Former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and former President Barack Obama’s ambassador for war crimes, Stephen Rapp has followed the Koblenz trial very closely, making multiple visits to the site. Chairman of the Council of Commissioners of the CIJA (Commission for International Justice and Accountability), which played a fundamental role in the Koblenz trial of Syrian colonel Anwar Raslan, he comments on this historic moment in international criminal justice.
Le Temps: How does Anwar Raslan’s life sentence for crimes against humanity mark a historic moment for international criminal justice?
Stephen Rapp: This is the first conviction in history for cases of torture and murder commissioned by a foreign power whose leaders are still in office. A conviction that falls while crimes are still being committed by the Syrian regime. In Nuremberg or Rwanda, those responsible for the genocide were no longer in power. For the Syrians, who have not been able to see the advent of an international court of justice address their tragedy, this is a very positive development. It is also the illustration of justice bottom-up where the criminal case was built by civil society and by the victims with the help of the German public authorities who protected the witnesses.
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For you, Germany has played a crucial role in this leap forward in international criminal justice …
Germany has played an incredible role. She has shown real leadership, notably by setting up a robust international criminal investigation unit within the BKA, the German Federal Office of Criminal Police. She took up all the challenges relating to such a trial, particularly with regard to culture and language. As a reminder, the crimes tried were committed more than 2,000 kilometers from Koblenz. Part of the success of this trial is clearly due to Germany, which has approached the case with incredible seriousness. No other country has acted with such means and such a will to succeed.
Another major player contributed to Raslan’s historic condemnation.
Yes, Caesar. The images of this photographer of the regime who defected and who exported out of Syria nearly 55,000 photos: 400 of them concerned murders committed in unit 251 of Al-Khatib prison. Some directly concerned Colonel Anwar Raslan, responsible for the deaths of at least 17 people. They clearly illustrate the killing machine set up by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Without the images of Caesar, the trial would have been much more complicated. Photos whose authenticity had already been confirmed by the FBI in 2014 and which two German forensic institutes themselves recently validated. The Koblenz court ruled the photographic documents to be fully valid.
Photos alone, however, would not have gone very far.
Indeed, civil society has done remarkable work. The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), of which I have the honor to chair the Council of Commissioners, has played a crucial role. Created in 2012, it has equipped itself with a remarkable investigative infrastructure with a number of collaborators on site in Syria who were able to collect valuable evidence. It has exfiltrated more than a million pages of documents which attest to the orders which allowed the start-up and the maintenance of the killing machine of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The deputy director of the CIJA testified before the court of Koblenz and was able to attest to the massive attacks perpetrated by the Syrian regime against civilians. The victims themselves made an essential contribution to the trial. These torture survivors have been vetted by civil society and German authorities to ascertain their status. This work has been exemplary.
Germany has resorted to universal jurisdiction. Will this verdict strengthen this skill?
In the West, this universal jurisdiction that Belgium and Spain have for example activated has not been very popular in the past. Particularly within the American administration of George W. Bush. But what happened in Koblenz will clearly strengthen universal jurisdiction globally. It is very important for Germany and Europe to act on such cases. They are thus sending a clear message to Damascus. Germany has also taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. She has a real relationship with Syria. But she has shown that she is not a haven of peace for executioners who would have passed themselves off as victims.
Should the Syrian regime tremble?
It may well make believe that there is a relative normalization with some Gulf states, its officials risk life imprisonment if they leave the country. There are two more cases in Germany and other criminal cases which are almost ready in France (chemical weapons), Austria and Sweden.