German court hears harrowing testimony of Syria torture
On 9 and 10 September, a former cemetery worker testified to gruesome details of the Syrian regime’s torture programme in the so-called al-Khatib trial, which is taking place in Koblenz, Germany.
It was the world’s first trial of torture in Syria.
It falls under Germany’s universal jurisdiction law on crimes against humanity and it comes after Germany arrested two Syrian intelligence officers on its territory in February 2019.
But the Koblenz court is not keeping full and complete transcripts of the proceedings, undermining the initiative in the eyes of some victims.
The question of what happened to the bodies of their loved ones has haunted many Syrian families for years, and was finally answered, in horrendous detail, by one of those who participated in burying the dead.
The witness testimony revealed the technical details of what is still, today, an ongoing Syrian torture and extermination machine.
Since the civil war began in 2011, the Syrian regime has unleashed a systemic campaign of extermination against citizens who demanded their basic rights.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been arrested by the Syrian government, killed under torture, died in detention, or were executed.
The witness, who was code-named “Z 30/07/19”, said in his testimony that at the end of 2011 intelligence officers asked him and several of his colleagues to work with them in transporting and burying the corpses of victims.
The officers provided the cemetery worker with a minibus without license plates, but plastered with images of president Bashar al-Assad.
Trucks of corpses
Several times a week from 2011 to 2017, the worker drove his colleagues from military hospitals to the al-Quteifa and Najha cemeteries to unload and bury corpses from large refrigerated trucks, usually accompanied by intelligence officers.
Up to three trucks were used to carry 300 to 700 corpses each, four times a week.
He estimated to the court the total number of the corpses as being high as 1.5 million and maybe more.
The government cemetery worker said the bodies were naked and covered in red and blue marks.
Some of them had had their fingernails, toenails, or both pulled out and some were missing internal organs.
When the trucks were opened, the witness recalled, it sounded like a gas bottle being unsealed, sending out horrible smells followed by streams of blood and worms.
He spoke of corpses marked with numbers and symbols on their foreheads or chests.
Some of the bodies’ hands were still fastened behind their backs with handcuffs or zip ties.
Some of their faces were unrecognisable from acid burns.
Once a man who had supposedly been executed was still breathing, until an officer ordered an excavator driver to run over him.
Another time, the witness discovered the body of a woman who was holding a dead child in her arms. He almost broke down when he saw this.
The cemetery worker provided detailed information on the Syrian government’s systematic process of eradicating the corpses of its victims and concealing the evidence.
But his information about the locations of the mass graves was not new.
Several human rights groups have documented mass graves to bury detainees in Syria since 2012, and repeatedly after that, including in the al-Quteifa and Najha mass graves, in which the cemetery worker described his activities.
In 2013, field activists in the al-Quteifa area reported that they saw, on the morning of 12 June 2013, members of the Military Third Division burying dozens of bodies in a mass grave in al-Quteifa – the same grave the cemetery worker mentioned.
In 2013, when I was working with the Violation Documentation Centre-VDC, an NGO, the centre also published an investigation together with Human Rights Watch, showing satellite images of mass graves and their locations in Najha and Al Bahdaliyah near Damascus.
But amid the new revelations in the Koblenz trial, there is one unhelpful aspect: the German court is not keeping a full transcript of testimonies and proceedings.
The result is to leave no official documentation of the crimes the witness spoke of. This opens up questions for the defence.
What if they decided to appeal the sentence later? There would be a need for official documents. How could anyone prove, for example, that a witness or a plaintiff said this or that?
Sometimes one word of testimony is enough to flip a whole case or conviction on its head. So, if there is an appeal, should the court call on the witness to testify again?
Would this not be rather costly for the court, lengthening the trial, and extending the trauma for the witnesses and victims’ relatives? What if the witness was not available to travel again to Koblenz?
In addition to all this, such documentation would be highly valuable in any transitional process for Syrians to understand and address their state extermination machine and the whereabouts of the corpses of their loved ones.
This official documentation could also be used in legal processes in local courts in Syria once the war has ended, or in future international courts.
And such archives have a high academic value not only for Syrians but for other nations, as they provide a unique source of information for scholars, historians, and other researchers into state extermination practices.
This trial is the first of its kind, which makes it all the more important for it to be recorded properly.
There are several similar cases now under way in other EU countries and in Germany itself.
Reading past trial records and understanding past verdict precedents is vital for the whole legal system.
The corpses of Syria’s state torture victims faded into limbo, and now, to add salt to the wound, their families are being deprived of their right to official records of how it took place.
A court spokesperson confirmed that the court’s proceedings were in accordance with Germany’s Code of Criminal Procedure – which does not “provide for a verbatim protocol as a standard, but rather…must essentially reflect the course and the results of the main hearing.”