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German court sentences Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for war crimes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

German judges sentenced a former Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison in a historic verdict - guilty of crimes against humanity. The trial took place in the German city of Koblenz. The defendant, 58-year-old Anwar Raslan, was convicted of overseeing the murder of 27 people and the torture of 4,000 people in a Damascus prison. NPR's Deborah Amos was in the courtroom.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The verdict was seen as a victory for Syrian torture survivors, the very people that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had tried to silence in a civil uprising that turned in to a war. Some 50 Syrian survivors, many who braved threats to families back home, gave evidence of brutal torture, humiliation and starvation in a prison known as Branch 251 in a residential neighborhood in Damascus flanked by a grocery store and a pharmacy.

The defendant, Anwar Raslan, a Syrian intelligence officer, was in charge of interrogation there. He told the court he never tortured anyone.

But Wassim Mukdad says he suffered there for months after his arrest in 2012. He's a Syrian musician now based in Berlin, a co-plaintiff in the case. Our suffering was not in vain, he said soon after the verdict was announced. He had a front-row courtroom seat to witness the final session today.

WASSIM MUKDAD: This verdict say it loud and clear that the criminals will pay for their crimes sooner or later.

AMOS: Sooner for Anwar Raslan, as the judges found the brutality systematic in 4,000 cases of torture, a ruling that had special significance for Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni. The evidence showed Raslan didn't act alone. And for Bunni, the Koblenz verdict was an indictment of the Assad regime itself.

ANWAR AL-BUNNI: I care about the verdicts mentioned as crimes against humanity. It's committed by state, by the regime.

AMOS: Another unprecedented aspect of this trial - the prosecution of war crimes committed by a regime still in power which denies it commits torture despite widespread evidence. In the short term, this verdict will change little in Damascus, says Mazen Darwish, a torture victim and a lawyer. But now, he says, there is an official record, a court record that refutes regime claims.

MAZEN DARWISH: Now there is a legal decision from independent court say, yes, this is true. This is the first time we have this kind of decision.

AMOS: There were other firsts in Koblenz, precedents for future trials, but still much to unpack from the proceedings today. One is Raslan's life sentence. Under German law, a life sentence means the possibility of parole in 15 years. Anna Oehmichen, a lawyer who worked on behalf of four Syrian plaintiffs, says the court didn't choose the harshest option.

ANNA OEHMICHEN: They did not establish special gravity of guilt, which they could have done as well.

AMOS: The judges may have considered that Raslan released some prisoners, and he defected from the regime in 2012. It could also mean that the court considered him a cog in a bigger wheel and left room for harsher sentences in future trials, she says.

OEHMICHEN: It is not the worst that there's still some leeway up that others will get a harder punishment than him.

AMOS: The witnesses and the German lawyers who support them say this is a first step, hardly justice but a sign that accountability may be possible. There are more trials scheduled. But on this day, sunny and cold in a western town in Germany, Syrian torture survivors and their families celebrated a sliver of hope.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Koblenz, Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF NANEUM'S "STRATIFICATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.