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If a Torturer Switches Sides, Does He Deserve Mercy?

A Syrian official goes on trial this week for war crimes. His defense centers on the rebels who helped him defect—and now want nothing to do with him.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
A Syrian man shows marks of torture on his back, after he was released from regime forces, in the Bustan Pasha neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on Aug. 23, 2012.
A Syrian man shows marks of torture on his back, after he was released from regime forces, in the Bustan Pasha neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on Aug. 23, 2012.
A Syrian man shows marks of torture on his back, after he was released from regime forces, in the Bustan Pasha neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on Aug. 23, 2012. JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN/AFP/GettyImages

In September 2012, a year and a half into the Syrian uprising, the opposition movement decided to help regime officials defect abroad, in hopes of accelerating the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. One such official was Anwar Raslan. He headed the investigations team of Branch 251, a notorious intelligence directorate prison on Baghdad Street in Damascus. It was one of the most feared addresses in the capital, run by a feared man. At capacity, it could detain and torture a hundred people at a time, but as the protests picked up, the number of prisoners reached four times that number, as the building became stuffed with political prisoners who were beaten unconscious, electrocuted, and hung by their wrists under Raslan’s command.

And then, in 2013, the opposition received word Raslan wanted to defect. He was an important enough target for the opposition that they dispatched one of their own to pretend to be Raslan's driver and escort him through Damascus, a city lined with soldiers, to rebel-held eastern Ghouta. Within days, he was smuggled to neighboring Jordan. There, he joined the opposition.

Over the next two years, Raslan ingratiated himself with several opposition leaders and in 2014 even got a ticket to represent the rebellion in Geneva at U.N.-organized peace talks. The about-face paid off when he flew to Germany in the summer that year and sought asylum. He successfully settled with his family in northeast Berlin and started afresh, without anyone mentioning the torture chamber he once oversaw. Branch 251, and the screams of thousands of people brought there, seemed to have faded away.

In September 2012, a year and a half into the Syrian uprising, the opposition movement decided to help regime officials defect abroad, in hopes of accelerating the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. One such official was Anwar Raslan. He headed the investigations team of Branch 251, a notorious intelligence directorate prison on Baghdad Street in Damascus. It was one of the most feared addresses in the capital, run by a feared man. At capacity, it could detain and torture a hundred people at a time, but as the protests picked up, the number of prisoners reached four times that number, as the building became stuffed with political prisoners who were beaten unconscious, electrocuted, and hung by their wrists under Raslan’s command.

And then, in 2013, the opposition received word Raslan wanted to defect. He was an important enough target for the opposition that they dispatched one of their own to pretend to be Raslan’s driver and escort him through Damascus, a city lined with soldiers, to rebel-held eastern Ghouta. Within days, he was smuggled to neighboring Jordan. There, he joined the opposition.

Over the next two years, Raslan ingratiated himself with several opposition leaders and in 2014 even got a ticket to represent the rebellion in Geneva at U.N.-organized peace talks. The about-face paid off when he flew to Germany in the summer that year and sought asylum. He successfully settled with his family in northeast Berlin and started afresh, without anyone mentioning the torture chamber he once oversaw. Branch 251, and the screams of thousands of people brought there, seemed to have faded away.

But the truth caught up with him in February of last year when Raslan was apprehended by German police. He was charged with committing crimes against humanity and will be the first regime official to be tried in court. The German prosecutor’s indictment says that during April 2011 and September 2012, while Raslan was in charge of Branch 251, at least 4,000 people were tortured there, 59 died as a result, and at least one person was raped and sexually assaulted. The Higher Regional Court of Koblenz is conducting the trial under Germany’s principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows prosecutors to investigate and try international crimes committed on a foreign territory by foreign nationals. (Prosecuting Assad officials in the International Criminal Court has been impossible, because of veto power held by China and Russia.) Despite the pandemic lockdown, the trial is expected to go on as scheduled on April 23.

However, the peculiarity of Raslan’s case has caused a split among anti-regime Syrians. Some of those who were tortured are gearing up to confront him in the courtroom, but organized opposition groups find themselves in a more difficult position, as they formally cooperated with him during his defection. They would like to see justice, too, but want to avoid getting tainted by the association with him.

In pursuit of that end, members of the opposition have adopted differing arguments. Some claim his defection should mitigate his guilt for earlier crimes and warn against deterring other officials from abandoning the regime. Another defector who worked at a different branch of Syria’s intelligence infrastructure, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, backed Raslan fully. “It was a brave decision by Anwar to defect, keeping in mind his rank and sensitive nature of the job,” the former intelligence officer said. “Had he been caught, he and his family, even extended relatives, would have been killed in cold blood.”

Others attempt to cast guilt on Raslan by amplifying doubts about the sincerity of his affiliation with the opposition. Some even claim (without any evidence) that he deserves punishment because he was a double agent who kept in touch with Syrian intelligence agencies after his defection.

Wael al-Khalid, a prominent opposition activist who helped Raslan defect, told Foreign Policy that Raslan had struck a deal with the rebels, agreeing to hand over the files of over 20,000 detainees, with information about what happened to them and on whose orders, in exchange for his extraction. But he never shared anything of substance. Khalid said that once out of Syria, Raslan was more interested in moving to Germany than helping the opposition. “He said he had an invitation from Qatar, but he wanted to move to Germany. We got him his Syrian passport by bribing regime officials, but even then he did not deliver us the promised documents,” Khalid said. “Every time I insisted, he said he will deliver the files to the United Nations, or to the CIA. I knew he was bluffing us.” Foreign Policy checked with at least five senior opposition leaders of the time, and all of them say they never received any substantial information about the Syrian regime from Raslan.

Everyone in the opposition seems to agree that the war crimes should be prosecuted in a way that manages to absolve their own side—but those arguments are sometime tenuous. Hadi al-Bahra, the chief negotiator of the Syrian opposition in 2014, evaded questions about Raslan’s exact role in the Geneva talks. He admitted he had seen Raslan there but perplexingly added he didn’t quite know what Raslan was there for. “I don’t remember exactly,” he said, “but he was neither our spokesperson nor a part of the delegation.” But Col. Qassim Saad al-Din, an officer who defected from the Syrian Air Force and joined the opposition, contradicted Hadi. He recounted a conversation with Ahmad Jarba, the chief of the opposition’s coalition in 2014, about Raslan. “Jarba said he didn’t know him but other officers had put in a good word and convinced him that Anwar must be sent as a part of the delegation,” Din said.

Whatever the opposition may think of Raslan, prosecuting lawyers said his defection will have a limited legal impact, if any at all, on their own legal strategy. Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian lawyer based in Berlin who has been assisting the prosecution, was himself arrested in 2006 in Syria on Raslan’s orders, back when he led Branch 285 of the general intelligence directorate in Damascus. “If he defected or if he changed his political views, that does not give him amnesty,” Bunni said. “He is a criminal, and I don’t care about a criminal’s political position.” Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has built dossiers against a dozen regime officials including Raslan, said that Raslan’s culpability would be judged according to the rule of law and “not by the politics of the conflict.”

The state believes its case is watertight. The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an NGO investigating crimes against humanity in Syria, has shared a pile of documents with prosecutors establishing Raslan’s command and control of Branch 251. Even more significantly, perhaps, CIJA has shared photographs from a Syrian military defector code-named Caesar who fled the country in 2013 with a heap of over 50,000 images, over half of which are of detainees killed inside the state’s prisons. Nerma Jelacic,the director of external affairs at CIJA, said that among those photographs at least 145 are of those who were killed in the prison of Branch 251 and over a hundred while Raslan was in charge.

She added that while the case may be focused on one individual right now, the evidence at trial will reveal a chain of command that leads all the way up to Bashar al-Assad. “It will be the first time the evidence presented will be able to show how the heinous crimes that have been and are being committed in the regime-held detention facilities are not isolated incidents but rather part and parcel of a wider and systematic crackdown on the protests,” she said, “by the highest-ranking members of Assad’s regime.”

Assad himself, however, is out of bounds for now. The lawyers and the humanitarians acknowledge there are no available avenues to hold him accountable until he is out of power. Raslan, meanwhile, seems to have fewer options at his disposal.

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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