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Witnesses Of Alleged War Crimes In Syria Testify Despite Feeling They're In Danger

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Survivors of Syria's prisons can face risks even after they're free. But some have still stepped up to tell their stories in a German courtroom. For more than a year, German judges in the western city of Koblenz have been taking testimony about Syrians' imprisonment and torture. The trial is widely regarded as a step towards bringing to justice members of President Bashar al-Assad's regime for crimes against humanity. But as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Germany, some testify despite dangers for them or their relatives.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm standing in front of the courthouse in Koblenz where this unprecedented trial began. It's a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer charged with crimes against humanity. You can't record inside a German court, but I can describe what I've seen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: The testimony here is dramatic and sometimes horrific. Witnesses describe electric shocks, beatings with cables, punches to the back of the neck.

WASSIM MUKDAD: It's a horrible experience. Lack of food, lack of medicine - I remember clearly that some have to stand up most of the night for others to sleep.

AMOS: Wassim Mukdad described his testimony to NPR at his home in Berlin. He talked about his arrest and interrogation in Syria.

MUKDAD: We were detained on the street. They started to hit us with their fists, with their feet. The whole interrogation was always accompanied with active torture, as if you are now - you are in hell.

AMOS: In the courtroom, the man Mukdad says ordered his torture sat a few feet away.

MUKDAD: Like, I remember clearly the moment our eyes crossed. I had very complex emotions.

AMOS: The man he was looking at is Anwar Raslan, a former intelligence officer in charge of prison interrogations. He has denied any role in the crimes listed in the indictment, denied he was even in charge, denied any torture under his watch. German prosecutors have charged him with 58 counts of murder, more than 4,000 counts of torture - crimes alleged to have been committed in Branch 251, the Damascus prison where Mukdad was held. He says there were days that he wished for death.

MUKDAD: It's not easy personally to share your bad experiences on a public stage. It's not easy to face the brutality of the dictatorship in Syria. But also, this is the first step in a long way towards justice.

AMOS: For him, testifying was a relief, he says. Finally, he was more than just a survivor. But in recent months, there have been threats. Other witnesses and their families have been threatened by the regime to silence them, says Joumana Seif, a Syrian human rights lawyer.

JOUMANA SEIF: The regime is still in power and we know still has the full authority to punish.

AMOS: She's a research fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which is representing some former detainees who are testifying in the case.

SEIF: We know the behavior of this regime.

AMOS: Do you know of cases where people have pulled back or not testified because of threats?

SEIF: Yes. Actually, this is the main challenge that we are facing.

AMOS: Some frightened witnesses have already disavowed their testimony or refused to testify at all, says Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at a private think tank, the Global Policy Institute in Berlin. As we sat in a German cafe, he explained that the Syrian regime keeps close watch on exiles in Germany.

TOBIAS SCHNEIDER: The Syrian government is listening. And you know that they have means of retaliating not just against your family at home but even against you here.

AMOS: Does the German government know about this? And can they do anything about it?

SCHNEIDER: If you read the sort of annual reports of our domestic intelligence agencies, they are keenly aware that this exists. They simply do not have the capacities to meaningfully combat this.

AMOS: The Syrian government didn't reply to NPR's repeated requests for comment. Schneider says some Syrian activists report harassment on German streets. In Hamburg, German police are still investigating the murder two years ago of a Syrian who campaigned against the Assad regime. He was killed in an axe attack at his home, sending chills through the Syrian community in Germany.

SCHNEIDER: It doesn't have to get to the point where you're directly threatened as a Syrian to know what the potential threats are around you.

AMOS: OK. Which one is Hassan?

The message was unmistakable to Hassan Mahmoud, another witness who needed extraordinary assistance before he would testify. He feared for his family back home, particularly his brother Waseem. They both talked to me on Zoom from central Germany. It was their youngest brother who was killed in Branch 251. They were told he was dead just 12 days after his arrest in 2011.

How do you spell his name?

HASSAN MAHMOUD: H-A-Y-A-N.

AMOS: Dr. Hayan Mahmoud was 26 when he died. He had recently graduated top of his class in medical school. Hassan was set to testify in Germany, but Waseem was still in Syria, threatened a few weeks before Hassan was scheduled to take the stand.

WASEEM MAHMOUD: (Speaking Arabic).

AMOS: That brother, Waseem, tells the story. Syrian security officers came to his hometown looking for him. Both brothers understood it was a deadly threat. Soon after, Waseem escaped Syria, smuggled out after a successful campaign to convince French officials to give him an emergency visa to live there.

MAHMOUD: (Speaking Arabic).

AMOS: For every hour, I could narrate a thriller movie that even Hitchcock couldn't imagine, says Hassan about the operation to make sure his brother was safe.

MAHMOUD: Hitchcock.

AMOS: Now he could tell his story to German judges without putting another brother in danger.

MAHMOUD: (Speaking Arabic).

AMOS: We are very lucky. Hassan explained finally, I could tell our mother that we had done something about the fate of our brother, her youngest son. Many Syrians don't have that chance, he added.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: We come back to Wassim Mukdad at his home in Berlin. It's been almost a year since he had his day in court, almost five years since he fled his shattered country to start again - learn the language, get married, launch a music career playing Syrian music on the oud. He knows it's important for survivors to find the courage to speak up in court like he did - document their trauma, take part in a trial that sends a message to Damascus.

MUKDAD: It's a very direct message that your crimes are not going to pass unpunished.

AMOS: Some of the gravest crimes under international law - torture, murder, sexual violence - documented in court with crucial testimony from survivors willing to take the risk.

MUKDAD: I was a little bit angry. But I was also proud that Anwar Raslan is now in a fair trial, and his dignity is saved, in contrast to what he did, where we were suffering unbearable conditions of torture under his watch.

AMOS: He is gratified that Germany is setting an example. Even a man that he believes committed horrific crimes gets due process. A verdict is expected later this year.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story mistakenly says that Hayan Mahmoud was detained in 2011. He was detained in 2012.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "JERSEY CITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 27, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
This story mistakenly says that Hayan Mahmoud was detained in 2011. He was detained in 2012.