16th Apr 2024

German court hears harrowing testimony of Syria torture

  • The war-torn city of Homs in western Syria (Photo: Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘)

On 9 and 10 September, a former cemetery worker testified to gruesome details of the Syrian regime's torture programme in the so-called al-Khatib trial, which is taking place in Koblenz, Germany.

It was the world's first trial of torture in Syria.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

It falls under Germany's universal jurisdiction law on crimes against humanity and it comes after Germany arrested two Syrian intelligence officers on its territory in February 2019.

But the Koblenz court is not keeping full and complete transcripts of the proceedings, undermining the initiative in the eyes of some victims.

The question of what happened to the bodies of their loved ones has haunted many Syrian families for years, and was finally answered, in horrendous detail, by one of those who participated in burying the dead.

The witness testimony revealed the technical details of what is still, today, an ongoing Syrian torture and extermination machine.

Since the civil war began in 2011, the Syrian regime has unleashed a systemic campaign of extermination against citizens who demanded their basic rights.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been arrested by the Syrian government, killed under torture, died in detention, or were executed.

The witness, who was code-named "Z 30/07/19", said in his testimony that at the end of 2011 intelligence officers asked him and several of his colleagues to work with them in transporting and burying the corpses of victims.

The officers provided the cemetery worker with a minibus without license plates, but plastered with images of president Bashar al-Assad.

Trucks of corpses

Several times a week from 2011 to 2017, the worker drove his colleagues from military hospitals to the al-Quteifa and Najha cemeteries to unload and bury corpses from large refrigerated trucks, usually accompanied by intelligence officers.

Up to three trucks were used to carry 300 to 700 corpses each, four times a week.

He estimated to the court the total number of the corpses as being high as 1.5 million and maybe more.

The government cemetery worker said the bodies were naked and covered in red and blue marks.

Some of them had had their fingernails, toenails, or both pulled out and some were missing internal organs.

When the trucks were opened, the witness recalled, it sounded like a gas bottle being unsealed, sending out horrible smells followed by streams of blood and worms.

He spoke of corpses marked with numbers and symbols on their foreheads or chests.

Some of the bodies' hands were still fastened behind their backs with handcuffs or zip ties.

Some of their faces were unrecognisable from acid burns.

Once a man who had supposedly been executed was still breathing, until an officer ordered an excavator driver to run over him.

Another time, the witness discovered the body of a woman who was holding a dead child in her arms. He almost broke down when he saw this.

The cemetery worker provided detailed information on the Syrian government's systematic process of eradicating the corpses of its victims and concealing the evidence.

But his information about the locations of the mass graves was not new.

Several human rights groups have documented mass graves to bury detainees in Syria since 2012, and repeatedly after that, including in the al-Quteifa and Najha mass graves, in which the cemetery worker described his activities.

In 2013, field activists in the al-Quteifa area reported that they saw, on the morning of 12 June 2013, members of the Military Third Division burying dozens of bodies in a mass grave in al-Quteifa - the same grave the cemetery worker mentioned.

In 2013, when I was working with the Violation Documentation Centre-VDC, an NGO, the centre also published an investigation together with Human Rights Watch, showing satellite images of mass graves and their locations in Najha and Al Bahdaliyah near Damascus.

But amid the new revelations in the Koblenz trial, there is one unhelpful aspect: the German court is not keeping a full transcript of testimonies and proceedings.

Full transcripts?

The result is to leave no official documentation of the crimes the witness spoke of. This opens up questions for the defence.

What if they decided to appeal the sentence later? There would be a need for official documents. How could anyone prove, for example, that a witness or a plaintiff said this or that?

Sometimes one word of testimony is enough to flip a whole case or conviction on its head. So, if there is an appeal, should the court call on the witness to testify again?

Would this not be rather costly for the court, lengthening the trial, and extending the trauma for the witnesses and victims' relatives? What if the witness was not available to travel again to Koblenz?

In addition to all this, such documentation would be highly valuable in any transitional process for Syrians to understand and address their state extermination machine and the whereabouts of the corpses of their loved ones.

This official documentation could also be used in legal processes in local courts in Syria once the war has ended, or in future international courts.

And such archives have a high academic value not only for Syrians but for other nations, as they provide a unique source of information for scholars, historians, and other researchers into state extermination practices.

This trial is the first of its kind, which makes it all the more important for it to be recorded properly.

There are several similar cases now under way in other EU countries and in Germany itself.

Reading past trial records and understanding past verdict precedents is vital for the whole legal system.

The corpses of Syria's state torture victims faded into limbo, and now, to add salt to the wound, their families are being deprived of their right to official records of how it took place.

A court spokesperson confirmed that the court's proceedings were in accordance with Germany's Code of Criminal Procedure - which does not "provide for a verbatim protocol as a standard, but rather...must essentially reflect the course and the results of the main hearing."

Author bio

Mansour Omari is a Syrian journalist and a former activist with the NGO Violation Documentation Centre.

Up to 750 European children trapped in north-east Syria

Between 700 and 750 children from different EU member states are trapped in camps in north-east Syria with parents who are suspected Islamic State fighters. Many are under the age of six, victims of war and conflict.


'Repatriation' of Syrians in Turkey needs EU action

We interviewed 18 Syrian refugees in Turkey by phone. They all said Turkish authorities had arbitrarily detained them in immigration removal centres and forced them to sign forms they were not allowed to read but believed were voluntary repatriation forms.


Syria is still an EU problem

As the war in Syria comes gradually to its painful conclusion, the country's destiny is under the influence of ever more regional and international powers. Europe, however, is not one of them.


Potential legal avenues to prosecute Navalny's killers

The UN could launch an independent international investigation into Navalny's killing, akin to investigation I conducted on Jamal Khashoggi's assassination, or on Navalny's Novichok poisoning, in my role as special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, writes the secretary-general of Amnesty International.

Latest News

  1. EU puts Sudan war and famine-risk back in spotlight
  2. EU to blacklist Israeli settlers, after new sanctions on Hamas
  3. Private fears of fairtrade activist for EU election campaign
  4. Brussels venue ditches far-right conference after public pressure
  5. How German police pulled the plug on a Gaza conference
  6. EU special summit, MEPs prep work, social agenda This WEEK
  7. EU leaders condemn Iran, urge Israeli restraint
  8. UK-EU deal on Gibraltar only 'weeks away'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us