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International humanitarian law

Torture survivors and NGO make big strides towards justice

29 April 2022

Wassim Mukdad plays the oud during a recent UN Torture Fund Meeting

Wassim Mukdad knew the protocol.

Every five or so days, he would be taken from the tiny cell he shared with more than 80 other Syrian men and fitted with a blindfold. After being marched into a room, Mukdad would lie on a table and assume the position: on his stomach, legs upward, prepared for the strikes. But Mukdad always tucked his hands underneath his chest. No one, not even Bashar al-Assad himself, would take away the sense of self his hands represent, he said.

“I am a musician, but I didn't tell them so. I told them that I am a doctor, which is also true,” Mukdad recalled. “I used to put my hands under my chest, to keep them from being hit. And by this, they didn't know they (could be) hurting the most valuable part of my body.”

Now based in Berlin, Mukdad plays the Oud — the Arab lute — performing it across musical genres, such as tarab, dance and medieval.

Speaking of the importance of facing his abusers in court and speaking out against the crimes committed in Syria, he said: “Mine was an act of defiance, resistance. I did it for myself but also for the world, so it would know of the atrocities committed by the regime.”

In March, Mukdad told his story and gave an Oud performance at the United Nations Human Rights Council during an event organized by the Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. The Fund focuses global attention on the needs of torture survivors and assists them in rebuilding their lives, including seeking redress for the human rights violations they suffered.

Universal jurisdiction = accountability anytime, anywhere

Patrick Kroker, Mukdad’s attorney who also attended the performance, is a legal advisor for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a human rights organization based in Berlin.

Kroker’s clients, a group of Syrian refugees in Germany that included Mukdad, had just months before obtained a life sentence against Anwar Raslan, the highest ranking Syrian military officer to be convicted of crimes against humanity to date in the German court. ECCHR has been receiving annual grants from the Fund since the strategic litigation process began in 2018. With the Fund’s support, the NGO assisted 29 Syrian torture survivors in the proceedings, 14 of whom were joint plaintiffs. The sentence was achieved using a little-used, legal principle called universal jurisdiction

Universal jurisdiction allows the domestic judicial systems of a country to conduct legal proceedings against certain crimes, on the basis that some crimes are so grave that all states have a responsibility to investigate them. These crimes, such as genocide or torture can be investigated, even if they were not committed in a country’s territory, by one of its nationals, or against one of its nationals.

In 2002, Germany adopted a code of crimes against international law, allowing its national courts to fill accountability gaps for these crimes through fair and independent investigations and trials in line with international human rights laws and standards. The international code also excludes the statute of limitations for these crimes.

“It’s a concept that’s been around since World War I when states of all different cultural backgrounds, histories, political ideas and values understood that they should not commit murder against whole populations. It is something that we maybe can agree on,” Kroker said. “And maybe it could prevent dictators to hide behind the mask of sovereignty — to say these are only internal affairs. I deal with my own people the way I want to.”

Universal jurisdiction allows the domestic judicial systems of a country to conduct legal proceedings against certain crimes, on the basis that some crimes are so grave that all states have a responsibility to investigate them.

A German court used the legal principle of universal jurisdiction to find Colonel Raslan, who was also a top-serving official in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military intelligence service, guilty of 27 counts of murder, rape and sexual assault, as well as for the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners in the notorious al-Khatib jail near Damascus, also known as Branch 251.

Calling the conviction “historic,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said it was “a landmark leap forward in the pursuit of truth, justice and reparations for the serious human rights violations perpetrated in Syria over more than a decade.”

According to Kroker, a number of additional proceedings are currently underway in national courts, including the trial of a Syrian doctor facing 18 counts of torturing detainees at military hospitals in Homs and Damascus in 2011-12. The doctor, known as Alaa M., sought asylum in Germany in 2015 and was allowed to practice medicine under his Syrian medical credentials, working at a health centre near Kassel, where he was recognised by multiple Syrian nationals and reported to German police.

Action in national jurisdictions against the crimes committed in Syria is particularly important, since the country is not a party to the Rome Statute - the 1998 treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), which tries cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Bachelet said.

“He should have a fair trial. He did.”

Once a judge determined that the prosecution could proceed on the grounds of universal jurisdiction, Raslan’s trial took place in Koblenz, Germany from late April 2020 to January 2022.

On 13 January, a panel of German judges handed him a life sentence for being an accomplice to crimes against humanity. Specifically, of “killing, torture, serious deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual assault in combination with murder in 27 cases, dangerous bodily injury in 25 cases, particularly serious rape, sexual assault in two cases, over a week of deprivation of liberty in 14 cases [and] hostage-taking in two cases and sexual abuse of prisoners in three cases.”

For Mukdad, Raslan’s conviction not only showed that justice could be served, but that this could be done while still giving all sides a modicum of respect. This, he said, made him feel proud of, and thankful for, the trial’s outcome.

“One of the most valuable aspects of this trial against Anwar Raslan, for me personally, was that his dignity was preserved. This is very essential,” Mukdad said. “Yeah, he took my dignity away, but I want to treat him still with dignity; I'm not going let him take my humanity away.”

“He should have a fair trial and he did. He should have a legal representative — exactly the opposite of what happened to us — and he did. Now I can say that he was tried under a basic standard for respect and dignity — a standard that I am proud of — and found guilty. That’s good enough for me.”