In this episode, Hannah gives us a report from Koblenz, detailing the session that was dedicated to the closing defense arguments. It was the last session before what is expected to be the biggest day in the Al-Khatib trial: the verdict of Anwar R.
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Fritz Streiff: Hello and welcome back to Branch 251, our podcast on the Al-Khatib trial in Koblenz Germany. First things first, Happy New Year.
Naya Skaf: We hope you had nice holidays and a good start of 2022. May this year be a just one. We said it at the end of last episode and it's becoming more and more relevant now that we are really fast approaching the final judgment in the case.
Fritz: Today is Friday the 7th of January, just a few days before the judges will announce their decision scheduled for next Thursday the 13th of January. We've been working towards that day for a long time and now it's really just around the corner.
Naya: During the last couple of episodes, together with our court reporter Hannah El-Hitami, we brought you the final arguments by the parties to the case. We heard about how the prosecutor tried to finally convince the judges that a life sentence is the only possible verdict in the case.
Fritz: And Hannah told us about how the survivors who joined the case as civil parties, or so-called joint plaintiffs addressed the court as well but one round of the final pleas is still missing, the last arguments by the defense and Anwar R.’s final words.
Naya: This is what Hannah will tell us about today. As usual, she was in the courtroom this week and listened to the defense lawyers and Anwar R. make their case one final time.
Fritz: Here comes her report from Koblenz.
Hannah El-Hitami: I got to say I went into yesterday's hearing quite excited because I had heard that Anwar R. himself would speak and, yes, we were all wondering whether he would say something new, something surprising. If you remember, the last thing we heard in this trial were the joint plaintiffs final closing statements and they had all urged Anwar R. to tell the truth, to share all the information he has about the secret services, and to finally take responsibility for the crimes he was accused of. What Anwar R. ended up saying in his final words was disappointing, but I'll get to that later.
First of all, his lawyers started with their pleas, which lasted from 9:30 until around one o'clock and they made sure to emphasize that they didn't wish to defend the Assad regime at all and they didn't wish to defend its crimes and they also said they found it necessary and important that these crimes be investigated. They added that no politician should conduct any business or diplomatic relations with such a criminal regime.
They said it was very clear that people had been systematically tortured in the Al- Khatib branch and all over Syria but, of course, there is a but. They said they were here to defend the individual Anwar R. and that even though crimes against humanity had been committed in Syria, they had not been committed under his authority. They said that, even though they understood the political relevance of this trial and the great meaning it had for Syrian survivors and activists, they really urged the court to treat this trial as a criminal trial and to really only look at the defendant’s individual contributions to the crimes, or lack thereof. Because both of the lawyers requested that Anwar R. be found not guilty and immediately released.
They talked a lot about how he helped prisoners and how he even once punished soldiers for abusing prisoners. They said that there had been three types of witnesses in this trial. So first of all, those who had met him in the branch and who were treated well by him. Secondly, those who claimed that they might have met him but who didn't actually recognize him for sure. Then finally, those who only later heard of him or were shown pictures of him or told that he was the head of investigations and so just assumed that he was the one who abused them.
In this context, the Syrian lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni’s name came up again. As we heard before, the defense has been accusing him of having influenced the investigation behind the scenes and showing potential witnesses pictures of Anwar telling them his name so that they ended up believing that he was the one responsible for their suffering in Al-Khatib branch.
Apart from an Anwar Al-Bunni, they also commented on a whole list of individual witness testimonies, either debunking them or using them to show their clients’ good behavior towards prisoners. They also repeated quite a lot of Anwar R.’s initial statement from May 2020, where he had claimed that he had lost all authority in the branch in early summer 2011 because he released so many prisoners, and because he questioned the regime’s ways more than once.
In the lawyer’s view, none of the evidence presented during the whole trial, during more than 100 hearings, actually invalidated or disproved the version of events that Anwar R. himself presented in May 2020. They argued that he defected as soon as he could and he even worked for the opposition directly afterwards, and that he should not be charged as a scapegoat for the real criminals. So those high-ranking political and military leaders who had organized crimes, and had then stayed in the background while they were committed. They are the ones that should be put on trial. That's what the defense lawyers argued.
Finally, it was Anwar R.’s turn to speak, except he didn't. The statement he himself had authored was read out in German by his personal translator. This translator usually sits next to the defendant during the hearings and helps him communicate with his lawyers or answer any of his language-related questions. So what did Anwar say in his statement?
Honestly, not that much new. He started by talking about how the regime reacted violently to the protests and how the number of prisoners in the Al-Khatib branch exploded. It became much too high, he said, like a tsunami. He said he tried to keep the number low by suggesting to release most of them and at the same time his hometown, Al-Houla became a center of protests against the regime and so these two developments together led to his superiors doubting his loyalty.
I guess this was nothing really new. He had already said that in his original statement and he recounted also, once again, how all this authority was taken away from him, how he stayed and helped as much as he could, even though he had very limited possibilities, and even though he was constantly risking his own life.
One situation he told was new, we hadn't heard it before and I thought it was actually quite interesting. He said that after he had already lost much of his authority, and was already suspicious to the other high-ranking officers, the massacre in his hometown, Al-Houla happened in May 2012 and Anwar R. said it was committed by the ruling Alawite minority together with Shia militias. But two days later, his boss Tawfik Younis called him to his office and there was a journalist present from Russian television.
Anwar R. was told to get a statement for television saying that Islamist terrorists were responsible for the massacre. When he refused to do so his boss said, "You have put all your cards on the table. They're all losing cards. Go to your office." After that, it didn't take much longer until Anwar R. was transferred to another branch, he said, from where he then finally defected.
While he did take some time to acknowledge that prisoners arrived in the branch with sometimes lethal injuries, that they were tortured or even killed there, he blamed someone else for each of those events. For example, officers from other branches, his superiors, or the notorious Hafez Makhlouf, powerful and cruel cousin of Bashar al Assad, who he claimed was the real leader of Branch 251.
He even said that sometimes he was sitting in his office and he would hear screams from the prison downstairs. So he would call there and asked what was going on and then he was told that an officer from another branch was interrogating and torturing prisoners. He said that he informed his boss about these abuses several times, but was told to keep quiet.
He emphasized once again that he never ordered the torture or abuse of any prisoner at all. He said, "I left my job. I left 26 years in office behind because I didn't want to be the reason that prisoners were hurt or that their blood was spilled." He also said that he objected to being an instrument of abuse and killing.
Finally, Anwar R. did apologize to the victims and their families, but not really for his own actions. Instead, he apologized for not having been able to help more than he did. He quoted a verse from the Quran saying that, “If you kill someone, it is like killing all of mankind and if you give life to someone, it's like giving life to all mankind.” Then he claimed that without him, many of the prisoners he had helped would now be among the images in the Caesar files. He claimed that he too had been a victim of the regime. He said that he had lost seven close relatives, among them, his 10-year-old grandson when the regime violently attacked civilians.
In the end, he said he was approaching his 60th birthday and was suffering a lot from chronic disease from the displacement from his homeland and the separation from his children and grandchildren. He asked the court for a fair verdict, but he also said that he respected and believed in German law and the German judiciary, so he would accept whatever they decided.
Yes, finally we did hear his own voice for one short moment when he said, “Naeam,” which means yes when he was asked whether- -these had in fact been his own final words.
Fritz: All in all, I think the defense lawyer's closing statements and Anwar R.’s own final words were neither new nor surprising, and disappointing for anyone who had hoped that he might use this chance perhaps even to ask for forgiveness, or, at least for one last try to help the case and with that, perhaps himself and his future to get a lower sentence.
But with what he said, he is in a way staying stuck in the middle. While he clearly condemns the regime and says that he wants nothing to do with that criminal gang, he apparently could not get himself to accept his perhaps limited part and responsibility for the crimes. He could not say sorry, or rather, all he could get himself to utter was, "Sorry, not sorry."
Naya: With the defense arguments presented to Presiding Judge Kerber and her colleagues, and Anwar R.’s final words, the trial is actually over, or let's say almost. We are now only waiting for the announcement of the verdict next week on the 13th of January.
Fritz: It will be the final decision by this set of judges at this court but I think it is pretty obvious that Anwar R. will appeal his sentence, except if he gets a surprisingly low one next week.
Naya: But first, all eyes on Koblenz, next week.
Fritz: Exactly. We will be there to follow the announcement of the decision and to bring you our impressions on the next and final episode of this podcast.
Naya: See you then.
Fritz: See you.
Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcast production. Today's episode was hosted by Naya Skaf and Fritz Streiff. It was written and produced by Fritz Streiff and Hannah El-Hitami with editorial help from Naya Skaf and myself, Pauline Peek. The editing of today's episode was done by me. A quick note for those of you who haven't seen it yet, our new website is online. The address is branch251podcast.com and it has all of our episodes and their transcripts, plus some background on the podcast and on our team.
Have a look if you want, we'll put a link into the show notes. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the IFA Zivik Funding Program.