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Germany, Sweden Take Lead In Prosecuting Syrian War Criminals

By Linda Gradstein | The Media Line

October 13, 2017

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings following a reported air strike on Aleppo, on September 11, 2016. / AFP / AMEER ALHALBI (Photo credit should read AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Image
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The two countries have convicted several perpetrators

As the Syrian civil war grinds on, at least 475,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Countless civilians have become refugees, with more than one million seeking asylum in Germany, and several hundred thousand in Sweden.

These two countries have taken the lead in bringing those responsible for war crimes in Syria to justice. While governments in various European nations have opened investigations into crimes committed in Syria, Stockholm and Berlin and are the first to have prosecuted and convicted perpetrators on their own soil.

“Both countries have really good systems in place to pursue these cases. However, investigating and prosecuting these crimes, especially in relation to Syria is extremely challenging,” Maria Elena Vignoli, the author of a new report by Human Rights Watch named “These Are The Crimes We Are Fleeing,” told The Media Line. “Most of the Syrian refugees we interviewed in Sweden or Germany also didn’t know about the possibility to pursue justice in the courts in these countries.”

Vignoli revealed that suspected criminals have already been sentenced in six cases, and one is still being tried in court.

In the most well-publicized case, a former rebel who participated in the mass killing of seven captured Syrian soldiers in 2012 was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year in Sweden. The case began when a former rebel provided a video of the murders to The New York Times, which published the story in 2013. An appeals court has since upheld the conviction of Haisam Omar Sakhanh, who had sought asylum in Sweden.

In a separate instance, a member of the Syrian army was convicted of “violating the dignity of a dead body” based on a photo showing him posing with his foot on a corpse. He was sentenced to eight months in jail.

“It’s impossible for us to go to Syria so we have to rely on other kinds of evidence like the Internet or mobile phones or social media,” Kristina Lundhoff Carleson, the chief prosecutor in Sweden, told Human Rights Watch. “We have an international obligation to investigate these kinds of crimes. [Our country] cannot be a safe haven for perpetrators.”

Other cases have been opened in Germany, although the accused are primarily charged under terrorism rather than war crimes laws, Human Rights Watch says. The group is actively encouraging the German government to prosecute war crimes as well.

“When I moved to Germany I had no idea that I could be part of this process,” Khaled Rawas, who said he was tortured by Syrian soldiers, explained to The Media Line. “I asked myself what I could do for detainees who suffered and are still suffering. We decided, my wife and I, to translate our experience into legal steps here in Germany.”

Rawas, 29, was smuggled out of Syria with his wife in 2015 and has since made a new life in Germany. They are among seven plaintiffs to have filed claims against six senior officers in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army. The German legal system incorporates the principle of universal jurisdiction, meaning it can prosecute crimes even if they were not committed on German soil.

While Rawas’ claims have not yet been investigated, he nevertheless hopes that Berlin will at the very least issue an international arrest warrant if the soldiers who allegedly tortured him ever set foot in Europe.

“Syrians have lost faith in civil society,” he stressed. “Today, the European community has a chance to restore their faith. In the end it’s not only about saving those in Syria, it’s about saving the humanity of each and every one one of us.”

Rawas says that despite everything that has happened, he still believes in the justness of Syria’s revolution.

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