Syrian Doctor Accused of Atrocities Goes on Trial in Germany

The Syrian doctor tortured detainees — opponents of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad — by beating them with sticks and kicking them, and even set one on fire, German prosecutors say. In one instance, they allege, he killed a prisoner with a lethal injection.

The accusations against Dr. Alaa Mousa — at least 18 charges of torture and one of murder committed between April 2011 and the end of the 2012 — amount to crimes against humanity, German prosecutors will seek to prove in Dr. Mousa’s long-awaited trial, which began on Wednesday in Frankfurt. The proceedings started less than a week after German prosecutors won a guilty verdict in the world’s first trial prosecuting state-sponsored torture in Syria.

Dr. Mousa, is accused targeting Assad opponents in military facilities.

According to one charge, he doused the testicles of a teenage boy with alcohol and set him ablaze in a military hospital in the summer of 2011.

With this and other cases, Germany has emerged at the forefront of prosecutions against Syrian government officials.

In the case that ended last Thursday, a former intelligence officer was convicted in Koblenz, Germany, of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison — a verdict welcomed by human rights lawyers as a milestone in the search for accountability for war crimes in Syria.

Dr. Mousa was not in as high a position of power as the intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, who oversaw the torture of prisoners in a detention center.

But indictment for his alleged role in Syrian military facilities was “a clear signal that Germany takes this fight against impunity very seriously and it will continue to commit itself to the international criminal justice system,” said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany. It demonstrated, she added, that last week’s verdict was not a “once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Activists outside the court in Frankfurt on Wednesday held posters depicting detained Syrians who are still missing.Credit…Constantn Zinn/EPA, via Shutterstock

The trial of Dr. Mousa is expected to shed further light on abuses committed by the Syrian government during the ongoing conflict, and on mistreatment in the medicalsystem, said Roger Lu Phillips, the legal director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center in Washington D.C., which interviewed several witnesses involved in the case.

“In Koblenz, we saw glimpses of the mistreatment of the Syrian government within the hospital system,” said Mr. Phillips, adding that this case would offer more insights into such abuses. The challenge for German prosecutors, Mr. Phillips said, was that they would have to prove Dr. Mousa was acting under the direction or orders of the Syrian government for the accusations to be considered crimes against humanity.

If convicted, Ms. Bock said, it was “almost mandatory” that Dr. Mousa would receive a life sentence.

An assistant doctor who served in military facilities in Damascus, Syria’s capital, and the central city of Homs, Dr. Mousa stands accused of kicking and punching detainees in the head, torso and groin, and operating on someone without sufficient anesthetic.

After one prisoner in Homs protested against a beating, prosecutors say, Dr. Mousa restrained the man and injected him with a substance that killed him.

Dr. Mousa left Syria in 2015, alongside about a million other refugees who crossed into Europe, and settled in Germany, where he worked in a hospital in the city of Kassel. He was arrested in June 2020 after other Syrian refugees who recognized him reported him to the authorities.

“This is quite shocking: the idea that someone who might have committed heinous torture has practiced as a doctor in a German setting,” said Ms. Bock. For many in Germany, the case of Dr. Mousa conjured memories of the Nazi regime, when doctors worked in concentration camps as part of the torture and genocide machinery.

Initially, the Frankfurt higher regional court only accepted some of the charges. After federal prosecutors appealed to Germany’s Federal Court of Justice, that court ruled on Tuesday that all charges included in the initial indictment would be heard.

Human rights lawyers have begun seeking justice for victims of the Syrian government through the legal concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which holds that any nation’s courts can try people for grave atrocities committed anywhere.

In the absence of avenues through the International Criminal Court in The Hague or a special war tribunal established by the United Nations, universal jurisdiction cases offer “a last bastion of justice” for many Syrian victims, Mr. Phillips said.

Rights groups say that prosecuting less prominent offenders like Dr. Mousa is crucial in identifying witnesses and building an evidentiary record that might some day be used against higher-ranking officials.

But prosecuting a case in Germany for acts committed against Syrians by other Syrians presents difficulties, like creating trust with the community and getting witnesses to come forward, partly because many fear retribution from the Syrian government.

Organizations like Human Rights Watch, for example, have called for wider Arabic translation of court proceedings, warning that a lack of interpretation marginalized those who did not speak fluent German and did not understand legal language. The trial that began Wednesday was conducted in German.

“To be meaningful, justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done,” said Balkees Jarrah, interim international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Court authorities should make Arabic translation more widely available for these cases involving the world’s worst crimes committed abroad.”

As a way of creating an unofficial public record, Mr. Phillips said that trial monitors for his center would be translating notes taken at the trial on Wednesday.

“This case is undeniably a matter of international justice and it has enormous historic import,” he said. “Those individuals who are most impacted by these crimes should have access to the proceedings.”

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