farrag, M. nervously lifted his hand, but Presiding Judge Koller asked him to wait.

After Mr. Farrag was asked to leave the room, M. was given time for a statement. M. explained that Mr. Farrag spoke to him first saying, “May God stabilize you!” to what M. replied, “May God give you health!”. M. explained that “to correct” and “health” were very similar in Arabic [note: the terms used were sahhaha صححand sehha صحة]. M. became agitated and desperate. Fighting tears, he said that this was the second time he had been accused and if there were cameras, one could prove these allegations wrong. He kept explaining that he did not know Mr. Farrag personally nor give him money nor did he know whether the documents were authentic. The Judges were surprised that he considered giving Mr. Farrag money as an option. Defense Counsel Endres interfered and stopped M. from continuing. In private, he turned around to M. and said, “You are risking your neck in reckless talk, shut up now!”.

Upon return of Mr. Farrag to the courtroom, the Judges asked him if the translation M. provided was a possibility and therefore there may have been a misunderstanding. Mr. Farrag said that the words are indeed similar, but he reiterated what he had perceived which was “Do not correct too much!”. Defense Counsel Bonn tried to justify M.’s possible behavior. He explained that obviously the questioning of their colleague Counsel Al-Agi, who was still not present, during the last session was disturbing. The rest of the Defense tried to put the questioning into perspective for M. so he could understand its consequences. Counsel Bonn added that if such a comment was made to Mr. Farrag, he kindly asks the Court to consider that M. was not in good condition at the end of the last trial day.

After Counsel Bonn, Counsel Endres asked to comment on the last session as well. From a neutral position, he quickly moved to judge the questioning of Counsel Al-Agi and became more and more agitated with every sentence. Endres explained that one could deem such a questioning disadvantageous or a catastrophe. He decisively stated that the questioning was a sheer catastrophe and that they could not comprehend how someone who passed two state exams in law was capable of being unprepared like this. Endres added that he and Bonn understood the anger of the Judges and he wished he could have provided this statement in the presence of his colleague. He asked the Court, however, to consider that not everyone who is characterized as pro-regime should automatically be deemed incredible. Presiding Judge Koller acknowledged that the Defense Counsel were as appalled as the Judges by the performance of Counsel Al-Agi.

Judge Koller then turned to Mr. Farrag as a linguistic expert and asked him to reiterate how his personal and professional experience with documents from the Arab region, particularly from Syria, qualified him to judge the documents presented in this trial. Mr. Farrag explained that he and his office have almost 50 years of experience dealing with documents, translations, and interpretation in the Arab and Syrian context. His office was among the only contractors with German ministries, authorities, and courts that dealt with all dialects. The Court acknowledged his expertise and asked him to continue presenting his results from the analysis of the verdict.

Mr. Farrag went through the document page-by-page and listed all errors, the use of dialect, and the uncommon use of language for official court documents which he identified in the verdict. Among the terms discussed in the session were the usage and meaning of “accused” and “defendant”; “arrested” and “detained”; and “theft” and “robbery”. The Judges were also interested in some particularly convoluted sentences, grammatical errors, and the mix-up of letters. Above all, if these errors resulted in a change of meaning. One example concerned a letter which changed the meaning of the sentence entirely: Was the car ‘set on fire’ or was the car ‘parked’ or ‘driven’? An error like this, in the context of a four-year sentence for car robbery, would certainly be important. After each error, the Judges asked Mr. Farrag for a characterization of it: they wanted to know, based on his expertise with Syrian documents, if these errors were significant indicating a deviation from the usual court quality or if they may have been made out of simple carelessness. Mr. Farrag explained that generally, the errors were most likely made due to being rushed and a lack of diligence, yet he added that the frequency of the errors in some parts was significant. He added that one error was significant since it detailed the fine to be paid by the convict. The document said, “100 pound” and Mr. Farrag deemed this to be unrealistic because in 2012, and still today, this was not a punishment, “it is nothing!” [note: as of December 2023, 100 Syrian pound equals approximately $0,007 / €0,007]. During Mr. Farrag’s assessment, M. regularly commented on the issues brought forward - sometimes disagreeing and sometimes confirming his conclusions. Amid the presentation, Defense Counsel Al-Agi arrived in the courtroom.

An interesting aspect of the purported criminal procedure against P4 detailed in the verdict was that the defendant pleaded guilty at one point in the process. Yet, according to the verdict, P4 later submitted a statement that during the questioning in which he supposedly pleaded guilty, he had been beaten and tortured. The court referred to it in the verdict and ruled that the denial of the crimes based on the torture defense must be rejected because the defendant only aimed to protect himself. Judge Koller sarcastically commented, “Clearly, in dubio pro reo!” [Latin for "[when] in doubt, rule for the accused"]. Finally, P4 was sentenced to four years imprisonment by the Syrian court. Mr. Farrag also put forward that there were no indicators that the signatures of the judges on the verdict corresponded to the names in print. While the Judges acknowledged this conclusion, they commented that it is common that a signature does not relate to its name.

After the verdict was analyzed, Mr. Farrag was asked to provide the results of the analysis of the German translation created by a sworn translator based in Berlin. This translation was submitted to the investigative judge at the German Federal Court of Justice by the Defense Team. Mr. Farrag listed several translation mistakes. One mistake, he explained, was the wrongful translation of an Arabic word as criminal “court” instead of criminal “chamber”. Defense Counsel Al-Agi asked him why he believed that it was supposed to be “chamber”, because he could not read this term into it. Judge Koller then asked Al-Agi what it should be translated to instead. Since Al-Agi was unable to answer, Koller angrily told him that if he confronted the linguistic expert with a wrongful conclusion, we must at least be prepared to provide an alternative. Koller added that since Al-Agi delivered such a poor performance last time, he should refrain from asking any questions now. After this uneasy reprimand, Mr. Farrag continued by explaining that the official stamp on each page of the verdict was not reflected in the translation. He also identified two issues which he considered to be serious. First, the verdict did not contain the full name, but only the last name of P4 on one page. The translator added the first name to the translation without notification. Secondly, the translator apparently considered the 100 pound, as mentioned before by Mr. Farrag as well, so evidently erroneous that he simply changed to 100.000 pound, yet again without notification that this was not written in the verdict.

After the detailed page-by-page presentation, Mr. Farrag’s overall concluded:

1) The errors in the verdict are manifold, which is uncommon for a court document. However, at that time [around 2012], he saw several documents of this quality. He identified two grounds for this:

a. The documents are “products of that time” which means that the emergency situation resulted in the reduction in quality but also, as P26 has testified, it was possible to produce anything, and

b. Based on the chaotic circumstances at that time, untrained personnel were deployed in all areas and the hectic state of affairs caused an increase in errors

2) Most of the mistakes made by the translator of the verdict were most likely based on a lack of diligence which he did not deem too serious. However, Mr. Farrag concluded that two errors were significant, because both were additions without a notification that they deviated from the original:

a. The insertion of the first name of the convict

b. Writing 100.000 pound instead of 100

After Mr. Farrag finished his presentation, M. meticulously went through the errors submitted and provided alternatives. In many cases, Mr. Farrag admitted that another translation could also be possible. M. also confronted him with the fact that he used four different terms for “da'wa دعوى”: indictment, criminal case, proceedings, case. Mr. Farrag explained that the term could be used as an umbrella term. The Judges confirmed when M. said that there is a difference between proceedings and indictment.

Before adjourning the session, the Judges asked for a declaration of consent [Section 251 (1)(1) German Code of Criminal Procedure] to introduce the summary and translation of a conversation between one of the witnesses and Anwar Al-Bunni’s Center. All parties to the proceedings consented; the Judge scheduled to read out the document in court in December.

Finally, Defense Counsel Endres asked to give a statement before ending the session. He declared that the verdict was submitted to the investigative judge to show that the witness may be a person who could not be deemed credible. He added that if the verdict is considered to be authentic it will prove this assumption. If the verdict is not authentic, Endres added, “The entire defense breaks down!”. He explained that the Defense will do anything to summon those individuals who have produced this verdict. The Defense will also urge the Court to summon the [Syrian] judges. Endres ended by calling the Court to summon all the relevant persons, if necessary, through mutual legal assistance. The Judges interrupted him, shaking their heads and explaining that there is no mutual legal assistance. In comprehensible frustration, Judge Rhode informed Endres that they do not only not have the means but neither the right to summon anyone in Syria due to the lack of agreements. Any motion related to this request, Rhode added decisively, will be rejected on the basis that it concerns unobtainable evidence [Section 244 (3)(5) German Code of Criminal Procedure]. Defiantly, Defense Counsel Endres said that they will try to get the witnesses to appear themselves.


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