Trial for torture in syria: mass graves near damascus

The trial of an alleged torturer from Syria continues in Koblenz. A witness reports about refrigerated trucks with tens of thousands of corpses.

The likeness of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the cityscape of Homs in February 2012 Photo: reuters

In the al-Khatib trial before the Koblenz Higher Regional Court, a former employee of the Syrian regime again testified. He reported mass graves that are said to have extended over thousands of square meters. In 20, he had documented how refrigerated trucks carrying a total of tens of thousands of corpses had been taken from military hospitals and Saydnaya prison to secret cemeteries near Damascus.

The witness with the code Z 30/07/19 was allowed to testify anonymously and to keep his respirator mask on because he fears for the safety of his relatives in Syria. His testimony allows conclusions to be drawn about the extent of the killings in the country’s prisons and intelligence departments.

In the world’s first trial on state torture in Syria, two former intelligence officers have been on trial in Koblenz since April. They are accused of crimes against humanity in connection with their work for Department 251 of the General Intelligence Service in Damascus: 4,000 cases of torture, 58 killings, and one case each of rape and aggravated sexual assault. With the help of the principle of international law, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office can prosecute crimes under international law in this country even if they have no direct connection to Germany.

The witness who testified on Wednesday and Thursday had worked for a civilian government agency in Damascus. He did not provide further details about his place of work so as not to allow any conclusions to be drawn about his identity. He had already reported threats against his relatives in Syria to the BKA during the investigation.

Nightmarish scenes

In the fall of 2011, he and his colleagues were recruited by intelligence officers to accompany mass funerals in the towns of Najha and Al-Qutaifah near Damascus, which the witness probably did until 2017. He himself had the task of recording in a register the number of bodies and the departments from which they came. On average, the trucks had come four times a week, delivering up to 700 corpses each time.

Because of the strong smell of decomposition, he tried to keep his distance from the trucks, the witness said. "As soon as the doors were opened, the smell spread for meters," he described the nightmarish scene already during his testimony at the BKA. "You could see streams of blood and maggots. The first time I was there, I couldn’t eat for days afterwards."

His employees had to get right to work: they pushed the bodies out of the refrigerated trucks into prepared trenches, which were then covered by excavators. Hundreds of meters long, the trenches would have been. "The more people they brought, the more they dug." Recalling his experiences, the witness remains calm at first. On Wednesday afternoon, however, the questioning has to be interrupted early because of circulatory problems.

Z 30/07/19 was not the first witness to report on the mass graves in Najha. At the end of June, a former intelligence officer had described very similar scenes during his testimony in Koblenz and also reported on the careful documentation of the dead. This witness had also testified that the defendant Eyad A. had accompanied the body transports several times. Whether Z 30/07/19 was also connected with the defendant remained open. He still knew the name of the officer on whose behalf he was to document the mass burials – but did not dare to name him in the courtroom.

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