A German court on Wednesday convicted a former Syrian intelligence service agent for complicity in crimes against humanity, in the first court case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Eyad al-Gharib, 44, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison over his role in helping to arrest at least 30 protesters in Duma in autumn 2011 and deliver them to the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus where they were tortured.
Almost 10 years since the Arab Spring reached Syria on March 15, 2011, the judgement is the first in the world related to what judge Anne Kerber called "widespread and systematic repression" of protesters by the regime in Damascus.
Germany's foreign minister Heiko Maas welcomed the "historic verdict", which he said had a "high symbolic significance for many people, not only in Syria".
"It is the first verdict that holds those responsible for #torture in #Syria accountable and it at least creates a little justice," Maas said in a tweet.
The conviction was also hailed as a "ray of hope" by Syrian Wassim Mukdad, a plaintiff who suffered torture in the Al-Khatib centre, also named "Branch 251".
"This is just the beginning and the day will come when Bashar al-Assad and his cronies, the army and intelligence generals are put on trial," said Mukdad, who testified at the trial.
- Universal jurisdiction -
Gharib, a former low-ranking member of the intelligence service, hid his face from the cameras with a folder as the verdict was read out, arms folded and wearing a medical mask.
He is the first of two defendants on trial since April 23 to be convicted by the court in Koblenz, after judges decided to split the proceedings in two.
The second defendant, Anwar Raslan, 58, is a former colonel and accused directly of crimes against humanity, including overseeing the murder of 58 people and the torture of 4,000 others.
Raslan's trial is expected to last until at least the end of October.
Both men are being tried on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity, including war crimes and genocide, regardless of where they were committed.
- 'Sleep better tonight' -
Patrick Kroker, a lawyer representing the joint plaintiffs, said Assad's name was read out "at least five times during the verdict", while prosecutor Jasper Klinge said the proceedings sends "a signal to the perpetrators" of mass crimes in Syria.
Documentary director Firas Fayyad ("Last Men in Aleppo" and "The Cave"), who was raped in the Al-Khatib centre, also welcomed the verdict. "I hope the victims will be able to sleep better tonight. I hope I will be able to sleep," he said.
Other such cases have also sprung up in Germany, France and Sweden, as Syrians who have sought refuge in Europe turn to the only legal means currently available to them due to a lack of action from the international justice system.
Germany, which took in hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the last years, has been particularly active in pursuing cases against potential suspects.
Besides the ongoing proceedings against former colonel Raslan, a case is underway against a former Syrian doctor who has been charged for crimes against humanity.
- Spying on sermons -
Gharib defected in 2012 before finally fleeing Syria in February 2013.
He had arrived in Germany on April 25, 2018, after spending time in Turkey and then Greece.
He has never denied his past, and in fact it was his stories told to German authorities in charge of his asylum application that eventually led to his arrest in February 2019.
During the trial, Gharib wrote a letter expressing sorrow for the victims. He also wept as his lawyers called for his acquittal, arguing that he and his family could have been killed if he had not carried out the orders of the regime.
But the court argued that he "knew that torture was being practised" in the detention centre, even if he himself had not beaten protesters.
A physical education instructor in the intelligence services for ten years, Gharib was assigned to spy on Friday sermons in Damascus mosques before joining in July 2011 a unit led by a cousin of Bashar al-Assad who was notorious for his brutality.
The trial marked the first time that photos from the so-called Caesar files were presented in a court of law.
The 50,000 images taken by Syrian military police defector "Caesar" show the corpses of 6,786 Syrians who had been starved or tortured to death inside the Assad regime's detention centres.