BERLIN – Khaled Rawas spent only a few days in Branch 215 – a government-run prison in Damascus. But within its walls, one day is an eternity, he says.
“They tortured me by holding my head and opening my eyes, and forcing me to watch other people being hit with chains,” the 28-year-old told Syria Deeply from Germany, where he now lives.
Branch 215, sometimes called the “Raid Brigade” or “Death Brigade,” is run by Syria’s Military Intelligence (SMI) – one of the country’s four main security branches. Officially, only offenses committed by Syria’s armed forces fall under its purview, but since 2011, thousands of civilians like Rawas, a mechanical engineer, have been incarcerated or interrogated in the SMI’s estimated 28 centers in Damascus and 50 branches elsewhere in the country.
“After what I saw, I am glad to be alive,” Rawas said. “I was able to get out of this situation, but I remember people who are still there. There are people spending their lives in prison in Syria.”
SMI branches have the highest documented number of deaths in detention and are responsible for some of the worst crimes committed by Syria’s security apparatus, according to a United Nations investigation from 2016. Detention centers run by Syria’s three other security branches – the Air Force, General and Political Security intelligence directorates – have also been responsible for a number of violations against civilians.
SMI branches “are the bloodiest in Syria,” said Bassam al-Ahmad, director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), an NGO documenting violations in Syria. “They have no clear mandate, and although it is not on paper, they do what they like.”
Paper, however, has become a new form of evidence being used to document detention, disappearance and death in Syrian prisons. The security branches’ highly bureaucratic and paperwork-heavy operations are allowing investigators in Europe to build bodies of evidence against the individuals operating in some of the most brutal government-run detention centers.
In March this year, a group of Berlin-based lawyers at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a nonprofit legal and educational organization, brought the first criminal complaint against six high-level Syrian military intelligence officials. Seven Syrian witnesses were involved in bringing the complaint, along with lawyers from the Syrian Center for Legal Researches & Studies and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Speech.
“We have evidence proving … that there was a reporting chain from the bottom up,” Lily Kather, a legal adviser at ECCHR, told Syria Deeply from the organization’s offices in Berlin.
Branch heads, she said, “were giving orders, and on the other hand receiving reports … which indicates [that they have] knowledge about what is going on, and on what scale. And yet they did not live up to their duty and obligation to either prevent or investigate or prosecute those responsible.”
The cornerstone of their complaint is Rawas’ testimony and those of six other torture survivors who were detained in branches 215, 227 and 235. Government forces first arrested Rawas for participating in anti-regime protests in his home city of Damascus in August 2011. He was detained for 15 days and, three months later, was arrested again and detained for 28 days. During this time he was detained in Branch 215 and two other notorious prisons run by Syria’s security branches, branches 248 and 249.
In September, the ECCHR filed a second complaint based on previously unseen evidence that targets SMI branch heads, including Branch 215. At the center of the file are the “Caesar” photos, some 27,000 images of the corpses of torture victims, 3,500 of which were at Branch 215, according to the Washington Post.
The nature of the injuries visible “provide indications that (and how) detainees in Syrian military intelligence and military police facilities were tortured and killed,” according to the ECCHR. Metadata from the photos “is especially useful,” potentially allowing the prosecutor to confirm where and when the photos were taken, ECCHR general secretary Wolfgang Kaleck said.
“The photos show the extent and the systematic nature of torture under Assad. Until now, no international investigators or third-country national prosecutors or courts have seen this information,” Kaleck said.
The two complaints are part of wider attempts to build a paper trail of evidence of torture and enforced disappearance in Syria.
“It’s a bureaucracy of violence that continued,” Kather said. “This bureaucracy and the whole system of documentation existed [before the war], and it didn’t stop when the violence … started.”
Paper evidence in the ECCHR complaint is largely written correspondence and faxes. Among the documents is one letter, dated August 6, 2011, that Kather called “the key document, that basically says: Do whatever is necessary to stop the opposition.”
Syria Deeply obtained a copy of the letter, in which the head of the National Security Bureau orders the the security committees of governorates around Syria to carry out “daily joint security-military campaigns” and the arrest of individuals “inciting people to demonstrate, financiers of demonstrators … and those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations.”
The letter further illustrates the regime’s bureaucracy of violence, as it orders “daily reports” on results of the “search campaign,” and “an overall evaluation of the campaign’s results.”
Though the complaints are a first step of a wider attempt to obtain international arrest warrants for the accused, increasing their chances of arrest should they travel outside Syria, bringing a case against suspects falls under the purview of the German Federal Public Prosecutor. A full criminal case would involve bringing the Syrian regime officials to Germany, because the country’s legal system does not allow trial in absentia.
Legally, the ECCHR was able to help Syrians bring forward such complaints using the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the investigation and prosecution of international crimes regardless of where they may have been carried out.
The principle of universal jurisdiction has not always been successful for Syria cases. This summer, a Spanish court threw out a complaint filed by a woman who said she recognized her brother in the Caesar photos, saying it did not have jurisdiction over the case.
The hope now is that gathering evidence will facilitate future, wider criminal cases, if and when more avenues for prosecution become available.
“One of our goals is that this information and evidence is gathered and prepared and analyzed now. Even if Germany doesn’t have the right resources or it doesn’t work out for some reason, there is already this information prepared and ready for filing in another forum,” Kather said.
As it stands, the available avenues for justice have fallen short. Russia and China have vetoed U.N. Security Council attempts to transfer the Syrian case to the International Criminal Court. Though the U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria documents atrocities, it cannot prosecute suspected perpetrators. U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council in October that it was time “for a serious step on detainees, abductees and missing persons,” but the latest round of Geneva talks ended without progress.
“The realities are that when people talk about stability and security in Syria, they are not addressing what is a massive human rights crisis: people being disappeared, detained, people not knowing where their loved ones are,” Kristyan Benedict, campaigns manager at Amnesty International U.K., told Syria Deeply in London.
Syrian advocacy groups and international organizations see some hope that their evidence-gathering will be used in the future alongside the U.N.’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM). Established in 2016, it has a mandate to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence” as well as “prepare files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings in national, regional or international courts.”
“Our work will be useful for them in terms of testimony, contact with witnesses, and understanding the political and security context,” al-Ahmad of Syrians for Truth and Justice said.
Despite the roadblocks, it is more essential than ever to continue working toward getting justice for alleged crimes in Syria, Kather said.
“The crimes we deal with are so grave that humanity as a whole has a responsibility to care. Only then, when we understand and know the reasons why [crimes are occurring], are we in a position to perhaps prevent similar things from happening in the future.”