FRANKFURT (Reuters) – A Syrian doctor suspected of crimes against humanity, including torturing prisoners at military hospitals in Syria, went on trial in Germany on Wednesday in the second such case over alleged state-backed torture in Syria’s conflict.
After a landmark German court ruling last week sentencing a Syrian former intelligence officer to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, the trial of the 36-year-old doctor started at the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt am Main.
The defendant, identified as Alaa M. under German privacy laws, is accused of torturing opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while working as a doctor at a military prison and hospitals in Homs and Damascus in 2011 and 2012.
The Assad government denies accusations of having tortured prisoners.
Alaa M. arrived in Germany in 2015 to work as a doctor until he was arrested in June 2020 and placed in pre-trial detention.
Addressing the court, Alaa M. – dressed in a dark suit and white shirt – spoke calmly in fluent German about his life in Syria until he applied for a visa at the German Embassy in Lebanon in early 2015 to come as a migrant. He became one of some 5,000 Syrian doctors in Germany who have helped ease acute staff shortages in the health sector.
The father of two children, who has worked in several German hospitals, did not address the charges in his initial remarks but acknowledged he had worked at a military hospital in Syria.
He said he had no problems living as a Christian in mainly Muslim Syria before the war and that he made a payment of $8,000 to be exempted from compulsory military service there.
Ulrich Endres, one of the three defence lawyers, rejected the allegations. “We will refute what we heard in the indictment today,” Endres said.
German prosecutors have used universal jurisdiction laws that allow them to seek trials for suspects in crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
Prosecutors have charged Alaa M. with 18 cases of torture and say he killed one of the prisoners. In one of the cases, the defendant is accused of carrying out a bone fracture correction surgery without sufficient anaesthesia.
He is also accused of attempting to deprive prisoners of their reproductive capacity in two cases.
Other torture methods that prosecutors say he used against detained civilians include dousing the genitals of a teenage boy with alcohol at Homs military hospital and igniting them with a lighter.
“The prisoners were civilians who were against the Assad regime, and the accusation is that he specifically targeted these people to repress them,” court spokesperson Gundula Fehns-Boeer said before the trial began.
Fehns-Boeer said the court will first listen to the defendant’s accounts and his comment on the charges next week before summoning witnesses.
“He will say how it was from his point of view,” she said.
The doctor also worked at the Mezzeh 601 military hospital in Damascus, whose morgues and courtyard, according to Human Rights Watch, were seen in a cache of photographs which depicted the scale of state-sponsored torture against civilians and were smuggled abroad by a government photographer known as Caesar.
Antonia Klein, a legal adviser at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which is supporting a plaintiff in the case, said sexual violence as a crime against humanity will play an important role in the trial.
“The trial also shows … how diverse the crimes (in Syria’s conflict) are and how much is still to come,” said Klein.
Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who heads a human rights group in Berlin that helped build the case against Alaa M., said the trial would yield more evidence that the Syrian government abetted torture to overcome an uprising against Assad.
He said one of the nine prosecution witnesses was being threatened that members of his family in Syria would be killed if he made his statement in the court.
Al-Bunni said the Syrian embassy in Berlin had provided the defendant with forged documents to deny that he worked in military facilities and tried to help him escape Germany.
One of the defence lawyers, a Syrian national, was probably hired by the Syrian government, he added.
The Syrian embassy did not reply to a request for comment.
“After last week’s verdict, it looks like the regime in Syria is feeling the danger of these trials and that the matter is more than serious,” al-Bunni said. (Additional reporting by Petra Wischgoll Editing by Joseph Nasr and Mark Heinrich)
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