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S2E10: Character Witnesses

Branch 251
April 30, 2021
19
 MIN
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English
April 30, 2021
19
 MIN

S2E10: Character Witnesses

As the trial against Anwar R. continues, the proceedings have focussed on his alleged contributions to the systematic violence in Syria. What was his role within the mukhabarat exactly? In this last court update of the season, Hannah tells us about two ex-detainees who detailed their personal experience with Anwar R. during their time in the notorious branch 251.

As the trial against Anwar R. continues, the proceedings have focussed on his alleged contributions to the systematic violence in Syria. What was his role within the mukhabarat exactly? In this last court update of the season, Hannah tells us about two ex-detainees who detailed their personal experience with Anwar R. during their time in the notorious branch 251.

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Hannah's website

ECCHR trial reports

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre's monitoring of the trial

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA's zivik Funding Programme.

Logo design by laurenshebly.nl -- Photo by James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images.

Music by Kevin McLeod



Episode Transcript

[music]

Asser Khattab: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of Branch 251. I am Asser Khattab.

Noor Hamadeh: I'm Noor Hamadeh.

Asser Khattab: In Koblenz, the trial against Anwar R. continues. During the last sessions, the judges heard witnesses that had personal encounters with him.

Noor Hamadeh: Our court report, Hannah El-Hitami, was there.

Hannah El-Hitami: As you know, Eyad A., the lower ranking of the two defendants was convicted to four and a half years in prison for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity at the end of February. Since then, the trial against Anwar R. has continued separately and is now more focused on him personally.

Last year, the judges heard a lot of witnesses who talked about the general situation in Syria and about the systematic violence against peaceful protestors and political prisoners. Evidence such as the Caesar photos as well as testimonies on the general prison conditions, or the structure of the Secret Services were relevant for the cases against both Eyad A. and Anwar R. They were needed to establish the framework in which both defendants acted, which has been defined as a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population. Meaning, crimes against humanity.

Now that Anwar R. is the only defendant, it is time to find out what his personal role and part in these crimes was and how he was involved in torture and killings at Branch 251. We have started hearing more testimonies that directly concerned him, and that will continue during the next weeks and months.

Two witnesses we heard in April had had personal encounters with Anwar R. in Syria. They saw him more than once, and they recognized him once again in the courtroom. Both witnesses were joint plaintiffs, which means that they are civilians who joined the public prosecutor in the indictment because they are themselves aggrieved parties. Meaning, victims or families of victims of the crimes.

One of them was a Syrian journalist, who was detained in March 2011, and spent almost two weeks in al-Khatib Branch. He said that he had seen Anwar R. working as a Secret Service officer at several protests in Damascus that he had participated in. Anwar R. was observing the protests in his capacity as an officer. The witness described one situation at a protest where he tried to help his friends who are about to be arrested. For that, Anwar R. punched him in the face, according to this testimony.

Then, a while later, at the funeral of a famous Syrian director called Omar Amiralay, this same witness was filming the funeral procession, and he recognized Anwar R. in the crowd once again as a security officer. He took a picture of him that he saved on his laptop. He said in court that he hoped at that moment that he could use this photo one day to hold the officer accountable who had punched him at an earlier occasion.

Indeed, Anwar R. is being held accountable today, but this photo that he was talking about unfortunately does not exist anymore. It might have been a very helpful piece of evidence, but it was taken from the witness when he was arrested from his home, and taken to the al-Khatib Branch a few weeks later. It seems he was arrested for his general activity in anti-regime protest.

Once he arrived in the branch, and they looked at this laptop, he got into even more trouble for having that photo of the person who he identified as Anwar R. Yes, for having that photo on his computer. He was interrogated and beaten so heavily that he said he could only crawl back to his cell afterwards. He said that during one of his interrogations, Anwar R. was in the room and that he questioned him, and that once again, he punched him.

Anwar R's defense lawyers argued that this could not be true because Anwar R's job was not the surveillance of protest. Therefore, the witness could not have seen him on the streets before his arrest. The claimant must have been a different officer that he encountered, and that he photographed. They said that their client only worked in the office, and they added that Anwar R. didn't even have the kind of personality to punch someone in the face.

The week after the journalist's testimony, we heard one of the until-now quite few female witnesses Koblenz, she was detained together with her mother in al-Khatib Branch in May 2012. At this time, she already knew Anwar R. because one year before, her sister who is politically active had been arrested in al-Khatib Branch as well. The witness had gone with her parents to the branch at the time to try and get her sister released. They were actually able to meet the sister in Anwar R.'s office.

According to the witness, her sister's headscarf was bloody and her face was swollen and bruised when Anwar R. had her brought into the office. The witness also described how her father asked Anwar R. if they could take her sister home, and that he answered that they would keep her for a few days to educate her, as she described.

He was cold as ice, the witness said in court, while Anwar R. was sitting just a few meters away from her, taking notes about what she was saying. This situation with her sister was only her first encounter with Anwar R. because one year later, the witness herself was arrested at a protest, and she was also taken to al-Khatib Branch. There, she asked Anwar R. for help because he was the only person she knew in the branch.

She had spent several days at the solitary cell, and she said she was about to lose her mind there. On top of that, she had been sexually abused by one of the guards. In this moment, all she wanted was to return to the communal cell with the other women, and she hoped that Anwar R. would grant her this one wish. According to her testimony, he did not, and she was returned to the solitary cell alone.

This witness was the first one who was accompanied to the Koblenz courtroom by a psychosocial trial assistant. This is actually the right of all victims, and it can be very helpful when they talk about their traumatic memories. In this case, the assistant sat next to the witness and kept her hand on her shoulder, and supported her when she started crying during the hardest parts of her testimony, when she was talking about the sexual abuse she experienced and about how guilty she had felt that her mother had been arrested with her.

Both of these witnesses were mentioned by Anwar R. in his statement that he gave in court in May 2020, but he had a different story to tell about them. He said that the first witness, the journalist, must have confused him because he never met him and he never left the branch to observe any protests. Regarding the female witness, Anwar R. reacted to her testimony with a statement that was read by his lawyer on the second day of her hearing. In it, he claimed that he did interrogate her sister, but he never hurt her and that he even stepped in when she was being beaten by officers from another branch.

He said he did not recall any personal encounter with the witness herself, or her asking him for help during her own detention. But he claimed that she would have never done that if her sister had had any bad experiences with him before. He claimed that the fact that you turn to him for help proved that he had not heard anything negative about him before.

During the next few weeks, we might hear even more witnesses who have had personal experiences with defendant Anwar R. Unfortunately, several witnesses have informed the court that they will not give their testimonies as planned. Some said that they feared for their family's safety, and others claimed that they had other personal reasons for not attending. Those witnesses who don't live in Germany are not obliged to appear in court when they are summoned. Therefore, several hearings have been canceled, but the schedule throughout summer is actually still quite full.

Nonetheless, the defense complained that these cancellations were unnecessarily prolonging the trial and thereby prolonging their client's pre-trial detention. The head judge responded that he could not really do much about that and that compared to trials of a similar size at other courts, this one was actually running pretty smoothly.

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Asser Khattab: Noor, I think it's very interesting how the details, every single detail that could come out of those testimonies, I find them very interesting, and that they could relate to where they placed him, was it in his office, or outside in a public place, in a demonstration protest event, and how they described his demeanor in what he says and how he acts in general. How valuable do you think this type of testimony is?

Noor Hamadeh: Yes, I agree. I also think it's really interesting that each of the witnesses had encounters with him before their own detention and their description of what his demeanor was like before they were detained. I think this testimony is valuable because, like you said, Asser, it really speaks to his character, especially the second witness speaking about how cold he was when she and her family went to retrieve her sister, and the way he acted then. I think that alone says a lot about what kind of person he is, what role he played within the Mukhabarat system and how complicit he was within that.

I also think the testimony placing him at the protest is significant, because it demonstrates a more active role within the abuses that he's accused of being a part of. Obviously, whether or not he was at the protests, if he's guilty of the crimes he was accused of, he still played an active role, but placing him at the protest places him in even more of an active role, and I think that that is significant.

Asser Khattab: I can see the complexity of this situation because when I was listening to the first part of the first testimony as Hannah was talking about it, I also asked myself, I was like, "Wait, what is Anwar R. doing in the protest or in all of these outside events, because he should be in his office somewhere. He's a senior officer."

I could see how his defense could use that, but we've also heard so many stories about the Syrian Mukhabarat and how some of those officers were actively involved, not just in a bureaucratic way. Eyad A’s famous story now that he was given the command directly by Hafez Makhlouf to shoot at demonstrators. It shows that there are big names that could be actively present in those places. I could see how this could introduce some bickering between the defendants and the witnesses and the judges in the court.

Noor Hamadeh: Yes, definitely. I think just because his position was a desk job doesn't mean that he couldn't be on the ground at protests as well. Another thing that I thought was significant in the defense's testimony or in Anwar R.'s testimony is his response to the second witness' testimony saying that if he had been so cold and if he had harmed her sister, then she wouldn't have asked for his help the second time.

I think that statement from Anwar R. really demonstrates a lack of understanding of the desperation that she probably felt in that moment. When she was in detention, when she was being tortured, when she was in solitary confinement, she must have been desperate. I can imagine that even if Anwar R. was cold in the past, even if she knew that he had harmed her sister, I can understand that just knowing him in her mind would give her the hope that maybe he could help her. I think that statement coming from Anwar R. really demonstrates a lack of understanding of the type of desperation someone in her position might have.

Asser Khattab: Noor, you referred to the mental and psychological pressure that having to testify in court and relive all of these circumstances does to one. Thinking about that, it doesn't really surprise me to hear towards the end of Hannah's report how many people who initially were supposed to testify, maybe not many people but several people who were initially supposed to testify in court, didn't do so after all or changed their minds. Most likely after considering the threat that this could do to them, to their family, to their loved ones, to the damage that it could do to them also to relive these difficult times.

It also brings to my mind the thing we heard about the psychological trial assistant. I'm personally hearing about this for the first time. I don't know about you, Noor, but it seems quite strange that this is only coming up now. I do hope that people have had known about this, have had information about this because we know that access to information, given language barriers and other factors as well, could be a problem. I don't know what you think about that, Noor.

Noor Hamadeh: Yes, you know what? Asser, I had the same thought. This is the first time that I'm hearing about this kind of support to witnesses during the trial. My initial thought was that she may have been the first witness to request that, but I also think a big problem here is that this is a service that many witnesses weren't aware of. I think this is something that's existed, but witnesses just didn't realize that they could use this kind of support. I think it's important for the court to make sure that witnesses are aware that this is available to them.

It's interesting that the second witness met Anwar R. two times, the first time going with her family to try and retrieve her sister from the detention center, and the second time when she actually was detained at Branch 251. As far as I know, this was a relatively common practice for family members to try and retrieve family members from detention centers. I don't know if this is something you know a little bit more about, Asser.

Asser Khattab: Yes, these are stories that I've been hearing and reading about and discussing since before the Syrian revolution started in 2011, actually. It's always been one of the most common ways to get someone out of prison. The Mukhabarat knows it, and they use that sometimes as-- sometimes it resembles kidnapping, in a way, the way we hear about it, because they could know that this family's capable of paying a certain amount of money to get their relative or family member or loved one out of jail.

At the same time, the family knows, the family of the person who's been detained or forcibly disappeared, that they will have to put in so much money and use so many connections, first to just be able to locate where the person is. Is it the Airforce Intelligence, the State Intelligence, the State Security?

Then, to try to push for the person's release, which in Syria and given the absence of the rule of law altogether, is one of the most effective ways to get someone out because there is no-- sometimes there is not even a sentence to wait for someone. There is no real accusation, so bribes through the family members have always been one of the main ways to get someone out, as far as I have heard and read.

Noor Hamadeh: Yes, I think you're right, Asser. Also, I would say that this has also become a systematic practice. As you said, people aren't just paying bribes to get their family members out, they're also paying bribes to just know where they are. For so many people, they disappeared, and it's not clear where they're being held. Even aside from that, people are also paying just to visit them.

A lot of times, as much as people pay to find out where people are or to have their family members released, sometimes these requests aren't even met. They make the payments, which often is large sums of money, and they don't end up getting information about where their family member is or they don't get to visit them or the family member. They're given an excuse for why the family member isn't released, and they're asked for more money. This is resulting in huge exploitation of detainee's family members as well, which is a huge problem.

[music]

Yes, all in all, I think this is a really significant and really interesting testimony. I'm really looking forward to hearing more from Hannah in the courtroom in the third season.

Asser Khattab: Yes, unfortunately, this was the final court update of the season, and we will have to wait to hear more from Hannah and more court updates in Season three.

[music]

Next time on Branch 251, we're getting the whole team together to discuss where this trial stands one year after it began.

Noor Hamadeh: That will be the final episode of the season, so don't miss it.

Asser Khattab: See you then.

Noor Hamadeh: See you.

[music]

Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcasts production. This episode was written by myself, Paulina Peek, and Hannah El-Hitami, who wrote and read the court report. This episode was hosted by Asser Khattab and Noor Hamadeh. Production, editing, and mixing by myself, Pauline Peek, and support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by IFA's zivik Funding Programme.

[music]

[00:18:52] [END OF AUDIO]


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