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Torture Victims See Syrian Intelligence Official Convicted For War Crimes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A German court took a groundbreaking step today to hold Syrian officials accountable for crimes in that country's long civil war. The court convicted a former member of the Syrian security services for abetting torture. He had fled Syria for Germany and was in the courtroom for his sentencing. So were torture survivors. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Almost a decade after the Syrian regime sent tanks and warplanes to put down a popular uprising, a German court delivered a small but significant measure of justice and accountability. That's according to Patrick Kroker, a lawyer representing some of the Syrian torture victims. He was in the courtroom today.

PATRICK KROKER: People were queuing as of 5 a.m. this morning local time. So it shows a big interest.

AMOS: Interest in the first verdict ever against a former Syrian official, guilty of abetting torture, sentenced to four years and six months for rounding up anti-government protesters and delivering them to a notorious detention facility. This was more than a trial of former low-level Syrian officials. The prosecution also put the ruling regime on trial even as it headed towards prevailing in the country's civil war, building a body of evidence, an official record, says Kroker.

KROKER: And that's amazingly important. This can be a precedent certainly for other courts in Germany, but also for other courts worldwide.

AMOS: Many in the court this morning had already been there as witnesses since the trial started in April, including Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights attorney and former regime prisoner. He led the effort to find torture survivors to tell their stories in court. For him, the verdict was a message that impunity in Syria is over.

ANWAR AL-BUNNI: For me, it's right - fair, fair.

AMOS: A reaction shared among Syrian exiles, says German journalist Mohamed Amjahid.

MOHAMED AMJAHID: For the Syrian community, this trial is still a breathtaking moment. Even if this is just a little fish, it's the beginning of justice.

AMOS: Forty-four-year-old Eyad al-Gharib fled Syria with his family in 2013. He joined Syria's intelligence service a decade earlier. When street demonstrations evolved into a civil war, Gharib was ordered to carry out mass arrests. He knew the detained would be tortured, says Fritz Streiff, a human rights attorney and host of a podcast that covers the trial.

FRITZ STREIFF: He just told a story that he had no choice but to obey the orders that he was given from his superiors. Someone like that, of course, at some point did have a choice. Someone like that joined these services and this regime years ago. Did he have a choice then?

AMOS: The defense lawyers say they will appeal the verdict. But at the same time, they also acknowledge that the ruling will send a clear signal to war crimes perpetrators. Kroker agrees. He also sees a smaller but important signal, a first in a German court.

KROKER: What was really striking, especially for a trial in Germany, was that normally, the only language that you ever hear is German.

AMOS: As the judge read out the verdict, an Arabic translation was read out as well.

KROKER: And so we are very happy that now the court understood that it does have a huge meaning to so many Syrians that are also living in Germany or neighboring countries.

AMOS: As the German judges acknowledge the importance of this trial to the torture victims. The court is still considering more serious allegations against Gharib's superior, who headed the interrogation unit at the prison.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.