Higher Regional Court – Frankfurt, Germany
Trial Monitoring Summary #62
Hearing Date: December 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 62nd trial monitoring report details days 104 and 105 of the trial of Alaa M. in Frankfurt, Germany. On the first day, a new witness appeared in court. P28 is a doctor and a friend of M. He giggled throughout the session for which he was reprimanded by the Judges. His testimony included many contradictions to his statements during his police questioning. He did not recall many details about M. and the Judges had to repeatedly quote from his questioning transcript. P28 admitted that screams of detained patients could be heard in the hospital.
On the second trial day in the week, P28 returned to resume his testimony. He complained about being put under pressure by the Judges. He recounted how his father instructed him to treat all kinds of patients, regardless of their political orientations. P28 classified the medical personnel in the hospitals into three groups and listed M. as a pro-regime. He recounted how M. treated patients and described them as rebels and terrorists. He further said that M. believed that demonstrators should be beaten and stopped by all means. P28 described an occasion when M. told him about a former colleague who threatened him.
Day 104 – December 5, 2023
On this day, the Judges wanted to start the session, but the witness was missing. The Judges tried but were unable to reach him by phone and email. The Judges showed the guards the witness’s picture and they spread out looking for him. The Accused told the Court that he saw the witness in one of the Court’s corridors, but they did not speak to each other. Defense Counsel Endres went looking for him and returned after some time, bringing the witness to the courtroom.
P28 is a doctor working in Germany and a friend of the Accused, Alaa M. [Note: The Judges often notified the witness that he was speaking quickly and asked him to slow down so that the Rapporteur Judge could follow and take notes.] P28 began answering the Judges’ questions and recounted his educational and professional history in Syria. It did not take long before the Judges confronted him with his statements from the police questioning, where he stated that he constantly rotated between Al-Mazzeh and Tishreen hospitals every six months. P28 did not acknowledge the quote and insisted that he worked in Tishreen for one year, followed by three years in Al-Mazzeh, before returning to Tishreen. Judge Rhode reminded the witness that the questioning transcript contains his handwritten note which was added and signed by him. P28 said that “it is like that” [i.e. as he explained in court]. Presiding Judge Koller interrupted and explained that P28 could not simply say “it is like that” contradicting his statements in the police questioning. Koller reminded the witness that he was obliged to tell the whole truth. Koller asked if P28 knew that his brother P26 was questioned in court. P28 admitted that his brother shared that with him. Koller wanted to know if both discussed his brother’s testimony. P28 said that they discussed it before his brother told him that they were not allowed to talk about it. When asked if both talked about where and when they worked, P28 confirmed.
Suspiciously, Judge Koller noted that P28’s police questioning was recent, and wondered why P28 changed his statements in court. P28 responded that he did not know and that he was surprised when this was mentioned. P28 recalled that it has been over ten years since he worked in Syria and said that the events in his memory were mixed up. Koller suggested that either P28’s statement to the police or his testimony in court was false. The Judges displayed P28’s police questioning transcript on screen which showed a sentence written in P28’s handwriting followed by his signature. The sentence read: “I can [not] tell the exact dates, because it has been a long time. I constantly rotated between Al-Mazzeh and Tishreen.” Wittily, P28 argued that he said, “I rotated.” Judge Koller reminded him that he said “constantly.” P28 giggled, and Koller demanded him to take the matter seriously. [Note: P28 repeatedly giggled throughout the session. The trial monitor had the impression that this was due to confusion, pressure, and nervousness, rather than impoliteness.] P28 said that he was not prepared at the time of police interrogation. Once again, Judge Koller referred to P28’s note during his police questioning and wondered whether P28 had prepared himself before his testimony and thought about what he wanted to say. P28 admitted that he was prepared now and was trying to remember the dates accurately. Koller wondered whether the truth was what P28 stated spontaneously and without preparation to the police. Whenever the Judges asked P28 about the word “constantly” which he added to the transcript, he repeatedly pointed to the date of his rotations, which annoyed the Judges. Therefore, they announced a break hoping that P28 might remember something in this regard.
After the break, P28 told the Judges that he restored his entire life memories, as he called his wife during the break and discussed with her several matters and photographs which they have. P28 clarified dates and places that he concluded from his discussion with his wife. On the other hand, he failed to clarify other matters that remained unclear to the Court; he failed to specify when he worked with M. and was unable to recall when M. arrived in Damascus the first time.
The Judges asked the witness about an injury M. sustained. P28 recalled that M. was injured superficially, but he did not remember details. Presiding Judge Koller was surprised that P28 considered himself a friend of the Accused, yet did not ask about the details of such an injury. P28 downplayed the injury and added that it was not too catastrophic, thus he was not interested. P28 said that his brother, P26, asked him if he remembered M.’s injury, and P28 replied that he did recall it. The Judges were surprised and told P28 that his brother told the Court that he asked P28 about the injury and P28 replied that he did not know about it. “Did he really say that?” P28 wondered.
Turning to another topic, the Judges asked P28 about the protesters in Syria and whether their demands were just and legitimate. P28 answered that there were such elements in their demands, such as democracy, freedom, and increasing wages. When the Judges delved further into this topic, P28 responded that he was apolitical and said that he was not convinced by the actions of either party, not the opposition nor the government. Koller wanted to know what the government offered P28. P28 said that he studied for free, and so was the treatment in hospitals. He explained that people were poor and had no money, still were treated for free. P28 added that the security situation was well-established. He further said that he did not make much money despite working in two different jobs, and that the life was not well-off like his life in Germany, nonetheless, life was good and acceptable.
The Judges wanted to tackle what P28 knew about the mistreatment of sick demonstrators and the violence against them. P28 said that one could see such cases, but he distanced himself from them. P28 added that he always felt that something was not right, but he could not stop the beating of the patients. The Judges asked P28 to further elaborate on the sick detainees. P28 said that they were brought to the hospital blindfolded. The Judges wanted P28 to further describe as he did in police questioning. P28 wondered what he could add. The Judges seemed to be asking P28 for information that he only provided drop by drop. P28 wondered if the Judges meant that the sick demonstrators were shackled. After some trouble, the Judges sighed with relief and asked if P28 deemed bringing shackled patients to the emergency department normal. P28 responded that he rarely went to the emergency department. Upon questioning, he said he did not know how the patients were shackled. Once again, the Judges painstakingly tried to extract information from P28 about beating patients. After several attempts to circumvent the question by P28, Judge Koller was fed up and warned the witness to take this approach to answering the questions. Koller admonished P28 that if he was trying to waste time until his questioning sessions end, Koller would keep bringing him to court until he finishes questioning him, even if it required several weeks.
The answers began to emerge from P28 quickly. He said that the beating was conducted with the tools that he described, and by nurses and intelligence personnel. When the Judges wanted P28 to describe where on their bodies the patients were beaten, P28 explained that one cannot determine how a cat [was held]. Appalled by the answer, the Presiding Judge found P28’s comparison of the detainees to cats very strange. Aside from the emergency department, the Judges were interested in knowing where in the hospital P28 saw shackled patients. P28 said that some of the patients were in the department. Upon questioning by the Judges, he described how the patients were shackled, their physical condition, and the signs of torture. While describing the signs of torture, P28 laughed. Judge Koller reprimanded P28, noting that this was not a laughable matter. Agitated, Prosecutor Zabeck followed up by saying, “You are a doctor!” P28 continued to meander. Presiding Judge Koller became impatient, noting that it took P28 25 minutes to describe the signs of torture. Koller told the witness that he would announce a break that P28 should utilize to think about answers. If needed, Koller added, he would question P28 for days. P28 complained that the Presiding Judge was pressuring him. “Yes, I am pressuring you.”, the Presiding Judge replied.
After the break, Defense Counsel Endres wanted to make a statement. Presiding Judge Koller asked the witness to wait a moment outside the courtroom. After P28 left, Endres demanded that the hearing be suspended and that the witness be given legal assistance. Koller asked on what ground, and Endres replied that it was part of a fair trial, as other witnesses received assistance. Koller explained that, unlike P28, other witnesses were part of the witness protection program and accompanied by the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Koller added that Endres would have to file a formal request if he insisted. Koller wondered whether M. agreed with his Counsel's request. M. said that he is incompetent in legal matters. Koller replied that M. had three Defense Counsels with whom he should discuss. The Presiding Judge granted the Defense Team a break for discussion, after which Endres returned, declaring that he won the Defendant's consent. After Endres submitted his request based on Section 68b of the German Code of Criminal Procedure, the Prosecutor demanded that the request be rejected, on the grounds that the witness came alone; was a doctor who is fluent in German; and communicated well.
After that, P28 was called in to resume the questioning. In his response to the Judges’ questions, P28 denied seeing corpses in the hospital, but admitted that in Tishreen and Al-Mazzeh, one noticed the smell of the corpses. P28 further recalled that the nurses told him that the corpses belonged to rebels and soldiers. The Judges pointed out that in the police interrogation P28 mentioned that in Al-Mazzeh Hospital, he heard screams of people being beaten coming from the emergency room. P28 confirmed that one could hear their screams. With each statement the Judges quoted from P28’s police questioning transcript, P28 added a new piece of information. He proceeded with describing that the screams were heard from the emergency department. He then added that they were heard inside the department; from outside the hospital; and from the rebels’ room. The Presiding Judge wondered why P28 did not simply list these places but rather waited for his statements to be quoted. P28 responded that the question was open and then turned specific. Koller explained that open questions are an opportunity for the witness to elaborate on the answer.
The Presiding Judge was disappointed that the Court did not achieve much of what had been planned for the day. He announced that P28’s questioning will be resumed in the next hearing and adjourned the session.
Day 105 – December 7, 2023
Presiding Judge Koller started today's session by asking the witness if, over the past two days, he reflected on what he testified in court, and whether there was anything he would like to correct or state. P28 denied, saying that he stated what he knew during the last session. P28 further said that the Presiding Judge put him under pressure, reminding him that sometimes a person forgets and that he was trying his best to recall the details. Presiding Judge Koller acknowledged that these events took place a long time ago. However, Koller added, he did not believe that P28 could not remember something that he added to his questioning transcript.
Judge Rhode began the questioning by inquiring about working procedures in hospitals. P28 recounted how doctors are officially registered after graduating to begin their medical training. In response to several questions, P28 explained that rotations between hospitals could be extended for more than six months by agreement between the doctor and the hospital. P28 added that his father had a hand in sparing him from moving to Harasta Hospital. P28 explained that he did not want to be transferred there because it was far from his place of residence. P28 explained the differences between several types of hospitals: Some of them are military, such as Tishreen, Al-Mazzeh, and Harasta; some are university hospitals, such as Al-Mowasat and Al-Assad; some are governmental, such as Al-Mujtahed, and others are private, such as the French Hospital.
After that, the Judges asked whether P28 knew doctors who changed their workplaces from military to government hospitals, like Al-Mujtahid. P28 named a few doctors. The Judges asked if P28 knew why those decided to switch hospitals. P28 assumed that the situation in military hospitals was difficult, as one had to obey every order. P28 added that those colleagues had other opinions. Judge Rhode wondered what type of orders these were and whether they were orders to beat, for example. P28 affirmed and gave an example: When he would take the medical history from the patient and ask the guard to stop beating the patient, the armed guard would curse and insult P28. This was frustrating for P28 as a young man who has always opposed to violence from both sides: The regime and the opposition, but P28 could not say anything. P28 recounted that his father is a military, a fact that cannot be altered. However, P28 added, his father told him that if he sees something that he cannot change, then P28 has to remain silent and treat patients, whether they are soldiers, civilians, or from the opposition, because he is a doctor after all. Judge Rhode asked if beating patients was a topic discussed within the family. P28 confirmed and added that his wife used to ask him to talk to his father whenever he came home angry and sad for what he saw. When P28 complained to his father that he saw unpleasant things and was unable to say anything, his father would remind P28 that he was a civil servant and to remain neutral. Rhode asked if P28 received tips from his father regarding what to do in case he saw someone beating the patients. P28 replied that his father always instructed him to treat patients and try to relocate them to operating rooms, where no beating took place. However, P28 explained to the Judges that he could not do that often. P28 concluded by saying that not all intelligence and nursing personnel were bad, some of them rather tried to protect patients.
Referring to an earlier point, Judge Rhode noted that P28's colleagues tried to find a solution by switching to government hospitals. P28 said he would give it to them, as it was in fact one of the solutions. Rhode wanted to know their confession. P28 said they were Sunnis. Rhode asked if they were also pro-opposition. P28 replied that he felt they were indeed, and that they were upset and uncomfortable. At request by Judge Rhode, P28 classified those doctors into the group of pro-opposition doctors and the group of moderate doctors. P28 added that the third group was the pro-regime doctors, mostly military. Rhode wondered in which group P28 would list M. P28 replied that M. was 70 - 80% pro-regime. Rhode wanted to know how P28 arrived at this conclusion. After maneuvering and meandering on the one hand, and quotations from the police questioning transcript on the other, it turned out that in the police questioning P28 stated that M. shouted at the patients, insulted them, and called them rebels and terrorists. However, P28 said in court that he meant that M. described them as “rebels” rather than “terrorists.” Based on what M. told P28, Judge Koller asked what should be done with the demonstrators. P28 replied that M. believed that the demonstrators should be stopped by all means. Since P28 did not elaborate, Koller quoted from the police questioning transcript that M. told P28 that the demonstrators must be beaten, and that P28 replied that they both were doctors and that was not among their tasks. P28 confirmed what Judge Koller quoted.
Shifting the questions to another topic, the Judges asked P28 about M., how they got to know each other, and about M.’s family members in some detail. A satellite image, that was shown to P28 during police questioning, was then shown on the screens in court. P28 began explaining it and answering related questions. Upon the Judges’ request, P28 enumerated names of doctors who were colleagues of M. and worked with him in the hospital in Syria. This was followed by questions about meetings between P28 and M. P28 explained that M. contacted him to ask about the documents required to apply for a visa to Germany. P28 admitted that he sent M. some documents and templates, including the CV.
Speaking about the contact between him and M. in Germany, P28 described how he met M. on an occasion when he, M., their friends, and their families rented a castle in Germany to celebrate. P28 named those who attended that celebration, during which M. told him about a former colleague who was threatening him at the time because of a quarrel between them during their work in Homs. A few months later, P28 added, he and his friends were shocked after hearing in the media about the charges against M. P28 did not know the details of the dispute between M. and his colleague. P28 told the Court that he repeatedly asked M. during the celebration about the colleague and the dispute that took place between them, but M. did not tell P28 the details at the time although they secluded themselves to talk in private.
The witness was dismissed on that day and will be summoned on another day to resume his testimony. The Accused then tried to clarify something, but the Judges told him that this was contrary to what the Judges noted, and that he would have to speak with his Defense Counsel if he wanted to alter his previous statement.