French and German judicial authorities have recently been seized of cases against the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria, which was again denounced this week for allegedly hanging thousands of opponents. But the National Audience in Madrid, Spain’s highest court with jurisdiction in matters of international law and terrorism, is ahead of the game. Prosecutor Javier Zaragoza has recently received a criminal complaint from a woman with dual Spanish and Syrian nationality.
In 2014, the Spanish government restricted the country’s ability to act on “universal jurisdiction”, in which Spain had led the way. Now, in order for the courts to act, any case against a third country must involve a Spanish citizen.
The lady in question, who cannot be named for security reasons and has been housed in a “safe place” somewhere in Spain, has both Spanish and Syrian nationality. She accuses nine members of the Syrian security services, including members of the intelligence service, of having tortured her brother to death near Damascus. At the time her brother, who came from Idlib, was in his 40s, married with three children, and worked delivering dried fruit and other groceries to a small shop. According to her human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, the brother was subject to “illegal detention” in Homs in the context of a “strategy to eliminate opposition to the Bashar Al Assad regime through terrorist practices”.
This is the first time that allegations have been made to a court of “acts of State terrorism” by the current Syrian administration. Efforts to get judicial action on Syria have until now been focussed on the International Criminal Court but have always been blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council. In Spain, this complaint filed to the State Prosecutor is based on national legislation concerning “help and assistance to victims of violent crimes”. Other allegations could soon be filed against Maher-el-Assad, the President’s brother, according to judicial sources.
Widespread use of torture
Widespread use of torture by the Syrian regime is not itself in doubt. As early as 2010, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) said it was “deeply concerned about numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by law enforcement and investigative officials, at their instigation or with their consent, in particular in detention facilities”. Since then, allegations of widespread torture use as part of State policy have been backed by an examination of some 600,000 Syrian government documents and many witness testimonies. According to lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, 17,720 people – mainly civilians – have “disappeared” in the custody of members of the office of National Security. This office is supervised by the national crisis management unit, which is directly under the authority of Bashar Al Assad. The figure represents 300 people dying per month as result of torture, like the brother of the Spanish and Syrian complainant in Spain.
Amnesty International estimates that from 2011 to 2015 between 5,000 and 13,000 dissidents were hanged in the Saidnaya prison near Damascus. According to Human Rights Watch, the practice of torture has been common in Syria since 1963, but has intensified sharply with the conflict, both in terms of frequency and the cruelty of methods used. The complaint filed by Almudena Bernabeu speaks of “medieval” torture practices. They include being suspended by the arms for hours (the “shabeh”), forcing the victim into a suspended tyre and beating them (the “dulab”), pulling out fingernails and toenails and various other forms of torture including of children.
The “Caesar” files
This complaint could never have been filed without a Syrian military defector codenamed “Caesar” who managed to smuggle out of his country nearly 55,000 photos showing some 6,700 wasted bodies bearing the marks of torture. Caesar is also in a “safe” place somewhere in Europe. The investigators have a hard disk of his graphic evidence. These documents represent key evidence of the regime’s brutality as well as being vital to help relatives of torture victims identify their loved ones. If the National Audience takes up this case, it will set a precedent and certainly pose a threat to perpetrators of torture in Syria. Interpol has already been asked to track the movements of the nine Syrian agents accused by the complainant in Spain.