BEIRUT, Lebanon — A court in Germany convicted a former Syrian secret police officer on Wednesday of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for his role in arresting and transporting protesters to an interrogation center known for torture nearly a decade ago.
The defendant, Eyad al-Gharib, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. He is the first former Syrian official to be convicted of crimes against humanity, in a case that rights groups have hailed as a landmark in the effort to ensure justice for violations committed during Syria’s civil war.
The conviction “is a message to all criminals who still commit the most horrific crimes in Syria that the time of impunity is over, and you will not find a safe place to go,” Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer and activist, said in a statement.
As the Syrian war nears its 10th anniversary, the country is marred by destruction and sinking into a profound economic crisis, with poverty and hunger spreading. But President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, after his government’s widespread use of violence and torture to stamp out an uprising that sought to push him from power.
A sense of hopelessness about achieving justice within Syria or in the International Criminal Court has led rights campaigners to focus on European courts, many of which are willing to try foreigners for grave crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Often working with Syrian refugees in Europe, the groups have identified suspects who have also sought refuge in Europe and tracked down witnesses to testify about crimes committed in Syria.
While European courts had previously sentenced low-ranking Syrian soldiers, Wednesday’s case was new not just in who was convicted, but in the amount of information it revealed about the inner workings of the Syrian government’s detention centers, said Patrick Kroker, a senior legal adviser with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who represented 10 co-plaintiffs in the trial.
“That in my mind is what makes this significant and makes it way more important than this individual person,” Mr. Kroker said. The co-plaintiffs are civil parties who under German law can join the prosecutors’ case and testify in court, but are also allowed to question witnesses.
Mr. al-Gharib, 44, entered Germany in April 2018 and was arrested along with a more senior Syrian intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, in February 2019.
The two men were put on trial together at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz in April 2020, but Mr. al-Gharib’s case was peeled off this month because the prosecution had no more evidence to present against him. Mr. Raslan’s trial is scheduled to continue at least through October.
The events in question occurred in the early days of the uprising against Mr. al-Assad, which erupted in 2011 and evolved into a civil war. Mr. al-Gharib told German investigators that he had helped round up 30 protesters and bus them to an interrogation facility known as Branch 251 in the Syrian capital, Damascus. The protesters were beaten on the way there, and he knew they could be tortured after they arrived, he said.
Mr. Raslan was a senior officer at that center, which prosecutors say gave him oversight of the torture of at least 4,000 detainees with methods that included beatings, electric shocks, overcrowding and the denial of medical care.
To argue that the two men committed crimes against humanity, the prosecution had to argue that their roles fit into the Syrian government’s wider system of illegal detention and torture.
Evidence presented included a forensic analysis of tens of thousands of photos of corpses smuggled out of Syria by a police photographer who defected; Syrian government documents that shed light on the chain of command in the security services; and the testimony of a Syrian refugee in Germany who had worked at a mass grave for people killed by the government.
German lawyers tracked down dozens of Syrians in Europe who had been held in the interrogation center to testify against Mr. Raslan.
No witnesses were found linking Mr. al-Gharib directly to the crimes he was accused of, so the primary evidence against him was his own testimony to German investigators.
His state-appointed defense lawyers argued that Mr. al-Gharib’s testimony should be excluded since he did not know at the time that he was being questioned as a suspect rather than as a witness. They also argued that the Syrian government would have punished him had he not done his job.
The court allowed Mr. al-Gharib’s testimony to stand, but took the other information he provided to investigators into account when determining his sentence. Prosecutors had sought a sentence of five years and six months; Mr. al-Gharib’s lawyers had asked that he be acquitted.
He has one week to file an appeal.
Anna Oehmichen, a German lawyer who cooperates with the Open Society Justice Initiative and represents co-plaintiffs against Mr. Raslan, said the court’s acceptance of the systemic nature of the crimes, which was necessary for a conviction of crimes against humanity, made the case important.
“It is a great sign to the world that there is no impunity for offenses committed by members of a ruling regime,” she said after attending Wednesday’s hearing.
But Hassan Kansou, a trial monitor from the Syria Justice and Accountability Center who also attended the hearing, said he was pessimistic that the sentence would make much difference, given how widespread the violence in Syria has been.
“It is symbolic that they sentence one officer, and there could be others, but it won’t change anything inside Syria,” he said.
Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.