On February 13, prosecutors in Germany announced that they, in conjunction with their French counterparts, arrested three Syrians accused of crimes against humanity. One of these suspects, identified only as Anwar R., is alleged to have been involved in the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners in a government detention center in Damascus. Soon reports emerged that Anwar R. may in fact be Anwar Raslan, a colonel in the Syrian General Intelligence Service who defected in 2012 and ultimately joined the opposition, providing technical support and attending UN-sponsored talks in Geneva in 2014 as a member of the opposition delegation. This realization sparked debate among Syrians about whether Raslan should be prosecuted for his alleged crimes, and highlights the need for better communication with Syrian communities regarding the universal jurisdiction cases moving forward in Europe.
Debates about the arrest have emerged on social media, where Syrians are split over the choice to arrest Raslan. One former prisoner shared his story of how Raslan assisted him during his time in detention, asking whether the arrest of such a man is really an example of justice. Others have noted that the decision to arrest defectors may backfire by discouraging future defections. Many were discouraged that justice is only reaching those officials who defected and fled the country, while those who continue committing crimes enjoy impunity. On the other hand, many Syrians were encouraged by the news of the arrest. They argued that the alleged acts were so horrific that no mitigating factors can justify these crimes and that Raslan must be brought to justice. Anwar al-Bunni, the director of the Syrian Center for Legal Researches and Studies, wrote on Facebook, “A change in the position or attitude of a person does not exempt him from prosecution for crimes he has committed, especially crimes against humanity… If we protected criminals who say they support the revolution, we would justify the criminal Bashar al-Assad in protecting the criminals who support him.”
Discussions about who deserves to be tried, and who deserves amnesty, are integral to any post-conflict criminal accountability process. While many countries have granted broad amnesties to low-level perpetrators, the decision of how to deal with individual perpetrators, who have expressed remorse or may have risked their lives to defect, is more difficult. While there are no previous examples precisely like the Raslan case, there have been cases in which those who have expressed remorse have been shown leniency. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia sentenced Dražen Erdemović to a reduced term of five years in prison for his involvement in the massacre at Srebrenica based on the fact that he was acting under duress and expressed remorse. The actions of Raslan, including whether he committed crimes out of fear for his own safety could likewise be taken into consideration in sentencing.
No matter what happens in Raslan’s case, some important lessons can be drawn from how this case has been handled. Justice and reconciliation are most effective when the victimized communities are engaged in the process. Yet, most Syrians learned of these arrests from the news media, and early reports have been confusing and, in some cases, contradictory. Much discussion around Raslan’s identity has taken place through word of mouth on social media, and little concrete information is available, particularly in Arabic. This lack of communication, paired with mixed emotions around the decision to arrest Raslan, threatens to create disillusionment among a Syrian populace already discouraged about the potential for criminal accountability.
Of course, criminal investigations and trials require a certain level of confidentiality, and prosecutors are not always in a position to publicly share information. However, other sources of confusion, including the large number of organizations taking credit for cooperating on the case, could easily be resolved through more transparency and cooperation among civil society organizations. As universal jurisdiction prosecutions continue, both prosecutors and the civil society organizations that collaborate on these cases need to embrace their roles as communicators, explaining these processes to Syrians both at home and abroad. For example, organizations could explain the possible outcomes of such trials, including the potential that Raslan may receive a relatively short sentence if he claims he committed crimes under duress, as well as collateral benefits of investigating Raslan, such as gaining evidence against higher level perpetrators. If Syrians are left in the dark as these cases proceed, they may quickly become frustrated by outcomes for which they were not prepared. Better outreach will not only engage Syrians in ongoing cases, but can build trust between prosecutors and the Syrian community in Europe, increasing the likelihood of more Syrian victims and witnesses stepping forward to pursue similar investigations.
The arrest of these suspects raises contentious issues regarding the meaning of justice and reconciliation. Torture under any circumstances is a heinous crime which violates not just international law but the fundamental basis of our shared humanity. Traditional notions of justice require that those who are guilty of such atrocities are held accountable. However, what constitutes justice in a case such as Raslan’s may be more complicated. With large numbers of Syrian defectors living abroad, similar questions will continue to arise as accountability processes move forward. Ultimately Syrians will have to decide for themselves who should be held accountable and who forgiven. For now, it is important to remember that Raslan’s arrest is not a guilty verdict. The coming trial will hopefully shed light on his alleged crimes, and the judge can ultimately take into account all of his actions, including any he may have taken since leaving Syria, when sentencing him.