Koblenz, Germany – When former Syrian colonel Anwar Raslan was sentenced to life in a German prison last week, many hailed the decision as historic.
The Syrian defector was found guilty of complicity in 4,000 cases of torture, at least 27 deaths and of physical and sexual assaults, while he was in charge of Branch 251 of the notoriously brutal Syrian secret service in Damascus.
But can the trial of one mid-level military man really bring justice for millions of Syrians who have lost so much over the past decade?
For the Syrian exile community in Germany, Raslan’s arrest in February 2019 was controversial, not least because he had helped some opposition activists before he defected in 2012.
Trial observers pointed out that about a dozen other defectors testified against Raslan, including another senior member of the Syrian secret service. None were arrested.
During the hearings, one witness who had been interrogated by Raslan at Branch 251 told the court that all Syrians were victims of the government’s lies. That included Raslan.
Another witness said they would rather see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sitting in court.
Raslan’s defence lawyers, meanwhile, questioned the boundaries of individual responsibility in an authoritarian state.
“This is not ‘the’ justice,” said Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian human rights activist who heads the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Paris, and who testified during Raslan’s trial.
“But it is important because it is the first time we have had an independent court looking into this. These are not just survivors’ stories or reports from human rights organisations. A court of law says there is systematic torture in Syria.”
Darwish echoed the conclusion reached by lawyers, torture survivors and activists, adding: “It’s just one step on a long road.”
Wolfgang Kaleck, who heads the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which played an integral role in the case by supporting 14 co-plaintiffs and helping with outreach, said: “You have to acknowledge that it’s never enough.”
After the Second World War, Germans had similar debates.
“And it was clear that criminal justice could not offer a comprehensive answer to crimes of the Holocaust. So there is no easy answer. But is this the right step forward [for Syria]? I would say yes.”
The headline-making trial has been a success in many ways – especially as a learning experience for Syrians and the global legal community.
“The lesson [for Syrians] is that we are all equal under the law and that any victim has the right to seek justice, regardless of identity or affiliation,” said Mansour Omari, a Syrian activist and researcher for Reporters without Borders.
This was what Syrians fought for when their revolution began, he noted.
The trial is also seen as having helped set guidelines for future prosecutions in Europe that use universal jurisdiction.
This legal principle allows prosecutors to go after people who commit crimes against humanity, whether there is any connection to their own country or not. It is a legal trend in European courts and is being used to prosecute Syrian war criminals as well as people connected with ISIL (ISIS) in Iraq. Germany alone is investigating about 100 other such cases.
The Raslan process might also influence how such trials are conducted.
For example, lawyers at the Raslan trial were successful in getting the Koblenz judges to add sexual assault to the list of war crimes, although they did not convince German judges to add “forced disappearances”.
Legal experts say the trial has also affected the definition of legal immunity for state officials.
Additionally, several European security agencies are cooperating in innovative ways to secure evidence for these cases.
But the process in Koblenz also offered lessons in what not to do.
For instance, the German regional court was criticised for failing to communicate enough with victims, which is something international tribunals and organisations are usually better at.
When it comes to perceptions of justice, outreach can be as important as the trial itself, said Syrian researcher Omari.
Meanwhile, the Koblenz court did not offer Arabic translation to Syrian observers in the earlier stages of the trial. It did not record the trial in an official manner, either.
A similar case begins in Frankfurt this week, with a Syrian doctor accused of torturing prisoners in a military hospital going on trial. In these hearings, Arabic translation will not be available throughout.
Trials like this one, that use universal jurisdiction, are also always in danger of being political.
German prosecutors cannot investigate all war criminals everywhere, and so select where time, effort and millions of euros will be spent.
“We need to establish a practice that can be applied equally,” said Kaleck, who tried twice to bring a universal jurisdiction case against former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, arguing he was complicit in torture in Iraq.
If Europeans only pursue “enemies of the West” these cases will lead nowhere, he argued.
Mazen Darwish also worries about some of the self-congratulatory reactions to the trial.
“Sometimes it is as if they [the European courts] think they have now solved the problem of accountability in Syria,” he suggests. “But we need to keep pushing for a political solution and sustainable peace in Syria.”
Al Jazeera spoke to several people as the Koblenz trial drew to a close, including victims, legal experts and activists – and all said it was essential to focus on the wider context, as they bemoaned increasingly restrictive European migration policies and the creeping normalisation of al-Assad’s leadership.
This trial has not stopped – and will not stop – al-Assad, Omari said. Syrians are being tortured “as we speak”, he cautioned.
After the verdict was read, Ameenah Sawwan, a justice and accountability advocate at the Syria Campaign, said in Koblenz, “this story is far from over.”
Sawwan was in the southwestern German city to organise a sit-in aimed at raising awareness about the Syrians who are still missing, including three of her cousins.
“Today really wrenched my heart. When I imagined a process that might take us closer to justice, I imagined it would be in Syria in 2011. Not in Germany, in 2022.”
“Of course, this trial is important and I saw hope in the eyes of the torture survivors,” she said. “But you cannot deny how most of us Syrians feel. We waited 11 years to get to this moment but it’s not in Syria, it’s not in Arabic and the [al-Assad] regime is still in power. So I just felt tired. How long do we need to wait to get to the end of our story?”
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