White Helmets rescuers treat victims of the Assad regime’s sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, April 4, 2017

A French court ruled on Wednesday that an international arrest warrant for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, issued by France for war crimes in his deadly repression of mass protests since 2011, is valid and remains in place.

In May, French anti-terrorism prosecutors asked the Paris appeals court to rule, saying Assad has absolute immunity as a serving head of state.

But the court disagreed. Jeanne Sulzer and Clemence Witt, lawyers who represented the plaintiffs and non-governmental organizations filing the complaint, noted, “It’s the first time that a national court has recognized that the personal immunity of a serving head of state is not absolute.”

They said the historic judgment was “a giant step forward in the fight against impunity”.

French judicial authorities issued international arrest warrants in November 2023 for Assad; his brother Maher, the commander of the regime’s 4th Armored Division; and two Syrian generals, Ghassan Abbas and Bassam al-Hassan. They were charged with complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including an August 2013 sarin attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians near Damascus.

A special unit of the Paris Judicial Court opened an investigation in 2021, following a criminal complaint by survivors represented by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

The director of the Center, lawyer Mazen Darwish, said:

The landmark decision is not only a victory for Syrian victims, but for victims everywhere.

This is a historical opportunity to correct the legal and moral wrong. It shows that there is no immunity when we are talking about crimes against humanity and using chemical weapons against civilians.