It's the most effective weapon and yet, it's free: sexual and gender-based violence. By exploiting deeply-rooted gender norms, the Syrian regime attempts to break an entire society, one family at a time. In Koblenz, the judges have been asked to consider these types of crimes as crimes against humanity. This episode we'll explore why they deserve that label, and why they weren't considered crimes against humanity already.
For more information and regular updates on the trial, follow us on Twitter.
You can also listen on our website.
Today’s episode was made possible with the support of Förderfonds Demokratie.
Logo design by laurenshebly.nl -- Photo by James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images.
Music by Kevin McLeod and via blue dot sessions.
Pauline Peek: A listener's note. The following episode contains at times graphic descriptions of sexual violence, and may not be suitable for everyone. Please take care when listening.
Asser Khattab: Anwar R. is accused of crimes against humanity and rape. The 58 counts of murder, and 4,000 counts of torture that he's charged with are regarded as crimes against humanity. The one rape count, and the one count of sexual assault are regular crimes under the German criminal code.
Noor Hamadeh: That might change very soon. Last November, the lawyers of the civil parties in Copelands filed a motion. They demand that the sexual violence charges will also be considered crimes against humanity. Why weren't they already though? Isn't sexual violence an equally serious crime as torture?
Asser Khattab: Not just that, in the Syrian context, it's just as much a weapon of warfare. Its use is systematic and widespread. It's targeting civilians. It's basically regime policy. It ticks all the boxes of a crime against humanity, and yet Anwar R's indictment doesn't reflect this.
Noor Hamadeh: The official reason for this is that there wasn't enough evidence to prove the systematic and widespread nature, but for many activists and survivors, this is a tough pill to swallow. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are affected by sexual violence, either directly or indirectly.
Asser Khattab: Unfortunately, sexual violence is often overlooked. This episode, we want to go into why that is. We want to dissect the phenomenon of conflict related sexual violence in Syria. We'll try to identify the stigmas and societal norms that underpin it, the way it's used as a tool by the regime. We want to unpack its impact on different groups of people and dispel some of the misconceptions around it.
We think it's important to talk about this because sexual violence is one of the main reasons people flee Syria. It's the cheapest, most effective weapon in the history of the world.
Noor Hamadeh: When it comes to gender, there are a lot of myths. Every culture, community, and country in the world has their own. Here's a common one, "Women are weak," and another one, "Men are strong." These are just two myths, but we don't usually call them myths. We call them norms. Gender-based violence is rooted in these kinds of norms. If someone violates a norm, they become a target for violence.
For example, in many cultures, gay men are perceived as weak. They're breaking the rules, but it's not just rule breaking that triggers violence. Some gender norms have inequality and oppression built into them, so the violence is a result of the rule. This is why women so often fall victim to gender based violence. because when all women are viewed as weak, and men as strong, women are then seen as a population that can be taken advantage of.
When the type of violence that someone experiences, regardless of what it's based on is sexual, or if it's directed at someone's sexuality, it's sexual violence. This includes any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act. Violence in this context isn't just a closed fist or a bullet, it's less about the method used than about the manner in which a person is treated. It's more about coercion. Sexual and Gender Based Violence, or SGBV for short, encompasses all these things.
It comprises not only rape and attempted rape, but also sexual abuse, forced pregnancy, forced early marriage, domestic violence, marital rape, trafficking, and verbal sexual harassment. SGBV happens all the time, everywhere. It happens everywhere in the world, but also everywhere within societies. It's not confined to any particular class, age, or type of relationship. During any emergency everyone who's impacted by that emergency is at a higher risk of experiencing SGBV.
One of the emergencies that usually leads to a particularly big increase in SGBV is conflict. The perpetrator might be affiliated with the state and the victim a member of the opposition. There might be a climate of impunity, because there is no state anymore, just war. SGBV that's directly or indirectly linked to conflict is called Conflict Related Sexual Violence or CRSV.
In Syria, the conflict has cultivated a climate of lawlessness and heightened stigma. As a result, sexual violence has played a big role in Syria since the uprisings began in 2011. It's rampant within, but not exclusive to the ranks of the Syrian army and in detention centers.
Asser Khattab: The overwhelming majority of detainees experience some form of sexual violence, and that isn't just rape like Noor explained before. The most common are probably verbal sexual harassment and forced nudity.
Speaker 1: During the investigations, they used to insult me with degrading words, such as slut. They threatened me throughout the investigation that they will strip and rape me. They used dirty words that I can't remember. Disgusting talk.
Noor Hamadeh: This is a quote from a report that focuses on the violence against Syrian women detained in state security prisons. The words belong to Rehab, who spent two years in prison. In the same report, which is called Words Against Silence, we learned about Munir. Munir spent two years in Saydnaya prison. Consider this quote regarding forced nudity.
Speaker 2: The purpose of nudity is to break the detainee's will and sense of humanity. It is a way to tell the detainee that he, she is in a place where his, her humanity has no value. Nudity here is not only stripping of clothes, but stripping of one's dignity.
Asser Khattab: Throughout the episode, you will hear more quotes from survivors. We pulled them from reports on SGBV, and CRSV in Syria. Conducting the research for these reports can be challenging. We'll go into that later on.
Noor Hamadeh: First, we'll look at the purpose of SGBV in Syria. What does the regime achieve by weaponizing it?
Asser Khattab: Within the walls of torture prisons, it can be a way to extract information. Like Munir explained before, it's a means to break a person.
Noor Hamadeh: However, the impact of CRSV is felt far beyond the individual detainee, and this is where its true purpose lies. The threat of sexual violence instills deep fear into Syrian people. Its ability to terrorize everyone is virtually unparalleled. People are terrified of getting raped in detention centers as several reports confirm.
Asser Khattab: They're not just scared they'll face sexual violence themselves, they're scared for their loved ones as well. Especially their female family members.
Noor Hamadeh: Before we continue a note on gender categories. Sexual violence affects men and women and non-binary people in Syria. There's no such thing as the female experience of SGBV, or the male one, or the LGBT one. Every story of sexual violence is unique, and that's because the whole experience is shaped by so many more factors than gender. Just consider a mother with a liberal family, with financial security and plenty of access to aftercare.
Then a childless gay man from a conservative family without money or access to support. Their experience is not just different because one is a woman and the other is a man, their financial situation comes into play, their sexual identity, the shape of their family, the place where they live. In short, when talking about SGBV, all aspects of someone's position in society intersects. That said, gender is an important category, and many reports differentiate by gender.
To make things a little bit clear, we're going to look at the impact of SGBV on women first, then on men, and then on LGBT people. Women are disproportionately affected by SGBV everywhere. Syria is no exception. Women in Syria are targeted in part for the same reason that any woman living in a patriarchal society is. She's weak. She has no worth, she belongs to men. The myths we call norms and treat like truths. In more conservative parts of Syria, patriarchal structures manifest themselves, particularly clearly. It even has a name, "Honor."
Joumana: In many parts of Syria's society, its concepts of honor is constructed around nation of female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity afterward. That mean that in some area, in some cases, they consider that even being for the victims of sexual violence to being killed, it's much better than being raped.
Noor Hamadeh: That's Joumana Seif. She's a Syrian lawyer and human rights activist. She's been a research fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights since 2017. She's actually one of the authors of the Words Against Silence report, the one that the stories of Munir and Rehab appear in. As Joumana explained, in some parts of society a woman's dignity is tied to her virginity and later on, her sexual fidelity.
By staying a virgin until marriage, and by being true to her husband, a woman doesn't just protect her honor, but the honor of her family as well. In fact, you could say that she doesn't only have honor, she represents honor, other people's honor. If she experiences some form of sexual violence, either her virginity is damaged, or her fidelity, her honor is violated and so, her family's honor is too.
Loss of honor can be extremely humiliating and destabilizing. It's to be avoided at all costs. This is a mentality that the Syrian regime exploits. They subject women in detention centers to sexual violence because well, they're women, but also because the regime understands something. It understands that if a family knows or suspects that a woman was subjected to SGBV, they'll probably reject her. Consider the story of 19-year-old Zainab.
Zainab: Upon my release, I went back to my relatives and to my aunt. They refused to have me, and accused me of having been subjected to shameful things in prison that tarnish their honor. I was forced then, to go back to Damascus. I met a young man from Dara, who gave me shelter and asked me to marry him, which I did. We spent a few months in Damascus. During that period, I tried to call my sister in her house in Homs.
I told her that I am married and live with my husband in the Saydnaya area. She told me that one of my brothers wants to get rid of me, because I disgraced the family. A couple of months later, two young men came to where I live with my husband Dia in Damascus, and tried to kill me. They had a fight with my husband, and stabbed him with a knife in his back, and ran away.
Asser Khattab: In an attempt to regain a family's honor, it's easy to blame and punish the woman afterwards than it is to go after the perpetrator. The consequences for her depend on her position in society. A woman could be discriminated against financially, separated from their children, or even killed by her own family.
Joumana: The married woman they were divorced by the husband, because they feel that their honor is touched or violated. They don't want their children to be raised with this woman. They were totally rejected, and they were separated from their children, they hardly find a job opportunity. In many cases, they have to leave, they have to travel to be alone. Most of the time they are suffering from isolation, being discriminated against for being stigmatized, really it's a very bad impact.
Noor Hamadeh: For many women being released from detention is both the end of a nightmare and the start of another one. For the regime, going after a woman like this is a way to destabilize an entire society, one family at a time. All of this takes a huge toll on survivor's mental health.
Joumana: Sexual and gender-based violence have profound and long-lasting impact, and on women especially, they are feeling responsible for dishonoring their families. Often they conceal the abuse they endure from their relatives. It's difficult really to handle that to deal with that, because here there is something in the culture that we are graced with sexual and gender-based where they really has very profound and impact mentally.
Asser Khattab: This mental impact, not just the trauma, but also the shame, the taboo, the stigmatization. This toll that sexual violence takes on Syrian women makes it very difficult to speak up,
Joumana: Speaking out, it's not easy, and usually it takes time it takes years for survivors to speak up about it. That it's very normal, and that's what happen after having the real psychosocial support, real adequate treatment.
Asser Khattab: Joumana is talking about the special facilities that are in place for survivors of SGBV in and around Syria. Centers that offer medical treatment as well as psychological and social support they can help women get to the point where they can talk about their trauma. Many will suffer from PTSD, depression, and hopelessness for a long time, maybe forever.
Noor Hamadeh: Sexual violence against women exploits the same gender norms and conflict dynamics as sexual violence against men. To put it broadly, men are expected to be strong, heterosexual, and they should protect their families. We spoke about this to Pinar Erdem, she's a lawyer and researcher. She's the author of the 2020 Human Rights Watch report on sexual violence against men, boys, and transgender women in the Syrian conflict.
Pinar: We see that it's mostly based on gender norms, the roles assigned to men, and the roles assigned to women, and the notion of masculinity. We see that sexual violence used against men and boys, for example, is basically to hinder, "The manhood," which is basically taught to those people from the day they are born, meaning how should a real man be, what should a real man be like?
They should be protectors. They should not be a subject to violence because that's not in their nature, et cetera. It's basically related to gender norms.
Asser Khattab: Within the framework of these norms, men being victims of violence isn't compatible with fulfilling their assigned roles and meeting society's expectations. Surviving sexual violence, being humiliated, enduring insults, aimed at wives and sisters, being dominated, and sexually abused by other men sometimes in front of women, that plays into gender norms in a way that damages male survivors differently in a way that brute force generally can't.
Hadi is a survivor of sexual violence in Syria and detention centers. He was the subject of a case study which says the following, "He also stated that the lieutenant colonel asked his colleagues before starting the interrogation, did you bring his wife, sister, and mother? The colleague answered, "Yes, we did sir" Then he insulted his wife and his mother, and said he'll do everything he wants to them with no mercy."
Noor Hamadeh: As for the impact of CRSV against men on their communities, gender norms dictate them too.
Pinar: Actually by attacking men themselves, they are attacking the society as a whole, because they are attacking the roles that men are assigned, which is to be the protector of the family, the protector of the society. It's to basically show that the society itself is vulnerable to all sorts of violence.
Asser Khattab: The perception that a man loses his manhood and with that his ability to protect the people around him leads to him being stigmatized. This stigma following sexual violence is one of the most damaging effects of CRSV against men. It's also, of course, a myth.
Pinar: When we talk about stigma around sexual violence against men and boys, for example, there are myths about this. Meaning there are myths around saying that real men cannot be raped, or men are less affected by sexual violence compared to women, or only gay and bisexual men are subject to such type of violence, or the perpetrators are gay or bisexual men. There are many stigma around the notions of masculinity.
Noor Hamadeh: Until these myths are tackled, men will be very reluctant to talk about their experiences. As long as that's the case, sexual violence against men will remain a dramatically underreported issue. We'd like to highlight here again, but only looking through the lens of gender obscures other factors that impact the experiences of survivors of SGBV. Not any man's story is the same. For example, some men are actually hailed as heroes after being released from detention.
Pinar: In some cases, men and boys are ostracized and stigmatized, because of how society thinks that if they're subjected to rape they're not a real man anymore. Still, I also heard that yes, especially if they're subject to two sexual violence in detention centers, once they come out of the detention centers, they're somehow seen as heroic about this.
Asser Khattab: Out of all the survivors of SGBV and CRSV, there's probably no group so vulnerable, targeted, misunderstood, and overlooked as LGBT and non-binary people. The people whose whole existence is against the rules.
Pinar: Well, look, LGBT people, they are already stigmatized than ostracized by their families and the community in Syria with or without the conflict. Basically, this is due to homophobia and transphobia.
Noor Hamadeh: This vulnerability only increases when there's conflict. LGBT people, once their sexual orientation or gender identity is revealed, generally experience an escalation of violence, especially sexual violence.
Pinar: With conflict basically, the violence they are subject to increases because of an environment where there's no rule of law, and there's amplified stigma. We can actually say that they become legitimate targets of such violence during this conflict
Noor Hamadeh: Take Yusuf, a 28-year-old gay man. He was brought to al-Khatib branch. Branch 251.
Asser Khattab: "Yusuf said that he was detained by Mukhabarat during an antigovernment protest in the beginning of 2012 in Damascus. He told The human Rights Watch that although he was not targeted by the intelligence agency because he was gay, once they learned about his sexual orientation through checking his phone, violence during interrogations increased drastically.
He explained that after intelligence officers detained him for joining the protests, they beat him severely until he confessed to acts that he did not commit."
Yusuf: I was being beaten, and I was going to die. At the end, you want them to stop, so you start saying yes to things that you have never committed.
Asser Khattab: Once they discovered his sexual orientation, the violence intensified.
Yusuf: They said to us that they checked our phones and told us, you are not only against what is right, but you are also -----. All the aggression was multiplied by 10, I would say. They were happily doing it. They were, of course, raping us with sticks.
Noor Hamadeh: That was an excerpt from Pinar's report. It illustrates the fact that he wasn't just punished for taking part in a protest, but also for being gay. From the same report, here's a story that belongs to Saba, a transgender woman. She was already in prison before the Syrian conflict started. "After spending a few years in Saydnaya prison, she was transferred to Hama Central Prison after the conflict started in 2011, where other detainees raped her multiple times. Saba stayed in the central prison until 2015."
Saba: I was always soft-looking. It deprived me from my family and my life. I was almost 32. Even if you are caught with other people, they would interrogate you individually. It is the same routine that applied on everybody just for being gay or trans. We are beaten, treated with violence, and insulted. Not by one person, but by many. They could tell from our appearance. Perpetrators were both guards and prisoners. If someone asked for me, I had to go and see them among the normal prisoners.
Asser Khattab: One of the most shocking and heartbreaking parts of the experience of some Syrian LGBT people relates to homophobic and transphobic violence. Not violence that necessarily happened in detention centers, not stories of prison guards and intelligence services, but of families. Here is another excerpt from the report. "Fuad a 23-year-old gay man received a threatening text message from his mother on September 5, 2018, when she learned that her son was gay."
"May God break your heart, like you broke mine. You -----, you effeminate. I give you only one week to leave the country, or else I'll kill you myself." Faid said--
My stepfather wanted to send rogue government militia to kill me and detain me. He put my name in all checkpoints and wanted to kill me. I left Syria on September 19th, 2018.
Noor Hamadeh: As for the mental and physical impact that CRSV has on LGBT people, it's similar to other survivors, and for LGBT survivors, it's hard to find adequate care. This is due to the lack of funding and trained personnel. They're left to deal on their own with sadness, pain, depression, self-isolation, fear and anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, impotency, infertility, lasting shame, self-blame or humiliation, paranoia, loss of hope.
One of the biggest challenges in mapping CRSV is finding survivors who are willing to talk. Obviously, it's a delicate topic to discuss with anyone. It gets harder when speaking out could get you rejected by your husband, fired by your boss, killed by your brother. One researcher who we spoke to said that sometimes women even get taken advantage of by the people who claim they just want to document their experience.
Asser Khattab: People often don't report sexual violence to the authorities either. The justice system is not designed in a way that takes the specific needs of survivors of sexual violence into account. Giving a statement to a police officer, or testifying in court can be overwhelming and traumatizing. Justice mechanisms expose survivors to intense scrutiny. Many are blamed, accused of lying, and subjected to harassment.
Noor Hamadeh: On top of that, seeking justice or providing documentation for many survivors of SGBV and CRSV, it just isn't a priority. Their priorities are working and making money, and taking care of themselves and their families.
Asser Khattab: Hundreds of thousands of people will live with their trauma. They survived, but they paid twice. Once in a prison, once for the rest of their lives.
Noor Hamadeh: In light of all this, it's pretty difficult to believe that there isn't enough evidence to add sexual violence as a crime against humanity charge on Anwar R's indictment.
Joumana: From my point of view, it doesn't make sense not to be, or not to address as a crime against humanity in Koblenz, or in the indictment. I don't know why, but it should be.
Noor Hamadeh: Here's something for you to consider that many of the experts we spoke to alluded to. The failure to effectively address sexual violence in a legal way stems from the same gender norms, the same rules, the same myths that drive sexual violence in the first place. As long as we don't tackle these harmful societal norms, justice mechanisms will continue to fall short everywhere in the world.
Asser Khattab: Joumana has high hopes for labeling the sexual violence charges, crimes against humanity.
Joumana: Its impact is very important and that as it will offer the access to justice for a hundred I think of thousands of people in Syria. Now we are establishing the base of any other justice effort, not only in Germany, but in Europe, elsewhere, and even in Syria and the future.
Asser Khattab: It's been a while since we heard from Hannah, here is a short update from her.
Hannah: Apart from the analysis of satellite images showing mass graves that we talked about a while ago, this year has started with three survivor's testimonies, and two of them were joint plaintiffs. They confirmed once again what we have heard repeatedly during the past few months about the prison conditions, the abuse, and the lack of nutrition, medical care, and hygiene. What really struck me once again, was the two of them mentioned underage detainees who were in the cells with them.
One of the witnesses talked about a 14-year-old boy who was suffering from a painful gunshot wound. The other witness said that a teenage boy was repeatedly tortured by a guard called Abu Al-Ghadab. This individual, by the way, has come up in so many of the testimonies, and he's also mentioned in the indictment as a perpetrator of sexual violence during one of the interrogations. Abu Al-Ghadab which translates to something like, father of rage, was described by many witnesses as the most cruel prison guard in Branch 251.
He was described as tall and lean with a danazol dialect, and black hair, and detainees were always afraid when it was time for his shift. Although, I have been wondering if Abu Al-Ghadab was actually just one person during the whole time, or perhaps that this was a nickname that was used more frequently for the guard in charge of torturing prisoners. We won't know for now, but we can only hope that one day Abu Al-Ghadab might be held accountable one way or another.
Pinar: The next time you'll hear from us will be shortly after the verdict of Eyad A., which is scheduled for Wednesday next week. We'll be putting out a bonus episode two days later on Friday to discuss the decision of the judges in Koblenz. It'll be a historic outcome no matter the verdict, so make sure to tune in.
Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 podcast production. This episode was hosted by Noor Hamadeh and Asser Khattab. It was written, produced and edited by me, Pauline Peek, with additional feedback from Fritz Streiff. Saleem Salameh and I provided the voiceovers. Hannah El-Hitami is our court reporter. We want to thank Pinar Erdem and Joumana Seif as well as Lubna Kanawati, Soha Al-Akraa and Mona Zeineddine for sharing their knowledge with us.
Special thanks to our Rehab, Munir, Zainab, Hadi, Yusuf, Saba, and Fahad for sharing their stories, Today's episode was made possible with the support of Förderfonds Demokratie.
[00:32:48] [END OF AUDIO]