In France, around thirty legal proceedings for - NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP

  • The trial which opened this Thursday in Koblenz, Germany, is the first trial in the world targeting abuses attributed to the Damascus regime since the start of the war in Syria in 2011.
  • French justice has also opened numerous investigations targeting former members of the regime or the Syrian intelligence services.
  • A total of six magistrates are today responsible for around thirty procedures relating to crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Syria.

Overshadowed by the flood of information linked to the coronavirus epidemic, the event is no less crucial. Since Thursday April 23, a historic trial takes place in Germany. For the first time since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, a former state security colonel, Anwar Raslan, is on trial for a crime against humanity. A judicial advance which could open the way, in the years to come to other major trials in a conflict which has already caused the death of 384,000 people and which still lasts.

Throughout the world, procedures are opening on the initiative of Syrian refugees victims of the repression of the regime of Bashar al Assad or of the armed groups present in the country. France, like many of its European neighbors, is among the states most active in this area. But why can a third country judge facts committed on another soil than its own? And what are the difficulties encountered today by the investigators and magistrates in charge of these files? 20 Minutes  takes stock.

  • Why can third countries judge such facts?

If French, German or Swedish magistrates today deal with crimes against humanity committed since 2011 in Syria, they do so on the basis of a fundamental concept in international law: universal jurisdiction. "Some crimes are considered to be so serious that they compel states - if the alleged perpetrators reside or are on their territory - to investigate. This is the case for acts of torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, "summarizes Jeanne Sulzer, head of the" justice "commission within Amnesty International France.

The opening of numerous proceedings by national courts, in Europe but also in Canada or in the United States, also results from a diplomatic deadlock. “Since 2011, initiatives have been launched and renewed before the UN Security Council to seize the International Criminal Court in the context of this conflict. But Russia systematically deposits its veto ”, continues Jeanne Sulzer. Deprived of this international justice, the victims have since turned to national courts.

Certain investigations for crimes against humanity are also opened on other legal bases. "When a French victim is the subject of atrocities in a third country, this authorizes the justice of our country to investigate," said Colonel Eric Emeraux, head of the Central Office to combat crimes against humanity, genocides and war crimes (OCLCH), attached to the national gendarmerie. This is the case, for example, with the procedure linked to the bombing of a press center in the city of Homs in February 2012. Two reporters were killed in this attack, including French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, 28 years old at the time of the attack. 'time.

  • Where are the investigations in France?

"Since the genocide in Rwanda, conflict has never given rise to so many legal proceedings around the world," underlines Clémence Bectarte, lawyer for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and several families of victims of the Syrian conflict.

In France, 11 judicial investigations are in progress and 27 preliminary investigations in connection with crimes against humanity committed in Syria are today managed by the pole in charge of this litigation within the national antiterrorist prosecutor's office (Pnat). A cell composed of four specialized investigators is also mobilized within the team of Eric Emeraux as well as three magistrates of the Pnat and three other judges. "A large majority of the cases concern former members of the regime and others relate to various armed groups present in Syria," added the head of the OCLCH.

Within the European Union, France is showing a certain dynamism in this area, continues Clémence Bectarte. “There was a political will, it must be said, in Germany as in France. It is also a very documented conflict thanks to the work of many activists present on the spot who provided video, photographic or testimonial evidence, ”analyzes the lawyer. On this point, the transmission to France of the "Cesar" file containing 48,000 photos of corpses extracted from Syrian jails by an ex-photographer of the military police, was decisive.

The arrival of asylum seekers from Syria also encouraged the opening of investigations, some no longer hesitating to take legal action in their host country with the help of specialized NGOs. Finally, the presence of former members of the regime who are also trying to find refuge in Europe has had the consequence of multiplying the procedures. “The law of July 2015 on asylum and the right of foreigners had an impact on the volume of files that we process. Since that date, the director of Ofpra, the office responsible for asylum requests in France, is required to inform the public prosecutor's office of the presence of an individual suspected of having committed a war crime or a crime against humanity ”, adds Eric Emeraux.

  • What difficulties remain for investigators and magistrates?

Since 2017, the head of the twenty investigators tasked with tracking down these perpetrators of war crimes, in Syria as in other countries, Colonel Eric Emeraux agrees, "these investigations are not a long, calm river". In the Syrian context alone, the impossibility of accessing the ground remains a major obstacle. But cooperation with other clusters across Europe has enabled its teams to pool their research and share their progress. "The German trial is important to us since we work as a joint team on this file with our neighbors across the Rhine," he said. Despite this, the collection of testimonies is sometimes complicated. “Many victims have had the courage to volunteer to testify or file complaints. But others still fear for their safety and that of their loved ones who sometimes stayed in Syria, ”says lawyer Clémence Bectarte.

Unlike a crime or an act of torture targeting a single victim, crimes against humanity also require gathering a very large amount of evidence. "We must be able to demonstrate that there is a systematic strategy behind these abuses, and this is not obvious," illustrates Jeanne Sulzer, of Amnesty International France. An element which sometimes lengthens and complicates procedures.

For the time being, none of the 38 procedures launched in France have yet resulted in a referral to an assize court. But this possibility exists, insists the head of the “justice” commission within the NGO: “As we did for the Rwandan genocide, nothing prevents today the holding of a similar trial in France for Syria. The files are progressing and the German file should help. All the signals are green to fight against impunity which has lasted since 2011. ”


Conflict in Syria has killed 384,000 people in nine years


How does France track down war criminals?

  • Justice
  • World
  • War crimes
  • Crime against humanity
  • Bashar al Assad
  • Syria
  • Syrian refugees