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From Belarus to Syria, victims look for justice in Germany

A German court in Koblenz was the first worldwide to convict a former Syrian intelligence service member of complicity in crimes against humanity Thomas Lohnes POOL/AFP/File
2021-05-13

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SULAIMANI — From accusations of torture in Belarus and Syria to alleged genocide in Iraq, claimants in some of the world's most serious legal cases are increasingly turning to courts in Germany in their quest for justice.

Ten Belarusian dissidents last week filed a criminal complaint in Karlsruhe against President Alexander Lukashenko and members of his regime for crimes against humanity during a brutal post-election crackdown in 2020. 

The accusations of systematic torture are the latest in a string of claims filed in Germany by NGOs and victims' groups on the principle of "universal jurisdiction".

Introduced in Germany in 2002, the principle allows courts to try people for serious offences such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, even if they were committed elsewhere.

Cases being considered include a claim by Chechen LGBT activists who accuse Ramzan Kadyrov's regime of torture and sexual abuse, and one by NGO Reporters Without Borders against Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

 

- 'Nowhere to turn' -

Universal jurisdiction also applies in other European countries such as France, Sweden Belgium and Austria.

Yet "all hopes are currently pinned on Germany", Jeanne Sulzer, head of the International Justice Commission at Amnesty International, told AFP.

Unlike in other European countries, German law allows complaints to be filed even if the suspect is not currently in the country, the French lawyer explained. 

According to the German government, police anti-war crimes unit ZBKV carried out 105 investigations between 2017 and 2019 into crimes committed in countries ranging from Syria and Iraq to the Ivory Coast, South Sudan and Mali.

"These proceedings are an increasingly important part of international efforts to bring those who commit atrocities to justice," said Maria Elena Vignoli of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW).

With no link to Germany necessary, such cases provide "the chance of justice for victims who have nowhere else to turn," she added.

Germany has also taken a major role where international justice has come up short, such as in the case of alleged abuses by Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria. 

In February, a court in Koblenz handed down the first conviction worldwide of a former member of Syrian intelligence services for complicity in crimes against humanity.

A more wide-reaching case involving a high-ranking Syrian official is expected to reach a verdict in the autumn.

Victims' relatives are also hoping that a doctor accused of torturing injured people in a military hospital in Homs will be put on trial after his arrest in Germany last year.

And in a ground-breaking case which began in Frankfurt last year, an Iraqi former Islamic State fighter is standing trial for committing genocide against the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq. 

Such cases ensure that countries like Germany, which has welcomed 800,000 Syrian refugees in the last decade, "don't become safe havens for human rights abusers," said HRW's Vignoli.

 

- Limitations -

Yet legal experts have also warned that universal jurisdiction also has its limitations.

"Syria is safe political ground for European prosecutors," lawyer Patrick Kroker, who represents some of the Koblenz plaintiffs, told AFP, noting that the Assad regime has been in the dock internationally since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. 

"The German judicial authorities need to apply the same standards for suspects from friendly countries," said Wolfgang Kaleck, head of the Berlin-based human rights NGO ECCHR.

In the mid-2000s, German courts threw out a criminal complaint by Kaleck against then US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld over alleged torture in US military prisons. 

Another obstacle is the "the difficulty of carrying out investigations on site", said Amnesty International's Sulzer. Instead, investigators are often forced to use satellite imagery, or get victims to draw the places where they were detained.

Cost and time are also factors. 

A recent trial of two Rwandans for war crimes lasted four years and cost almost five million euros, only for its verdict to later be declared partially invalid because the evidence put forward was deemed insufficient.

(NRT Digital Media/AFP)