Wafa Ali Mustafa was 10 years old when her father, Ali, hoisted her onto his shoulders at her first protest in 2000.
Every Thursday, when protests would flow through Damascus’ jasmine-lined streets and Mustafa’s school administered exams, they enjoyed a cheeky ritual. Ali would say Wafa, his eldest of three daughters, was sick, and they would drive close to three hours from their hometown, Masyaf, to the capital.
Overlooking crowds, Mustafa absorbed the political education her father was instilling in her.
In 2011, when Syrians took to the streets en masse to demand basic human and democratic rights and the fall of President Bashar Assad’s dictatorship, Mustafa faced a choice.
With her father’s background as an activist in Syria, she knew those choosing to publicly defy the government faced death or disappearance. But on March 25, 2011, while studying at Damascus University, Mustafa rejected her friends’ concerns and joined the protests.
“My dad told me, ‘OK, if this is what you want to do, then do it,'” Mustafa told Insider. “At some point, I even asked my dad: ‘Why aren’t you just like all other fathers? I mean, aren’t you scared for me?'”
Mustafa spent months with other Syrians her age attending protests, calling for the end of Assad’s government.
“I would call him, and I would say, ‘I went to this wedding today,'” Mustafa said. “He would understand that the wedding is a protest. I would say: ‘Yeah, it’s very nice. I was very excited. We danced a lot. The music was very nice.'”
As the Syrian army began to answer protests with gunfire, Mustafa stayed politically engaged by talking to her father. He had moved to Damascus to be closer to her, having himself been arrested just over 100 miles (161km) north in Hama, the province where Masyaf is located. Throughout Mustafa’s youth, she said, her father had been arrested for organizing politically in Hama and was known to the country’s security apparatus.
Mustafa’s mother remained in Masyaf with her youngest sister, and Mustafa lived in Damascus with her other sister, fearing that the entire family’s presence together in the capital would bring more attention to Ali.
“My father told me: ‘Your participation is not my decision. If you think that you want to do this, you better know the consequences, and you better take responsibility,'” Mustafa said. “So I did. He also did.”
In July 2013, after years apart — and as the uprising metastasized into civil war — Mustafa’s parents were set for a reunion.
Mustafa’s mother traveled to Damascus from Masyaf with her youngest sister. The three-hour journey from their hometown had become a seven-hour ordeal with government checkpoints.
“She cooked his favorite food, my sisters and I were laughing at them, thinking mom and my dad are having a honeymoon again,” Mustafa said. Before her mother arrived, Ali called saying everything was perfect and ready.
But on that day, the worst fear held by her family and many others in Syria came true. Assad’s security forces arrested Ali and his best friend before Mustafa’s mother arrived in Damascus. Mustafa hasn’t heard from her father in over 3,100 days.
At least half of the country’s population is displaced.
Mustafa, who was detained in Syria in 2011, is now a refugee. She lives in Berlin, where she has spent her time studying, writing, and advocating on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people who, like her father, are believed to have been detained, tortured, or disappeared by forces loyal to Assad.
According to the UN, as of last year, tens of thousands of people were missing in Assad’s prisons.
Her advocacy no longer involves protests in the streets of Syria, but her father is still at the center of her work.
She is now part of a network of lawyers, advocates, European partners, and refugees in Germany, France, and Sweden pursuing a novel form of justice whose targets are outside Syria’s borders — including former Syrian officials accused of working as intelligence officials in notorious prisons.
A long, uncertain road to justice
In the city of Koblenz, Germany, a roughly seven-hour drive from Berlin, two former Syrian officials stood accused of war crimes in a first-of-its-kind trial.
The trial, which began in April 2020, was different from one in an American court: Two people were listed as defendants, and five judges heard evidence from more than 30 witness accounts and 17 joint plaintiffs.
Anwar Raslan, one of the two men charged by German officials in October 2019, defected from Syria in 2012 and resettled in Germany in 2014 as a refugee. The other man charged, Eyad al-Gharib, was granted asylum in Germany in 2018.
The effort to bring them to trial was led by a prominent Syrian human-rights lawyer named Anwar al-Bunni, whose 2014 chance encounter in a Turkish supermarket near a Berlin refugee camp may have changed the course of Syria’s justice efforts.
Al-Bunni told The Guardian he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Raslan at a market. Al-Bunni says he recognized Raslan because he played a part in his own imprisonment and torture in the Adra prison in Damascus.
The trial first resulted in the conviction of al-Gharib, a former low-ranking intelligence official, who was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison on February 24, 2021, after being found guilty of “aiding and abetting 30 cases of crimes against humanity.”
On Thursday, Raslan, a former higher-ranking intelligence official, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was found guilty of being the co-perpetrator of torture and overseeing the killings of 27 people, along with charges related to rape and sexual assault of detainees.
Thursday’s ruling makes him the most senior member of the Syrian government apparatus to face repercussions.
Prosecutors say Raslan helped run Branch 251, a notorious prison unit near Damascus also deemed the al-Khatib Branch, or “hell on Earth,” where the UN Human Rights Council says thousands have been tortured, killed, and disappeared.
What happened behind closed doors at Branch 251 was the focus of the evidence and testimonies from dozens of Syrian torture survivors in the trial.
Raslan pleaded not guilty. His attorneys said it was “very clear” that torture was committed in Branch 251 but maintained throughout the trial that no crimes against humanity occurred under Raslan’s authority or volition.
Hana al Hatimi, a court reporter at the trial, explained on the podcast “Branch 251” that on December 16, during the last session for Raslan before the verdict, Raslan and his defense painted a picture that he had no personal decision-making power over any instances of torture or violence in Branch 251 — and that his defection, and attempts to expose other officials harming prisoners, were based on a principled rejection of such practices.
In a prepared statement that his lawyers read to the court, Raslan wrote, “I left my job, I left 26 years in office behind, because I didn’t want to be the reason that prisoners were hurt, or that their blood was spilled,” adding that he “rejected being an instrument to abuse and killing.”
He said that without his efforts many more would have been brutalized, and he quoted a Quran verse that says “if you kill someone, it is like killing all of mankind, and if you give life to someone it is like giving life to all of mankind.”
Raslan argued that he and his family were also victims of terror from the Syrian state.
In the verdict, the judges seemed to reject those claims. After hearing from more than 80 witnesses, many of whom had interacted with Raslan in prison, judges said Raslan was responsible for the torture of at least 4,000 people from 2011 to 2012.
The Assad government has, to this point, largely enjoyed impunity for actions the UN describes as stamping out dissent and waging a war against its citizens that has included chemical attacks, torture, and forced disappearances.
There has been no serious international effort to remove Assad from power, nor have any current members of Assad’s government been prosecuted, with Russia and China using their UN Security Council vetoes to block any referral to the International Criminal Court. Russian military intervention in 2015 has served to bolster Assad’s government, and varying military campaigns by Iran, the US, Israel, and Turkey have preserved the status quo of war.
None of this is due to a lack of evidence that Assad’s government has engaged in a campaign of indiscriminate killing against its own people; the UN has described a state policy of “extermination.”
A report from the Syrian Center for Human Rights detailed 72 types of torture employed in Syrian prisons, including the use of electric shocks and boiling water, as well as a method of abuse in which detainees’ hands are tied behind their back and they are raised by the same rope, which itself is tied to rings fixed to the ceiling — “leaving their body suspended from the ground so the full weight is hanging from the wrists.”
Landmark cases, but a 3rd-best option
Barred from pursuing those at the top, legal groups like the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Syrian groups like the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and open-source researchers have collaborated and built cases around a central legal premise: universal jurisdiction.
Universal jurisdiction is an international legal mechanism whereby Syrians living in countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden can submit complaints to the state’s investigative war-crimes units for crimes they say Assad loyalists, or others in Syria, committed.
“As one of the victims, as one of the players in this movement, we don’t think or believe that this is true justice,” Mazen al-Darwish, a lead lawyer in the Koblenz trial who is the head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, told Insider.
Al-Darwish, formerly a journalist and lawyer in Syria, was imprisoned in 2012 and held without charge for three years. He says he was tortured. And, ultimately, he would like to see a new government in Syria.
“This is just an alternative” to action by the UN or the International Criminal Court, he said, welcoming the guilty verdicts as a positive first step.
Following the start of the Koblenz trial, the Netherlands became the first country to take an official diplomatic position holding the Syrian government responsible for state torture.
“The first best option obviously would be fair trials in Syria,” Fritz Streiff, a consultant and lawyer working with al-Darwish’s organization, told Insider. “People commit crimes, you put them on trial in your own country. If that’s not possible, then you go for international justice. If that’s not possible, then you go for national justice in foreign nations.”
This process of universal jurisdiction led to al-Gharib’s and Raslan’s convictions and a host of other criminal complaints against Syria’s rulers.
“And now we can say that torture — it’s happened not because we said that, not because of a story of the victim, this is legally by an independent court, by an professional judge, finding that, ‘Yes, the security services use torture in systematic way,'” al-Darwish told Insider.
Al-Darwish’s group, alongside the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative and the Syrian Archive, has also submitted a joint criminal complaint in France charging the Syrian government with the 2013 sarin-gas attack in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, which killed 1,400 people, per the UN and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Another criminal investigation underway in Sweden follows the French complaint, charging the government with responsibility in the 2013 attack as well as the 2017 Khan Sheikhoun chemical attacks.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has accused the Syrian army of masterminding sarin and chlorine gas attacks in 2017 and 2018, calling them the “most serious breach” possible of the Convention Weapons Convention, accusations the Syrian government denies.
In one of history’s most documented conflicts, preservation of evidence is key
The legal fight against the Syrian government is detailed in the documentary “Bringing Assad to Justice.” The filmmakers Ronan Tynan and Anne Daly splice harrowing footage of death (photos of 11,000 corpses were leaked by a whistleblower known only by a pseudonym, “Caesar”) with the testimony of survivors of places such as Sadnaya, the military prison where thousands of others have disappeared.
Firsthand testimony not only preserves the historical record, but the film shows how it’s being used to seek justice, even in the face of disinformation.
Since before the trial, Syria and its chief ally, Russia, have flooded social media with disinformation designed to muddle questions over who is responsible for war crimes. That made it important to gather as much authentic evidence as possible to convict the two former intel officers.
The whistleblower Caesar’s photos, for example, include not just dead bodies but individual detainee numbers; the branch of the security forces that arrested them; and the number assigned to their corpse. The Caesar file, which contains photographic evidence of thousands of people tortured or killed in Syrian prisons, was used as evidence at the Koblenz trial.
“The amount of evidence, especially the amount of documents that CIJA has collected to date, is unprecedented,” Nerma Jelacic, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability’s director for management and external relations, said in the documentary. “We’ve got a treasure of indisputable material produced by the perpetrating party itself.”
“The threats will increase for people like Mazen, for people like Anwar al-Bunni, for their researchers on the ground, for victim-support groups,” Kristyan Benedict, a crisis-response manager for Amnesty International, told Insider.
“Certainly, when Eyad al-Gharib was sent to prison, you started to see an increase in intimidation of witnesses,” he added. Benedict added that throughout the trial, witnesses and plaintiffs had trouble securing court-ordered witness protection for families living in Syria or outside Germany.
Fear of speaking out persists, and so does the fear of inaction
Benedict, advocates, and lawyers involved in the justice efforts told Insider that throughout the gathering of evidence and trials, many Syrians who have offered testimony have feared retribution, again.
“The Mukhabarat” — Syrian intelligence forces — “have a very, very long reach. They can reach people in Europe, in France, in Germany, certainly in Turkey,” Benedict said, adding that the organization had helped many of the Syrian and victim-led groups bolster their security imprint. Amnesty has also advised al-Darwish and other groups on legal strategies and pressured countries to develop investigative war-crimes units.
Al-Darwish added that the success of the trial in Koblenz against al-Gharib had been a boon in terms of being able to show victims and Syrian refugees that pathways to justice existed for Syrians.
But there is a fear too among advocates that in the short term neighboring countries are normalizing relations with Syria, willing to forget the government’s actions in exchange for trade and security cooperation. Interpol’s move to readmit Syria in 2021 makes it easier for the Syrian government to pursue dissidents outside the country.
“Justice, for me — it’s not tools for revenge, not political tools to support this party or that party, justice for me — it’s the truth and the guarantee that this will not happen again,” al-Darwish said.
“And to see those people sanctioned, but most importantly to see the birth of a new Syria with a sustainable peace because without justice, I believe that it will not be easy to guarantee sustainable peace,” al-Darwish added.
On Monday, Wassim Mukdad, a Branch 251 survivor who was a plaintiff in Raslan’s case, said, “We want some proof that our suffering counted for something. I hope that me, and a lot of others, were able to give a voice to those who couldn’t share their stories.”
While Mustafa is involved in the broader activism, the political will always be personal as she strives to achieve justice for her father. In 2020, Mustafa would sit outside the Koblenz courthouse with a portrait of her father, flanked by portraits of other missing Syrian detainees.
In March 2021, Mustafa spoke with the UN General Assembly and alongside other families launched the Charter for Truth and Justice, a victim-centered list of demands calling for the immediate release of detainees, and an end to inhumane treatment and sexual-based violence in Syria.
“I think that all Syrians are now in a very challenging and crucial stage where for the first time we are at a stage where we are presented something that is supposed to be justice,” Mustafa said. “And we have to decide for ourselves whether this is what we imagined or not.”