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Syrian War Crimes Trial Resumes In Germany

NOEL KING, HOST:

An unprecedented trial resumed this week in Germany. Two men are on trial. They're former Syrian officials who are part of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. They got to Germany with a wave of refugees and claimed asylum there. And then last year, authorities started looking into who these men were and arrested them on charges of committing crimes against humanity during Syria's civil war. NPR's Deb Amos has covered that war for years. And she's been following this trial very closely. Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What's happened in the trial so far?

AMOS: So there's a big idea here, and that's an international war crimes trial in a national court. And those on trial aren't German citizens They're Syrians. So for the first time, former Syrian officials are confronted by Syrian torture victims in person in court. One is a former colonel. The other is a checkpoint guard. When the indictment was read in court, the victims heard a summary of their testimony. One horrible crime after the other, says German attorney Patrick Kroker, who represents some of them.

PATRICK KROKER: There were very emotional reactions. I was sitting in front of our clients. I checked every once in a while. I saw that they were, yeah, finding it difficult. But in the end, they were really happy that they were there. It made us all aware again of what is actually at stake here.

AMOS: Now, the main defendant, Anwar Raslan, he's in his late 50s, was in charge of an interrogation unit at a prison known as Branch 251. Raslan gave his first statement to the court this week. It was read by his lawyer. He denies all the charges. He said there were criminals that took over his prison. They ignored his complaints about brutal treatment. Essentially - it wasn't me. And the defense strategy is - you're going to have to prove it. And this trial is expected to take more than a year.

KING: More than a year. What is the evidence against this man, Raslan?

AMOS: There's quite a lot. There's the torture survivors, more than a dozen, testimony from German immigration officials who said arriving refugees told them about Raslan at this notorious Branch 251. There are official documents smuggled out of Syria that show that he signed his name to official reports that went up the chain of command. Now, those documents do not explicitly mention torture, according to sources who've seen that evidence. The Assad regime has always long denied charges of torture in Syria.

KING: These two Syrian men are foreigners in Germany. But of course, there are lots of Syrian refugees. There around 800,000 people who fled the civil war. How is that community in exile responding to the trial of these two men?

AMOS: So Syrian activists in Germany are trying to get the details out to their community. A German trial, it is translated. They are trying to get it out in Arabic. One of them is Wafa Mustapha (ph). an activist. She was speaking at a Zoom conference call in Berlin this week. Her father is still detained. She hoped the trial would speed his release. So she knows it's a painful process of managing expectations.

WAFA MUSTAPHA: We've been demanding justice for years, but now we are being introduced to justice face to face. The trial gave us hope. It gave me hope.

AMOS: And it gave them an idea of patience.

MUSTAPHA: For a second, I definitely thought so. But then I also told myself that definitely it's needed to have hope, but it's also needed to have patience. I myself might not see the day that justice will be achieved in Syria. It's satisfying enough that I know that someone will.

AMOS: And also satisfying, she said, it's the first time the victims have a voice in seeking justice.

KING: NPR's Deb Amos, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.