Germany starts Syrian war crimes trial tomorrow

Justice process picks up steam as refugee influx brings witnesses, victims and suspects into the country

BERLIN • Germany will tomorrow start its first war crimes trial over atrocities in Syria, as a mass refugee influx brings not only witnesses and victims but also suspects into the country.

Aria L., a 21-year-old German national and suspected terrorist, posted on Facebook photos of himself posing next to two decapitated heads in Syria - and his case is not the only one from the war-torn country to occupy German justice.

"Ten investigations linked to Syria or Iraq are currently being examined by the federal prosecutor, on top of more than 30 cases against former jihadists over their membership in a terrorist group," said a spokesman for the prosecutor's office.

Among other key war crimes suspects are Ibrahim Al F., a 41-year-old Syrian and the alleged leader of an Islamist rebel group known for kidnapping and torturing civilians in Aleppo.

Another suspect is Suliman A.S., a 24-year-old Syrian suspected of having kidnapped a United Nations soldier in 2013.

Such investigations have gained momentum particularly as 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany last year, about 40 per cent of whom fled the wars in Syria and Iraq.

The authorities dealing with the asylum requests have picked up and sent 25 to 30 tips every day to prosecutors, as Germany since 2013 requires applicants to complete a form asking if they have witnessed war crimes or could name perpetrators of violations.

The authorities dealing with their asylum requests have picked up and sent 25 to 30 tips every day to prosecutors, as Germany since 2013 requires applicants to complete a form asking if they have witnessed war crimes or could name perpetrators of violations.

"The refugee influx has provided new opportunities for prosecutors to collect specific information," said Ms Geraldine Mattioli, an expert on international justice at Human Rights Watch.

Germany is no stranger to trying war crimes committed abroad, although past attempts have had mixed success.

There are multiple geographical, cultural and linguistic challenges prosecutors face in building a case. Investigators dealing with Syrian cases also face the additional challenge of access. With the war still raging, they are unable to travel there to gather evidence.

And while propaganda images posted by the terrorists on social networks offer a glimpse of the atrocities, it is difficult to authenticate the photos.

But with the mass arrivals of refugees, Germany is taking a proactive stance by collecting information bit by bit, and filing it away country by country, rather than waiting for specific accusations before taking action.

One shortcoming is that the process rarely targets high-ranking officials of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as comparatively few Syrian soldiers have become refugees arriving in Europe, Ms Mattioli said.

But she also noted that the search for justice, "has to start somewhere".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Germany starts Syrian war crimes trial tomorrow'. Print Edition | Subscribe