SOHR exclusive | “The Syrian crisis has uncovered the failure of international institutions to defend human rights and dignity,” says human rights activist and politician Jumana Saif • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

SOHR exclusive | “The Syrian crisis has uncovered the failure of international institutions to defend human rights and dignity,” says human rights activist and politician Jumana Saif

Jumana Saif: “The trial of Anwar Raslan has given hope to survivors from regime prisons to call for their rights through fair trials.”

In an exclusive SOHR interview, the human rights activist and politician, Jumana Saif, has stated that the trial of corrupt figures and those who have been involved in Syria’s war and the killing of innocent Syrian civilians will enable survivors from regime prisons to restore their rights. She has also clarified that torture has been all along a tool used by Hafez Al-Assad to oppress and punish Syrians, and this has been disclosed and proved with the beginning of trials in Germany.



Q: You witnessed the circumstances of the trial of the most prominent war criminal, Anwar Raslan, in which all evidence proved his complicity and guilt in war crimes and led to his imprisonment in the first trial to be held outside Syria. Can you give us further details on the trial? And has this sentence got revenge for those tortured by him?


A: The importance of this trial is manifested in being the first trial ever of criminals who committed and abetted killing, torture and sexual abuse in Al-Assad’s regime prisons. Moreover, this trial has given the chance to the survivors from these prisons, both males and females, to be actors calling for their rights through fair trials, not just victims. In more than 100 sessions which lasted for two years, the court disclosed terrifying facts about the system of torture in Syria, which has been a tool using to punish and oppress Syrian people. These facts also included atrocities committed in prisons since the beginning of Hafez Al-Assad’s rule, where this period was the turning point leading to today’s reprehensible practices by security services.


Regarding the satisfaction of survivors whom we supported in the European Centre For Constitutional and Human Rights about the trial and the facts which have been disclosed, I would like to clarify that the complainants have repeatedly stated in the media and press conferences and interviews that the aim of their participation is not confined to punishing Anwar Raslan, and that they desired to disclose atrocities committed by Al-Assad’s regime in an attempt to save those who are still suffering inhumane treatment in its prisons.



Q: As a specialist in prosecuting war crimes, how can you describe the path of prosecuting Syrian criminals outside Syria? And what are the difficulties you faced?


A: Prosecution outside Syria has faced great challenges, as crimes required to be proved in western courts located thousands of kilometres away from the sites where they had been committed and after years of being committed. Moreover, the judges’ culture and language they speak are totally different from the victims and suspects’, which makes everyone shoulder extra burden and leads procedures to take longer time. For example, the court in this case had to study the general situation, listen to eyewitnesses and experts, ask for help of researchers and experts and study the history of Syria since its independence and the period of the control of Al-Baath Party and Al-Assad’s regime, so that they could understand the role of the regime security services and the repercussions of their practices on the Syrian society in general.


Koblenz courthouse has disclosed some additional challenges which it had to deal with, such as the fact that the court did not allow to provide Arabic translation of the sessions for the attendants and precautionary measures imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, which affected the reaction and attendance of Syrians during the trial’s sessions.



Q: Can Syrians reach justice one day by prosecution of these criminals who have been involved in killing Syrian civilians? And how can prosecution in international courts be helped to succeed?


A: The meaning of the term “justice” is broad and differs from one person to another. We hope that a part of justice will be reached by prosecuting major officials and figures who have allowed and given order to commit crimes, mainly Bashar Al-Assad. We, at the civil and human rights Syrian society, are exerting all possible efforts to reach this moment-prosecution of Al-Assad and criminals. Unfortunately, the way to international prosecution is so long, especially with the lack of favourable international conditions, as well as the western countries’ unwillingness to pave the way for such types of prosecution or exert pressure on specific powers hindering international prosecution of Syrian figures.


It is common knowledge that the Russian and Chinese veto hindered the referring of the Syrian case to the international criminal court on several occasions. However, it is important to continue working on all paths and keep the issue on the top of priorities of international actors, as well as accumulating required expertise to achieve justice and prosecute criminals as soon as the political and international conditions change. The major goals which we all hope to achieve so soon are a political transition in Syria and a comprehensive transitional justice.



Q: How can violations be prevented and human rights protected in light of the ongoing conflict, proliferation of arms and violence by militias and factions?


A: Unfortunately, in light of the ongoing conflict and proliferation of arms, violations have not confined to regime forces and their proxy militias. All players involved in Syria’s war commit similar blatant violations against civilians, amid almost-complete absence of accountability. The only way to curb violators is to uncover violations in every way possible and supporting and expressing solidarity with victims. It is very important to work hard on documenting all violations professionally, as these crimes are imprescriptible. Criminals will face justice sooner or later, and they need to know that they can never escape accountability for ever.



Q: How can all civil and human rights Syrian organisations coordinate with each other in order to counter all types of human rights violations? And what are your suggestions as human rights activists to cooperate for the favour of Syrian people?


A: We, at civil and human rights Syrian organisations, try to coordinate with each other. For years, many human rights Syrian organisations have been eager to meet together and set a joint view or a group of objectives to work on. Trials in Europe have been an example of the outcomes of efforts by everyone, according to their respective capabilities. Today, each organisation is looking forward to cooperating and coordinating with the others and exchanging experience. We also work on sharing knowledge and experience related to human rights we could obtain in the past years with our colleagues in all zones of influence inside Syria through holding meetings and online workshops.



Q: Previously, you talked about the importance of confronting the Russian veto with alternative juridical paths. Could you explain that a little more, and what are these paths?


A: I mentioned “alternative juridical paths” while I was talking about the global jurisdiction which is a law that we could apply in some European countries, mainly Germany, as well as Austria, Sweden and Norway.


Today, there are discussions among human rights Syrian and international organisations to unify and direct all efforts to the “pooled jurisdiction,” a path in which judiciaries of several countries are brought together with the aim of establishing an international court, which can be provided by the international community to cope with and go beyond the Russian veto. This option lacks political support, although it can unify all efforts of global and local jurisdiction and save human and financial resources and time.



Q: What is your message to the international community which has abandoned and let Syrian people down and ignored human right violations? And is it still possible to remedy the current disastrous situation and proceed with a new path to hold accountable war criminals, perpetrators of violations and all those who aided and abetted killing, humiliation and displacement of Syrian people?


A: In my opinion, the Syrian crisis has uncovered the failure of international institutions to achieve global peace and security or defend human rights and people’s dignity. Today, all proposals are on the table, especially with the current war in Ukraine which gives the chance to the international community to pay more attention to atrocities committed against to the Syrians and deal differently with these blatant human rights violations. All we should do is to coordinate with each other and focus our efforts on making the file of accountability to come to the fore until situations change and work in our favour.

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