Relatives hold up photos of the disappeared in Syria, in a rally outside UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland (Dylan Collins/Al Jazeera)

The first trial of Assad regime officials for crimes against humanity has opened in Germany.

Former intelligence officer Anwar Raslan is charged with charged with 58 murders, including rape and sexual violence. Eyad al-Gharib is charged with arranging the torture of at least 30 opposition activists arrested after a demonstration in 2011.

Arrested in February 2019, the two men are being tried in the Higher Regional Court in the German city of Koblenz.

Human rights organizations and a former regime photographer have documented the deaths of thousands of detainees from torture, execution, and inhuman conditions in regime prisons. Tens of thousands of detainees have “disappeared”.

See also Syria Daily, June 23: More Relatives Told of 1000s Who Died in Regime Prisons
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Human rights lawyer and former detainee Anwar al-Bunni said, “Arbitrary arrests and torture are the main weapon used by the Assad regime to spread fear among Syrians and suppress their demands for democracy and justice. This trial will break the immunity of the criminals in Syria, from the head of the regime all the way down.

Human rights organizations and Syrian activists are called on other states to follow Germany’s steps, and to provide support for the documentation of war crimes. Former regime officials have been arrested on torture charges in France and Spain.

The groups are also calling on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court at The Hague; however, Russia would almost certainly protect the Assad regime with a veto.

Lynn Maalouf of Amnesty International explained:

This trial is a historic step in the struggle for justice for the tens of thousands of people unlawfully detained, tortured and killed in Syrian government prisons and detention centers.

This would not have been possible without the bravery and sacrifices of Syrian survivors, families of victims, and scores of other individuals and organisations who have relentlessly pursued justice and truth, often putting their own lives at risk in doing so.

At a time when Syrians feel that the international community has failed them, this trial brings renewed hope that some measure of justice is still possible.

Hamoudi Shoaib, tortured in northeast Syria in 2011 and a refugee in Germany since 2014, said, “To me, just the fact those people are having a fair trial in a respectable court feels like a revelation. I don’t have a grain of revenge in me. I just want justice.”

From Official to Defector to Torture Defendant

Anwar Raslan was head of the investigations team of Branch 251, the intelligence directorate prison in Damascus notorious for its torture of detainees.

He defected in 2013 with a Syrian rebel escorting him out of the capital to the opposition-held area of East Ghouta and then to Jordan.

Raslan built up his position with opposition leaders and was even in an opposition delegation at UN talks in Geneva in 2014. He flew to summer that summer and settled with his family in northeast Berlin.

But German prosecutors built up a case, based on documents smuggled out of Syria by opposition activists. The indictment says that, while Raslan was in charge of Branch 251, at least 4,000 people were tortured and 59 died from April 2011 to September 2012.

Wael al-Khalid, an opposition activist who helped Raslan defect, said the former official agreed to hand over the files of more than 20,000 detainees but never delivered on the promise.