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‘My goal is justice for all Syrians’: one man’s journey from jail to witness for the prosecution

Anwar al-Bunni had simplest been in Germany a few months when he walked into a store and located himself head to head with the person he believes had interrogated and jailed him just about a decade previous. Each males had been purchasing groceries in a Turkish store close to the gates of Marienfelde, the Berlin refugee camp they now referred to as house. There used to be a imprecise flicker of popularity, however Bunni couldn’t relatively position the opposite guy.

It used to be 2014, a 12 months ahead of Angela Merkel’s resolution to open Germany’s borders to refugees drew greater than 1,000,000 other folks fleeing struggle and hardship to the rustic. Even so, hundreds of Syrians had already discovered their approach to Berlin. Bunni, a human rights attorney with greater than 3 many years’ revel in combating the Syrian regime within the courts, and several other years spent inside of its jails for his hassle, used to be a part of a big community of fellow workers, shoppers, buddies and previous fighters.

“I used to be with my spouse, and I stated to her, ‘I do know this guy’ however I couldn’t take into account who he used to be,” he recollects. “Then, after a couple of days, certainly one of my buddies stated, ‘Do you know Anwar Raslan is in Marienfelde with you?’ After which I realised.”

I didn’t need to consider that Europe would spend all this time status by way of and observing. This in point of fact surprised me

The 2 Anwars, born 4 years aside, had each studied legislation, however selected to apply it to reverse aspects of Syria’s authoritarian political device. Raslan become a police officer, ahead of shifting to the intelligence services and products, the place he would lend a hand detain Bunni.

On the time, Bunni idea little extra of the assembly, settling again to his felony information, pursuing at a distance the similar fight in opposition to the Syrian state and its abusers that had fed on him for many years. “I don’t hate him as an individual,” Bunni says of Raslan. “I do know the issue is the device. So I didn’t really feel anything else, in reality.”

But inside 4 years, the 2 males’s paths would move once more, their former positions reversed, as Germany ready a landmark court docket case. This time Bunni used to be running with the government, helping German prosecutors, whilst the opposite Anwar confronted jail.

Just about a decade into Syria’s civil struggle, Raslan has develop into the primary individual to stand trial – any place on the planet – over the state-sponsored torture and homicide of civilians all the way through the battle. Bunni, as soon as a thorn within the facet of Damascus officers, helped to find witnesses keen to testify.

Anwar Raslan arriving at court in Germany.
Anwar Raslan arriving at court docket to stand trial in Germany. : AFP/Getty Pictures

Raslan, a former colonel within the intelligence services and products, has been charged with crimes in opposition to humanity, dedicated within the early years of the battle, ahead of he defected in 2012. In that point, he labored for army intelligence, allegedly main an investigative unit beneath the infamous Department 251, which had its personal jail. There, prosecutors declare, Raslan oversaw a reign of terror, with prisoners subjected to torture together with electrical shocks, beatings and sexual attack over a duration of 16 months. His fee sheet alleges that greater than four,000 other folks had been tortured there all the way through that point, and that 58 detainees died.

Raslan’s trial started on 23 April in Koblenz, a ancient town at the banks of the Rhine between Frankfurt and Cologne, ahead of a panel of 3 judges. It’s anticipated to final nicely over a 12 months. Along him used to be Eyad al-Gharib, who is said to have served in a low-level function beneath Raslan in Damascus. It used to be a landmark second for numerous Syrians who had survived authorities torture chambers or misplaced family members to them. If discovered to blame, Raslan faces lifestyles in prison.


Syria’s struggle has now raged for just about a decade, and during its fight to stick in energy the federal government of Bashar al-Assad has many times damaged world legislation, the use of torture and chemical guns assaults, concentrated on hospitals and different civilian infrastructure. For the entire horrors dedicated by way of Isis and different events to the battle, pro-government forces are nonetheless accountable for almost all of civilian casualties and disappearances inside of Syria.

There may be little hope of justice both at house or in world tribunals. With the opposition now in large part defeated inside of Syria, Assad and his lieutenants are not likely to be attempted in home courts. And since Syria isn’t a birthday celebration to the world felony court docket, its authorities can’t be pursued by way of ICC prosecutors. The UN safety council may request an investigation, however makes an attempt to take action had been many times blocked by way of Russia and China. Calls to arrange a unique tribunal, like the person who attempted struggle crimes within the former Yugoslavia, have additionally foundered.

The first trial of members of Syrian security services for crimes against humanity taking place in Germany.
The primary trial of individuals of Syrian safety services and products for crimes in opposition to humanity going down in Germany. : Reuters

This leaves nationwide courts as the one imaginable direction for survivors to take a look at to carry regime figures to account. Nations comparable to Germany come with the doctrine of common jurisdiction of their regulations, permitting courts to prosecute somebody for a criminal offense dedicated any place on the planet, whether it is critical sufficient.

This trial isn’t the primary try to deliver Syria’s ruling magnificence to court docket: quite a lot of arrest warrants had been issued in opposition to senior figures by way of western governments. However the regime’s elite and serving officials are safely ensconced inside Syria’s borders, travelling simplest to allied states that may by no means give them up. So this trial marks the primary time somebody accused of a key function within the state’s archipelago of jails has needed to face questions beneath oath – about how the torture chambers operated, and the way they helped prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.


Bunni is a wiry guy, with a hairy moustache, who favours somewhat rumpled fits with an open-necked blouse. He has spent maximum of his grownup lifestyles in a perilous and in large part fruitless fight for human rights in a rustic that has develop into a byword for his or her abuse. One way or the other, that has now not decreased his power or dulled his sense of humour. He’s hardly with out a smile on his face, and a cigarette or vape pen in a single hand, the latter extra a result of Germany’s ban on indoor smoking than an try to kick a dependancy.

At 61, his hair is receding however nonetheless a younger darkish brown, flecked with silver. His outlook, too, is laced with the conviction of teenybopper. “I by no means, by no means misplaced my trust,” he says, once I ask if he ever despaired of his struggle for a greater Syria. “I’m positive we will be able to win.”

We met previous this 12 months, ahead of the trial, in a Berlin inventive quarter ruled by way of transformed warehouses and hipster cafes, on the headquarters of a movie manufacturing corporate. It gave the impression such an not likely assembly position that I questioned if I’d muddled the deal with. In truth, a Berlin film-maker had introduced Bunni a reduced fee on a room off a hall dotted with fashionable previous posters, well-tended crops and the open-door workplaces of manufacturers.

There used to be a variety of mendacity when Bashar took energy, pronouncing he’ll open the door for democracy. Then they began arresting other folks

He’s mindful how not likely his optimism and humour can appear, in opposition to the backdrop of the profound tragedy that has engulfed Syria. “I’m hoping you don’t suppose I’m Don Quixote,” he says at one level. The Syrian demise toll is estimated at greater than part 1,000,000 other folks, with tens of hundreds extra lacking. Greater than part the rustic’s prewar inhabitants have fled their properties, 6.6 million turning into refugees in a foreign country, with just about as many displaced inside of Syria.

Human rights abuses additionally lengthy predate the struggle. If Bunni’s lengthy fight for a extra democratic Syria didn’t curb the federal government’s habits, it used to be greater than sufficient to get him detained more than one occasions, together with a five-year prison sentence. He is aware of the price of shedding family members into the jail networks. His sister, 3 brothers, one sister-in-law and one brother-in-law have between them spent 73 years as political prisoners in Syria’s jails.

And whilst Bunni’s paintings in prewar Syria used to be prime profile, the circle of relatives incessantly struggled financially as a result of he took instances professional bono. The government persecuted his spouse, who misplaced her activity as an engineering assistant in 2007 and used to be avoided from travelling.

“She noticed that my buddies had excellent homes, dear automobiles, even if she knew I used to be a greater attorney,” he says with a rueful smile. “She suffered so much on account of me.”

After I ask if she has ever requested him to modify his career, his face creases with laughter. “It’s sophisticated,” he says, ahead of admitting that she has attempted to prohibit their two kids from following in his footsteps, and as soon as requested him to finish a starvation strike in prison as a result of their kids had been so anxious that they might now not find out about.

When Bunni in the end fled his place of origin in 2014, the government should have was hoping he would fade into insignificance; there used to be no obtrusive trail to proceed his paintings in a Europe bored with Syria’s struggle and excited by combating Isis. As an alternative, his affect has grown.


Bunni’s lifestyles tale can appear extra myth than reality, stuffed with not likely twists and unbelievable coincidences, lengthy ahead of his Berlin assembly with Raslan. His father, a goldsmith whose specialities integrated making replica antiques for unscrupulous sellers, died when he used to be 12, and Bunni took over his industry to beef up the circle of relatives whilst his siblings completed faculty.

He left the craft at the back of way back, however now not his abilities or his eye for good looks. A pal presentations me an image of a pendant Bunni made in prison. A dolphin’s sinuous frame have been moulded from powdered espresso, powdered milk and date stone fragments combined with glue and left to harden, then polished to a high quality shine in order that it regarded as though it have been carved from an extraordinary composite. An summary used to be traced in copper stripped from previous wires.

Bunni determined to develop into a attorney after observing his siblings disappear into prison for his or her communist politics. However with the circle of relatives nonetheless in need of cash, he labored in development within the early 1980s ahead of he may get started felony coaching, and in the ones years helped construct Syria’s maximum infamous jail, Saydnaya, close to Damascus. A photograph presentations a tender guy in aviator sun shades on the website, grinning in an implausibly pristine white blouse, with the extravagantly extensive collars of the period.

Anwar al-Bunni and another man, in 1982, sitting on part of the unfinished Saydnaya prison, which he helped build while working in construction before he began legal training.
Anwar al-Bunni, on left, in 1982, at Saydnaya, the jail he helped construct whilst running in development ahead of he started felony coaching. : courtesy of Anwar al-Bunni

“I used to be glad once I noticed the plans,” Bunni says now of a challenge that used to be at the beginning designed to be a extra humane prison, and which he knew used to be more likely to space certainly one of his imprisoned brothers. “There used to be not anything underground – the entire rooms had solar and air, there used to be a spot to do sports activities, soccer, basketball.” However by the point of a detainee revolt in 2008, Saydnaya had already develop into a byword for abuse and torture.

Bunni didn’t percentage his brothers’ politics; he hasn’t ever been a believer in birthday celebration or faith, simplest within the human spirit and person rights. “I by no means believed that God sought after to lend a hand me, possibly as a result of I had simplest myself to rely on from the age of 12,” he says. The actions that helped land him in prison in 2006 – together with drafting with different activists a proposed new, democratic charter for Syria – had been intended as a problem now not simplest to Assad, however to his fighters, he provides. “Everybody guarantees democracy and human rights, however incessantly they have got no sensible plan to use this. I sought after to understand: what’s your programme to make other folks’s lives higher?”


When Bunni started his felony apprenticeship within the mid-80s, Hafez al-Assad ran the rustic and used to be grooming his eldest son, Bassel, to prevail him. Bashar used to be only a clinical scholar with few political aspirations; however his brother’s demise in a automotive crash in 1994 made the gangly, British-educated ophthalmologist inheritor obvious in a single day. Simply six years later, Assad senior died, too, leaving the 34-year-old in command of the rustic (technically, he gained a referendum to take energy with 97% of votes).

There used to be a temporary second of hope that his early life, time spent in a foreign country or even a glamorous British-Syrian spouse, Asma, intended Bashar would rule as a reformer, despite the fact that that quickly handed. The civil struggle later proved that the son may some distance surpass his father when it got here to bloodshed and brutality.

“There used to be a variety of mendacity when Bashar took energy,” Bunni says of the time referred to as the Damascus spring. “It used to be all very superficial – his western conduct, and pronouncing he’ll open the door for democracy and civil society. We didn’t consider it, however we needed to take a look at. Then they began arresting other folks.”

He went into hiding to plot his break out, and dyed his hair blond – together with his unique moustache

In conjunction with different idealistic younger attorneys, Bunni determined to begin preserving the federal government to account. “We arrange a committee for the defence of political detainees.” That paintings led not directly to the Syrian Centre for Prison Research and Analysis, an bold human rights organisation shaped in Damascus in 2004.

The centre’s bland identify used to be intended to allay respectable considerations, Bunni says, despite the fact that its paintings contributed to his prison sentence. In 2006, he used to be sentenced to 5 years for “spreading false information”, beginning an unlicensed political crew and coping with international nations.

When Bunni used to be launched in 2011, the rustic gave the impression getting ready to additional alternate. Within the wake of the Arab spring, it regarded as though Assad may sign up for different toppled dictators and be exiled like Tunisia’s president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, jailed like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and even lynched like Muammar Gaddafi. However Syria’s revolution spiralled into full-blown struggle, as an ever-proliferating collection of militant teams, amongst them Islamist extremists, vied for energy.

Syria become a extra dangerous position. Many veterans of the human rights fight had been killed or disappeared, amongst them two of Bunni’s closest buddies, Khalil Ma’touq and Razan Zaitouneh, who had arrange the felony research centre with him. Ma’touq vanished in a government-controlled house in 2012; Zaitouneh is believed to had been abducted by way of Islamist crew Jaysh al-Islam a 12 months later, at the outskirts of Damascus.

Even because the threats grew, Bunni sought after to stick; his buddies had given their lives, and he knew exile incessantly introduced a gradual slide into irrelevance. However in early 2014, contacts warned him that a new warrant used to be out for his arrest, and safety forces swooped on his brother Akram at a marriage, mistaking him for Anwar. Bunni despatched his spouse and kids in a foreign country first, unfold the scoop that he had fled, too, and went into hiding to plot his personal break out.

He dyed his hair blond – together with his unique moustache: shaving it off would have left a telltale tan mark – and wore blue touch lenses. One pal lent him their ID; some other drove him to the border with Lebanon and informed him to watch for a choice. They prompt at nightfall. “We would have liked it to be at a time when eyes to find it tougher to peer, however other folks haven’t but grew to become at the lighting fixtures, now not so darkish that they’re the use of torches on the checkpoints. That’s the easiest time to move.”

They handed six or seven checkpoints, his pal flirting with guards to attract consideration clear of her silent passenger together with his pretend papers. Slightly an hour later, they reached an unguarded stretch of mountain, the place Bunni walked over the border into Lebanon and a brand new lifestyles.


Bunni’s contacts intended the circle of relatives didn’t percentage the lengthy adventure by way of land and sea of many Syrians who fled to Germany. Visas issued in Beirut allowed them to fly at once to Berlin, the place they claimed asylum, and the place Bunni resumed his struggle for human rights.

In March 2015, two days after shifting from the refugee camp into his first German house, Bunni flew to New York to handle the United Countries. Invited by way of Amnesty Global, he spoke on a panel about arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in Syria. Throughout the process that temporary assembly, he informed the UN, some other two detainees would have died in a Syrian prison; he additionally quoted estimates that 150,000 Syrians had been “lacking”.

However again in Germany, Bunni had no place of business, no licence to practise and, in spite of the UN invitation, Ecu leaders confirmed no interest in the Syrian struggle. “I didn’t consider they might see these kind of issues occur and keep silent,” Bunni says. “I didn’t need to consider that Europe would spend all this time status by way of and observing. This in point of fact surprised me.”

Anwar Raslan had most likely calculated that this loss of pastime, or his resolution to defect in 2012, would give protection to him. He had left Syria a couple of months after a bloodbath within the opposition stronghold of Houla, his circle of relatives house, heading first to Jordan after which to Turkey. There, he joined the opposition and later sought asylum in Germany.

He used to be open about having labored for the regime’s intelligence services and products, assuming his previous used to be at the back of him. He even sought lend a hand from the German police in 2015, when he become satisfied that Syrian regime brokers had been following him. The police discovered no proof of this, however in 2017 Raslan used to be referred to as as a witness in an investigation into Syrian struggle crimes. That interview precipitated investigators to begin having a look into Raslan’s personal actions, and in 2019 he used to be arrested and charged with crimes in opposition to humanity.

In court docket this Would possibly, Raslan rejected all fees. In a observation learn out by way of his attorney, he stated he had handled detainees by way of the ebook and “even introduced them espresso once they first got here to be interrogated”. Some had since met up with him in exile, he added. The fast fee with which he had launched prisoners had resulted in a discount in his powers, he stated, consistent with transcripts of the trial printed on-line by way of the Syria Justice and Responsibility Centre.

In June, Bunni stepped into the witness stand to element each the horrors and the bureaucratic buildings of Assad’s jails and torture chambers, which he is aware of in detail from his personal revel in and after years representing survivors. “It’s now not a non-public factor,” he says of the court docket case. “My goal is justice for all Syrians.”

When he first arrived in Europe, Bunni used to be disenchanted by way of the west’s skill to forget about the Syrian authorities’s abuses. However in exile, he met up with attorneys, activists and campaigners he knew from his years of fight, and came upon that a number of had been making an attempt to make use of Europe’s felony techniques to mount a grassroots struggle.

Bunni, with photographs of victims of the Syrian regime, outside the trial in Germany in June.
Bunni, with images of sufferers of the Syrian regime, outdoor the trial in June. : AFP/Getty Pictures

Whilst Bunni can’t practise as a attorney, he has one thing most likely extra helpful than a credential: believe some of the Syrian neighborhood that permits him to lend a hand to find witnesses to testify about abuses of their place of origin. Figuring out survivors, and having the ability to communicate via any considerations they will have about attesting, is vital to any try to prosecute struggle crimes dedicated some distance away, when there’s not likely to be bodily proof. He’s now a part of a community of Syrian survivors and Ecu felony activists decided to lend a hand drag instances against justice, who’ve submitted information to government in Sweden, Norway and Austria, in addition to Germany. At a time when the scoop from Syria is bleak, their development is an extraordinary spot of sunshine.

They don’t have any illusions that the case in opposition to Raslan may have instant implications for the Syrian regime. Even though he’s discovered to blame, he didn’t design or run the device, and left early within the struggle; in the meantime, the torture device grinds on. However a felony case places a crack within the wall of impunity that Russian beef up and western indifference have allowed Assad to erect round his interior circle.

“If because of this one much less individual sleeps simple at night time in Damascus, this is a step in the precise course,” says Patrick Kroker, a attorney excited by world crimes and duty on the Ecu Middle for Constitutional and Human Rights, which has performed a key function within the continent-wide effort to make use of common jurisdiction to pursue justice for Syrians. Traditionally, struggle crimes tribunals – maximum significantly the Nuremberg trials of senior Nazis – had been held after the combating has stopped, and typically convened by way of victors. Surprisingly, this situation opens because the struggle nonetheless rages, and the person within the dock labored for the successful facet; it may set new precedents, now not just for Syria however for different nations, too.

“This trial will impact the people nonetheless committing crimes in Syria,” Bunni says. “It is occurring whilst the occasions are nonetheless occurring, now not after the battle finishes and everybody relaxes, and says, ‘Let’s have some justice.’”

He additionally issues to the integrity of the German felony device as person who can give an incontestable document of crimes in Syria. “It’s necessary to shed light on for the entire international what in point of fact came about in Syria. Nobody can say this can be a pretend court docket.”


Six years into his lifestyles in Berlin, Bunni is so satisfied he’ll at some point return to Syria that he hasn’t even attempted to be informed a lot German. He’s thankful for the protected haven, however misses house and its routines. Considered one of his favorite haunts used to be the attorneys’ cafe within the Palace of Justice courthouse, a colonial-era development within the centre of Damascus, which served espresso, tea and cigarettes, in addition to a continuing nutrition of felony gossip as suggest accrued ahead of and after their instances, or met shoppers.

In Berlin, Bunni beverages most commonly fast espresso – a number of cups an afternoon – however gives visitors fiercely sturdy Syrian espresso, aromatic with cardamom, and Syrian candies. The frenzy into exile implies that date muffins can now be purchased throughout Berlin.

His two telephones buzz with messages from Syrians throughout Europe who need to search lend a hand or be offering it, and from activists. At the day we meet, his WhatsApp presentations greater than four,800 unread messages. He’s anxious about Syrian asylum seekers who’ve been detained in Cyprus, and several other hundred prone to deportation from Saudi Arabia.

Bunni is far more secure than he ever used to be in Damascus, however there’s a consistent barrage of threats on social media – most commonly nameless, however a reminder that many in Syria would feel free to peer his identify added to the lengthy lists of useless and disappeared. And he worries about colleagues nonetheless in Syria.

Whilst the Raslan case continues, Bunni is chasing different leads. As we discuss, one torture survivor who bears everlasting bodily scars arrives to talk about a case. New names of imaginable suspects are at all times trickling in. “We simply heard about him 3 days in the past,” Bunni says of a Syrian now in Europe and suspected of struggle crimes.

He’s satisfied that Assad’s lieutenants can’t cling directly to energy for ever. For now, he hopes that public members of the family campaigns, sanctions and the specter of arrest and trial would possibly restrict their function in any world negotiations over the rustic’s postwar long run, or profitable reconstruction efforts. “My primary purpose is to stay them excluded, and bring to a halt the entire roads to rebuilding their recognition,” he says. “If they’re a part of our long run, it’s going to be a crisis.”

He additionally hopes that the instances he’s serving to piece in combination throughout Europe will resonate some distance past Syria – a caution that, even with robust world allies, there’s no such factor as impunity from justice.

“Perhaps we will be able to save other folks somewhere else, the place there are dictators like Assad who suppose they are able to do that and continue to exist,” he says. “Since the criminals now are afraid. They know they aren’t untouchable.”

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