This week in court, the main accused Anwar R. reacted to the accusations against him with a statement that his lawyers read to the court. His defense in short: there was no torture when I was in charge, later others did it, I tried to help but couldn't do more, and then I fled the country.
How did this go down in court and how did the public gallery react to his statement? Listen to Karam and Fritz discuss his lengthy and detailed statement. And get comments from survivors of Branch 251 and their lawyer.
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Some additional sources on this episode and the trial here:
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Karam Shoumali: Welcome back, listeners. This is the fourth episode of Branch 251, the podcast about the world's first criminal trial dealing with accusations of atrocity crimes by Syrian officials. My name is Karam Shoumali.
Fritz Streiff: I am Fritz Streiff.
Karam: This is the first episode that we record together, as in, in the same place. Fritz lives in Paris, and I live in Berlin, and this week, he made it all the way from Paris to Koblenz, and now we are recording in my home studio. I'm glad you made it, Fritz.
Karam: How was your trip?
Fritz: It was actually okay to cross the borders. There were no issues there, and I got to Koblenz fine. Then, after court, I just continued to Berlin so that we could record this episode together with the two of us.
Karam: Good to have you here.
Fritz: Yes, thank you very much. We're recording here in Karam's home studio, at a distance.
Karam: At a distance.
Fritz: Social-distancing recording. Like I said, this was an important week for the trial.
Karam: The court resumed after a couple of weeks of recess, and it was in session for two days. Tell us what happened.
Fritz: As expected, Anwar R. the main accused, had his lawyers read out a statement he wrote. It was quite a statement. Let's take it step by step. First things first.
Karam: First things first, and as you know, I recorded our call after you left the court on the first day, just after Anwar R's statement, so let's listen to that.
[recorded phone conversation]
Karam: Hey, man. Been trying to reach you there.
Fritz: Hey. Yes, sorry. I'm just leaving the courthouse now, and there's still quite some people out here talking to media. The public gallery and the press section was totally full again today for reasons that we shall discuss. I'm seeing here people giving interviews to TV. Then, there's is this one lone podcaster.
Karam: Fritz Streiff?
Fritz: [laughs] That's me, yes.
Karam: Did you get a good seat?
Fritz: We were there at 6:15 AM in the early morning cold, but it got us a seat in the public gallery, so we were happy about that.
Karam: What happened?
Fritz: As expected, Anwar R had his lawyers read out a statement that he wrote himself. He didn't really make any concrete legal arguments or rebuttals that would potentially get him off the hook. It was more of a schematic general reaction, that is also what we heard from one of the lawyers of the joint plaintiffs of the victims that joined the case, Patrick Kroker.
[recorded audio of Patrick Kroker]
Patrick Kroker: Basically, he gave two general explanations when he went through some pieces of the evidence against him, by far not all, but he mentioned some quite in detail. He either said the person was lying or was mistaken, it was not true, or he said, "Yes, that might have taken place, but it was all anyways taking place or under the responsibility of Subsection 40 of Hafez Makhlouf, and I had no control over that."
Karam: This was Partick Kroker from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights or ECCHR. He represents some of the victims as joint plaintiffs in this case. Thank you, Patrick.
Fritz: Thanks, Patrick.
Karam: Patrick Kroker mentioned Subsection 40 here; and what Patrick is getting at here is that Anwar R is blaming all wrongdoing on this subsection and its chief, at that time, Hafez Makhlouf. Hafez Makhlouf's family is related to the Assads by marriage, Assad's mother is actually a Makhlouf. This gave the Makhloufs status and influence in Syria.
Fritz: Anwar R is pointing the finger at others in terms of wrongdoing.
Karam: Yes. I think so. Now, back to our conversation, we had after the court. He and his lawyer tried in these 40 pages to claim that these accounts by the victims are non-factual, or they're lying, or they do not remember things correctly. Pretty much, that's it. This is their defense strategy now?
Fritz: That is the part of the statement today that concerned the individual accusations and the witness statements that supposedly back up those statements. There was two parts, in terms of context, his personal story, and his personal take on the political history. In terms of his personal story, he said, "Look, as soon as things really started changing, after the uprising in 2011, I started seeing things happening in a way that weren't according to what I had learned." He made a point of saying, "I went to law school in Damascus. I graduated there, in law."
He said as soon as things started changing with the uprising in 2011, this clique or gang of loyalists to the regime took over directing Branch 251 where he worked at the time. He basically said, "From that point onwards, I started feeling uncomfortable, I was degraded in the hierarchy. As soon as I made my discomfort known to my superiors. I saw that things started happening around me, including torture and other things outside of what I thought was the rulebook. I tried to help as many individual detainees as I could. When there was a chance to put them on a list of detainees to be released, I always tried to smuggle extra names onto that list.
At the same time, I couldn't do anything to stop the ‘weird stuff’ that was starting to happen around me: the torture and the killings because that was done by this clique, by this gang of regime loyalists. I was put into different jobs, and I was degraded, and at some point, I just made the plan concrete to leave the country and to desert."
Karam: Just to summarize, to see if I understand it correctly. He's claiming during his time at Branch 251, before 2011, there was no harm done at the branch, no torture whatsoever?
Fritz: Yes. Right. At least for the time that he was the director of the investigations section of the branch. He made very clear that the director of the branch wasn't him. He was just the director of the Investigations Unit of the branch. He mentioned the actual director a number of times. He downplayed his role is what he comes down to. Two things. One, before 2011, we did stuff according to the rule of law. He even referred to rule of law concepts a number of times. "After 2011, this gang of loyalists took over power and then took over direction of these detention centers including mine, and I couldn't do anything to stop it. I tried to help as many people as I could to get out, and then I fled the country."
Karam: Here's the thing that's like, he is a Syrian and growing up in Syria and hearing about the security branches the whole time, I find it now ironic, that he's associating the phrase ‘rule of law’ with Branch 251 or the Air Force Security Branch or the Telecommunications Security Branch. Rule of law, in my diction, cannot be associated with any of the branches, but this is my personal reaction upon hearing ‘rule of law’ and Branch 251. Since I was a kid, growing up, we were always afraid of security branches and hearing all these stories about them.
During my research, during my work, covering Syria for the New York Times and others, I came across many people. I interviewed many former detainees and victims who were tortured at these branches. After The Hama Massacre in 1981 and '82, another uprising by Muslim Brotherhood in the '80s, all the way to through the '90s and 2000. I really find it hard to believe that there was rule of law at the security branches, but this is my personal opinion in a way, yes.
Fritz: It's clearly a slap in the face to you Syrians and to the victims of this system for him to claim this kind of stuff.
Karam: Did he even cover his face?
Fritz: Anwar R?
Fritz: Anwar R didn't cover his face, and he also didn't cover his face last court session.
Karam: I know you're no psychologist, you're a lawyer by profession, but what do you think this tells you that he is not hiding his face? Is that a statement to prove his innocence like, "I'm innocent, I don't have to hide my face," kind of situation?
Fritz: As you say, I'm not a psychologist, but I do enjoy psychologizing every now and then. Anwar R not hiding his face and coming today with such a detailed and relatively well-structured statement means that he definitely on a strategy that says, "I'm here. I am facing this court, and I do not see a reason to hide my face since what I am saying here is that I am innocent. I did not do the things that I am accused of. There's no reason for me to hide."
Karam: Seems like it but who knows. Just like for my understanding, a 40-page statement, how would you describe the defense strategy, if you can describe it in a couple of sentences?
Fritz: Basically, a strategy that we've seen before in these kinds of trials saying I was in a context that turned sour, that turned bad, that turned illegal. I didn't agree with that. I tried to stop it but I couldn’t. I wasn’t in a position to be able to stop it. When I realized that, I made sure that I left as soon as I could. We know the strategy from earlier trials of these kinds of crimes against humanity and such crimes. What we could definitely see is it's going to be a long trial because Anwar R is preparing to use all the legal instruments, I think, that are at his disposal in this fair trial, and that's his right.
Karam: So far, it's a full-on defense strategy and zero admission of guilt.
Fritz: Zero admission of guilt, rejection of all accusations, and preparing the court and the prosecutor that he will do his very best to show that he did not what the indictment says he did.
Karam: All right, so we know the statement was widely anticipated by many.
Fritz: Yes. Not just us and the media. It was a full public gallery again at the courthouse, but there was also quite a number of Syrian survivors and victims of Branch 251 and other Syrian torture prisons. They all came to listen to what Anwar R had to say.
Karam: What reactions did you hear at the court after the statement?
Fritz: Well, the victim's lawyer we heard from earlier, Patrick Kroker said the following after we left the court.
[recorded audio of Patrick Kroker]
Patrick: Yes. Today from the accused himself we heard only a general refusal basically of all points, including of ‘was their torture in Syria pre-2011’? We didn’t hear anything about that. The first time that the word torture was mentioned was almost one hour after the beginning of the reading. There's a lot to be done still.
Fritz: Thank you, Patrick.
Fritz: I also got to talk to someone who actually survived Branch 251 herself. Her name is Soumaia Alalabi and she told me this.
[recorded audio of Soumaia]
Fritz: I would like to ask you if you wanted to just comment on what you heard the lawyers read out and what you think about the statement.
Soumaia: That was nothing actually, just a boring statement. Long boring statement and yes, I felt like maybe I will have some bad emotion about what I'm going to hear, but that never happened because that wasn’t truth. That’s why.
Fritz: Interesting. You're saying that because it was so far away from what you actually-- From your own experience that it didn’t even--
Soumaia: Touch me. Not at all. No. I thought before I went to the session, maybe I will have really hard time listening to the statement about their point-of-view. I can't imagine what he's going to say. That’s why I prepare myself very well to hear that without any emotion, but that never happened actually.
Fritz: That’s good.
Sumaiya: Yes. That was good.
Karam: Thank you, Soumaia. Fritz, Sumaiya's story is actually she left Syria to come to Germany in 2015 and ended up in no other place than Koblenz. Now this trial is taking place there too.
Fritz: Yes. It's really quite crazy and she told me she's planning on attending every court session. She said to me that this coincidence of this trial happening in the very same place that she moved to in Germany is pretty weird for her. It's good in a way because she can follow it closely, but it's also really intense of course.
Now it's time for our listener questions.
Karam: We have some questions again and this time we do not have to read them for you.
Fritz: We will answer these questions in a few trips dedicated to profile Anwar R actually.
Karam: Here they are.
Laurens: Hi. This is Laurens Hebly. How come Anwar R is so convinced that he is not guilty and that he was just walking around the Berlin Refugee Center so freely? Didn’t he think he would be discovered?
Christian: Hi. This is Christian from Germany. I wonder when his career came to an end and how he ended up in Germany.
Fritz: Thank you very much Christian and Laurens for these important questions. We are going to take a whole episode for that because there's so much to say regarding the questions of who is this guy, what did he do before? How did he end up directing the investigations unit of one of the most notorious security branches in Syria and how did he end up in Germany? We'll dive into those questions in a few trips where we have the time to really look at those questions in detail.
Karam: Yes. Thank you guys for your questions and we encourage all of our listeners to share with us with any questions via Twitter or email. Thank you, guys. With this we are coming to the end of this episode. This week was a milestone in the trial and historic.
Fritz: At the same time, I think it's a good moment to point out something that I was discussing and then hearing quite a lot from Syrians that were attending court as well this week. The thing is, that this is also really just a small step towards justice for Syria. As historic as this is, as the first trial it's just one small piece of justice for Syria and the Syrians I talked to really pointed out that we're not there yet in terms of accountability for Syria at all. Not by a margin. This is a beginning and for this case specifically, this was also just the beginning of a long trial ahead still.
Karam: Yes. We will be following it closely for you dear listeners and bring a new weekly updates and more background and context. Yes. What's on the schedule for next week?
Fritz: Next week there is court again. There will be more witnesses. From what we understand the judges will hear witnesses from the police who interviewed Eyad A and Anwar R and how those first points of contact with the German authorities contributed to their eventual arrest in 2019. It looks like the court is just slowly hearing how these events all came together and gathering information and confirmation of the evidence that is presented to the judges. We will also just learn more about all that next week.
Karam: Thank you for listening. Have a good weekend. If you like this podcast please subscribe and tell your friends and colleagues.
Fritz: You can support this podcast by following the link in the show notes or clicking on this support this podcast button on the website. We're getting some very nice support already and we really appreciate that. Thank you.
Karam: Yes. Thank you. This really means a lot to us. Branch 251 is produced and hosted by the two of us. Thanks again to Maarten van Doormalen for his production feedback. I'm Karam Shoumali.
Fritz: I'm Fritz Streiff. We'll see you next week on Branch 251.
Karam: See you then.