Seeking Justice for the Civilian Victims of the Syrian Civil War

Aida Samani Civil Rights Defenders
  • by Paul Virgo (rome)
  • Inter Press Service

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad systematically used heavy artillery on the Baba Amr neighbourhood, where the FSA had established a military council, while keeping the area under siege with tanks, helicopters and thousands of ground troops.

Many civilians were killed during the month-long campaign and most of the buildings in the neighbourhood were rubble by the time the Syrian Army captured it on March 2, 2012.

That was not the end of the violence.

A number of extra-judicial executions were then carried out by the government’s security forces and the ‘shabbiha’ militias loyal to Assad.

The Syrian military’s attacks subsequently followed the same pattern elsewhere.

The city of Ar-Rastan, located between Hama and Homs, and towns in the Al-Houla region, approximately 30 kilometres northwest of Homs, experienced similar tactics during the spring of 2012 with sieges, indiscriminate shelling and extrajudicial executions in viola?on of international humanitarian law.

The Syrian army officials involved in the atrocities, in which thousands of civilians were killed or injured, had reason to believe they would never face any consequences for their actions.

Until now.

This month the trial of a brigadier-general who headed the armament unit of the 11th division of the 3rd Corps of the Syrian Army in Homs and Hama began before the Stockholm District Court over his role in the attacks between January and July 2012.

He is accused of aiding and abetting war crimes and the trial is the first in Europe to concern indiscriminate attacks against civilians within the context of the warfare of the Syrian army.

“As such, it is the first time that the victims of such attacks can make their voice heard in an independent court of law and have the opportunity to receive redress,” Aida Samani, Senior Legal Advisor at the human rights organisation Civil Rights Defenders, told IPS.

“A guilty verdict would send yet another signal to states seeking to normalize relations with Syria, that the state that they are approaching is one that has, and is, systematically and deliberately harming its own citizens”.

The defendant served in the Syrian Army until July 2012, when he defected.

“The defendant moved to Sweden in 2015 and we have not seen anything that suggests that he has left the country,” said Samani.

“In 2018, the Swedish Migration Agency reported him to the Swedish Police's war-crimes unit claiming, on the basis of information given by the defendant himself, that he had been a high-ranking officer within the Syrian Army at a time when the army was committing war crimes”.

She explained that International Criminal Court (ICC) could not take up the case because Syria has not ratified the ICC statute and the attempts that have been made in the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the Court have been vetoed by Russia and China.

“That means that the only possibility that victims currently have to receive redress is through the courts of countries, such as Sweden, that have legislation which allows its authorities to prosecute and sentence people for war crimes committed abroad,” said Samani.

There are currently eight plaintiffs in the case, some of whom suffered injuries or lost close family members in the attacks, while others had their homes destroyed.

The prosecution has called 15 witnesses, including eyewitnesses who can speak of the events in question; insiders, primarily defectors, who can testify about the involvement of the 11th division in the attacks; and expertswho can explain the army’s military structure and what the responsibilities of the brigadier-general would have been.

Samani said the case could also set a precedent subsequently used in relation to what is happening in other theatres of conflict, such as Ukraine and Gaza.

”Similar cases concerning indiscriminate attacks committed in other countries than Syria may appear in domestic courts across Europe,” she said.

“This presumes that there is enough evidence in the case and that the procedural requirements for the authorities to investigate, prosecute and sentence suspected perpetrators are fulfilled”.

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service