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Why Are Syrian War Crimes Being Prosecuted In Germany?


Germany has been trying to bring torturers in Syria to justice. German authorities arrested a couple of ranking Syrian officials on suspicion of war crimes that happened earlier this year. Germans view Syria's war as their business because so many Syrian refugees have ended up in Europe. And there is another reason for Germans to get involved. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Germany knows something about accountability - Germans call this memory culture - for the Nazi era, for the Holocaust. Again, when the wall came down and the two Germanys became one, there was a reckoning with the communist past.

LUTHER SCHULTZ: Please come nearer here a little bit for beginning. Welcome to the memorial for the victims of the communist dictatorship.

AMOS: This is the Stasi Museum, once the nerve center of the East German secret police. The tour guides were prisoners here. Even 40 years after he was jailed, Luther Schultz wants visitors to know what it was like to live under a hardline system. He never forgets.

SCHULTZ: It was the only party in power. When you criticize this party, you will be detained.

AMOS: The parallels to Syria are striking. Syria was a close ally of East Germany. It's long been documented that Syria's state security was modeled on the Stasi and trained by them, too. Dissent is harshly punished. In the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, the price rose sharply after a popular uprising in 2011 - tens of thousands detained or disappeared, according to the U.N. Luther Schultz sees those parallels.

SCHULTZ: Very, very hard, tough times. They want justice, of course.

AMOS: Syrians want justice for war crimes well documented by a trove of incriminating official papers and pictures smuggled out of Syria over eight years of war. Finally, German prosecutors and police are acting on that evidence with arrests in February.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: German police have arrested two former Syrian intelligence officers for crimes against humanity.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Germany is set to put on trial two Syrian officials allegedly responsible for torture on behalf of the Assad regime.

AMOS: The arrests were headline news in countries with Syrian refugee communities in Germany, in Canada and Australia. The Syrian officials had slipped into Germany with the refugees. The trial will be a landmark for Syrians - the first time high-ranking officials will face witnesses in open court. But the case is also remarkable for Germany, which is changing the way war crimes are prosecuted - not in an international tribunal but in a national court under a legal doctrine known as universal jurisdiction that allows prosecutors to bring cases for war crimes outside Germany's borders.

STEPHEN RAPP: Germany is the capital of accountability in the case of Syria and has shown that it can be done. There are, you know, maybe a dozen other cases that they're working on.

AMOS: That's Stephen Rapp. He's an adviser to European groups investigating war crimes, has been a prosecutor on international tribunals and a State Department official. Germany, he says, has a lot at stake.

RAPP: Germany has 800,000 Syrian refugees. It's been profoundly affected. And these people came to this country because of the torture. Other things, horrible things, were also happening, but that was a key part of it. So it makes sense the case be done in Germany.

AMOS: Ameenah Sawwan, a young Syrian activist, witnessed the horrible firsthand when her neighborhood back home was bombarded by missiles loaded with chemicals. She fled to Berlin in 2016.

Were you there when the chemical weapons hit?

AMEENAH SAWWAN: I was there. I did not feel it at the beginning, but I definitely felt it when I went out to the streets and started to hear people screaming. It was one of the most horrible experiences.

AMOS: It's important to tell these stories, she says. But she's frustrated by the slow pace of justice. The Syrian officers arrested by German police were well-known to Syrian refugees. The officials had been living with them in Germany for a few years. The trial is a small step for a traumatized community.

SAWWAN: They look at this as a baby step.

AMOS: Still, it's unprecedented for Syrian witnesses to describe torture in court, as they will do in Germany, stories Syrian families can only whisper about in Damascus.

SAWWAN: They're really brave. They amaze me, to be honest. I thought at some point that some Syrians won't have the patience to deal with this bureaucratic system towards justice, no matter what.

AMOS: When the wave of Syrian refugees arrived in 2015, many Germans backed Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcome.


AMOS: Now, you can find cafes like this one where Germans come for Syrian culture and cuisine. But there's been a backlash, too - the rise of an anti-immigration party that turned anger into votes. Those working on the war crimes cases see the trials as a way to counter some of the resentment against the newcomers. The trial will highlight why the refugees had to flee and remind Germans of the value of accountability.

MOHAMED AMJAHID: To be honest, I don't know. This is a new thing. It's an experiment, somehow.

AMOS: I've come to the offices of a German newspaper to interview a journalist assigned to cover the trial.

AMJAHID: My name is Mohamed Amjahid. I am a journalist working for the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit.

AMOS: You explain the Syrian community to Germans, correct?

AMJAHID: It's not my main task, but it's part of my work, yes.

AMOS: He monitored Syrian reaction on Facebook when the arrests were first announced.

AMJAHID: It just exploded. It exploded. Because they woke up here as refugees, and they've noticed that Syrians who committed crimes in Syria, they are hiding here as refugees, too.

AMOS: Are you struck by the difference between the reaction from the Syrian community and from the German community?

AMJAHID: Yes. There is no reaction from the German community. So it's a very clear gap.

AMOS: For Germans, this could change when the trial begins when Syrians give an official account of a war that destroyed their country, the torture chambers that forced so many to flee. For Syrians, it's an official German record in court that shows that while the Assad regime has won the war, the victims get a say in how the history is written. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.