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HomeU.S.A‘My purpose is justice for all Syrians’: one man’s journey from jail...

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

Anwar al-Bunni had solely been in Germany a few months when he walked into a store and located himself nose to nose with the person he believes had interrogated and jailed him practically a decade earlier. Each males have been shopping for groceries in a Turkish store close to the gates of Marienfelde, the Berlin refugee camp they now referred to as residence. There was a imprecise flicker of recognition, however Bunni couldn’t fairly place the opposite man.

It was 2014, a 12 months earlier than Angela Merkel’s resolution to open Germany’s borders to refugees drew greater than one million folks fleeing warfare and hardship to the nation. Even so, 1000’s of Syrians had already discovered their approach to Berlin. Bunni, a human rights lawyer with greater than three a long time’ expertise preventing the Syrian regime within the courts, and several other years spent inside its jails for his hassle, was half of a big community of colleagues, purchasers, buddies and former opponents.

“I used to be with my spouse, and I stated to her, ‘I do know this man’ however I couldn’t bear in mind who he was,” he recollects. “Then, after a number of days, considered one of my buddies stated, ‘Do you know Anwar Raslan is in Marienfelde with you?’ After which I realised.”

The 2 Anwars, born 4 years aside, had each studied regulation, however selected to apply it to reverse sides of Syria’s authoritarian political system. Raslan turned a police officer, earlier than transferring to the intelligence providers, the place he would assist detain Bunni.

On the time, Bunni thought little extra of the assembly, settling again to his authorized recordsdata, pursuing at a distance the identical battle towards the Syrian state and its abusers that had consumed him for many years. “I don’t hate him as an individual,” Bunni says of Raslan. “I do know the issue is the system. So I didn’t really feel something, actually.”

But inside 4 years, the 2 males’s paths would cross once more, their former positions reversed, as Germany ready a landmark courtroom case. This time Bunni was working with the authorities, helping German prosecutors, whereas the opposite Anwar confronted jail.

Practically a decade into Syria’s civil warfare, Raslan has change into the primary particular person to face trial – anyplace on this planet – over the state-sponsored torture and homicide of civilians throughout the battle. Bunni, as soon as a thorn within the facet of Damascus officers, helped discover witnesses keen to testify.

Anwar Raslan arriving at courtroom to face trial in Germany. {Photograph}: AFP/Getty Photographs

Raslan, a former colonel within the intelligence providers, has been charged with crimes towards humanity, dedicated within the early years of the battle, earlier than he defected in 2012. In that point, he labored for navy 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 assault over a interval of 16 months. His cost sheet alleges that greater than 4,000 folks have been tortured there throughout that point, and that 58 detainees died.

Raslan’s trial started on 23 April in Koblenz, a historic metropolis on the banks of the Rhine between Frankfurt and Cologne, earlier than a panel of three judges. It’s anticipated to final properly over a 12 months. Alongside him was Eyad al-Gharib, who’s alleged to have served in a low-level position beneath Raslan in Damascus. It was a landmark second for numerous Syrians who had survived authorities torture chambers or misplaced family members to them. If discovered responsible, Raslan faces life in jail.


Syria’s warfare has now raged for practically a decade, and in the midst of its battle to remain in energy the federal government of Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly damaged worldwide regulation, utilizing torture and chemical weapons assaults, concentrating on hospitals and different civilian infrastructure. For all of the horrors dedicated by Isis and different events to the battle, pro-government forces are nonetheless accountable for almost all of civilian casualties and disappearances inside Syria.

There’s little hope of justice both at residence or in worldwide tribunals. With the opposition now largely defeated inside Syria, Assad and his lieutenants are unlikely to be tried in home courts. And since Syria will not be a celebration to the worldwide felony courtroom, its authorities can’t be pursued by ICC prosecutors. The UN safety council might request an investigation, however makes an attempt to take action have been repeatedly blocked by Russia and China. Calls to arrange a particular tribunal, just like the one that attempted warfare 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 members of Syrian safety providers for crimes towards humanity happening in Germany. {Photograph}: Reuters

This leaves nationwide courts as the one attainable route for survivors to attempt to maintain regime figures to account. Nations comparable to Germany embody the doctrine of common jurisdiction of their legal guidelines, permitting courts to prosecute somebody for against the law dedicated anyplace on this planet, whether it is severe sufficient.

This trial will not be the primary try to convey Syria’s ruling class to courtroom: quite a few arrest warrants have been issued towards senior figures by western governments. However the regime’s elite and serving officers are safely ensconced inside Syria’s borders, travelling solely to allied states that might by no means give them up. So this trial marks the primary time somebody accused of a key position 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 man, with a bushy moustache, who favours barely rumpled fits with an open-necked shirt. He has spent most of his grownup life in a harmful and largely fruitless battle for human rights in a rustic that has change into a byword for his or her abuse. By some means, that has not diminished his vitality or dulled his sense of humour. He’s not often with out a smile on his face, and a cigarette or vape pen in a single hand, the latter extra a consequence of Germany’s ban on indoor smoking than an try to kick a behavior.

At 61, his hair is receding however nonetheless a youthful darkish brown, flecked with silver. His outlook, too, is laced with the conviction of youth. “I by no means, by no means misplaced my perception,” he says, once I ask if he ever despaired of his battle for a greater Syria. “I’m certain we are going to win.”

We met earlier this 12 months, earlier than the trial, in a Berlin inventive quarter dominated by transformed warehouses and hipster cafes, on the headquarters of a movie manufacturing firm. It appeared such an unlikely assembly place that I puzzled if I’d muddled the tackle. In actual fact, a Berlin film-maker had supplied Bunni a reduced fee on a room off a hall dotted with fashionable outdated posters, well-tended crops and the open-door workplaces of producers.

He’s conscious how unlikely his optimism and humour can appear, towards the backdrop of the profound tragedy that has engulfed Syria. “I hope you don’t suppose I’m Don Quixote,” he says at one level. The Syrian loss of life toll is estimated at greater than half one million folks, with tens of 1000’s extra lacking. Greater than half the nation’s prewar inhabitants have fled their houses, 6.6 million turning into refugees overseas, with practically as many displaced inside Syria.

Human rights abuses additionally lengthy predate the warfare. If Bunni’s lengthy battle for a extra democratic Syria did not curb the federal government’s conduct, it was greater than sufficient to get him detained a number of instances, together with a five-year jail sentence. He is aware of the price of dropping family members into the jail networks. His sister, three brothers, one sister-in-law and one brother-in-law have between them spent 73 years as political prisoners in Syria’s jails.

And whereas Bunni’s work in prewar Syria was excessive profile, the household usually struggled financially as a result of he took circumstances professional bono. The authorities persecuted his spouse, who misplaced her job as an engineering assistant in 2007 and was prevented from travelling.

“She noticed that my buddies had good homes, costly vehicles, although she knew I used to be a greater lawyer,” he says with a rueful smile. “She suffered rather a lot due to me.”

After I ask if she has ever requested him to alter his career, his face creases with laughter. “It’s sophisticated,” he says, earlier than admitting that she has tried to ban their two kids from following in his footsteps, and as soon as requested him to finish a starvation strike in jail as a result of their kids have been so apprehensive that they might not research.

When Bunni lastly fled his homeland in 2014, the authorities will need to have hoped he would fade into insignificance; there was no apparent path to proceed his work in a Europe uninterested in Syria’s warfare and targeted on preventing Isis. As a substitute, his affect has grown.


Bunni’s life story can appear extra fable than reality, filled with unlikely twists and inconceivable coincidences, lengthy earlier than his Berlin assembly with Raslan. His father, a goldsmith whose specialities included making copy antiques for unscrupulous sellers, died when he was 12, and Bunni took over his commerce to assist the household whereas his siblings completed faculty.

He left the craft behind way back, however not his expertise or his eye for magnificence. A buddy reveals me an image of a pendant Bunni made in jail. A dolphin’s sinuous physique had been moulded from powdered espresso, powdered milk and date stone fragments combined with glue and left to harden, then polished to a wonderful shine in order that it appeared as if it had been carved from a uncommon composite. An overview was traced in copper stripped from outdated wires.

Bunni determined to change into a lawyer after watching his siblings disappear into jail for his or her communist politics. However with the household nonetheless wanting cash, he labored in building within the early Nineteen Eighties earlier than he might begin authorized coaching, and in these years helped construct Syria’s most infamous jail, Saydnaya, close to Damascus. A photograph reveals a younger man in aviator sun shades on the web site, grinning in an implausibly pristine white shirt, with the extravagantly large 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 whereas working in building earlier than he started authorized coaching. {Photograph}: courtesy of Anwar al-Bunni

“I used to be completely happy once I noticed the plans,” Bunni says now of a venture that was initially designed to be a extra humane jail, and which he knew was more likely to home considered one of his imprisoned brothers. “There was nothing underground – all of the rooms had solar and air, there was a spot to do sports activities, soccer, basketball.” However by the point of a detainee riot in 2008, Saydnaya had already change into a byword for abuse and torture.

Bunni didn’t share his brothers’ politics; he has by no means been a believer in celebration or faith, solely within the human spirit and particular person rights. “I by no means believed that God needed to assist me, possibly as a result of I had solely myself to depend upon from the age of 12,” he says. The actions that helped land him in jail in 2006 – together with drafting with different activists a proposed new, democratic structure for Syria – have been meant as a problem not solely to Assad, however to his opponents, he provides. “Everybody guarantees democracy and human rights, however usually they haven’t any sensible plan to use this. I needed to know: what’s your programme to make folks’s lives higher?”


When Bunni started his authorized apprenticeship within the mid-80s, Hafez al-Assad ran the nation and was grooming his eldest son, Bassel, to succeed him. Bashar was only a medical pupil with few political aspirations; however his brother’s loss of life 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 control of the nation (technically, he gained a referendum to take energy with 97% of votes).

There was a quick second of hope that his youth, time spent overseas and even a glamorous British-Syrian spouse, Asma, meant Bashar would rule as a reformer, though that quickly handed. The civil warfare later proved that the son might far surpass his father when it got here to bloodshed and brutality.

“There was a lot of mendacity when Bashar took energy,” Bunni says of the time generally known as the Damascus spring. “It was all very superficial – his western habits, and saying he’ll open the door for democracy and civil society. We didn’t imagine it, however we needed to strive. Then they began arresting folks.”

Along with different idealistic younger legal professionals, Bunni determined to begin holding the federal government to account. “We arrange a committee for the defence of political detainees.” That work led not directly to the Syrian Centre for Authorized Research and Analysis, an bold human rights organisation fashioned in Damascus in 2004.

The centre’s bland identify was meant to allay official considerations, Bunni says, though its work contributed to his jail sentence. In 2006, he was sentenced to 5 years for “spreading false information”, beginning an unlicensed political group and coping with international international locations.

When Bunni was launched in 2011, the nation appeared on the point of additional change. Within the wake of the Arab spring, it appeared as if Assad would possibly be a part of 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 warfare, as an ever-proliferating variety of militant teams, amongst them Islamist extremists, vied for energy.

Syria turned a extra dangerous place. Many veterans of the human rights battle have been killed or disappeared, amongst them two of Bunni’s closest buddies, Khalil Ma’touq and Razan Zaitouneh, who had arrange the authorized research centre with him. Ma’touq vanished in a government-controlled space in 2012; Zaitouneh is assumed to have been kidnapped by Islamist group Jaysh al-Islam a 12 months later, on the outskirts of Damascus.

Even because the threats grew, Bunni needed to remain; his buddies had given their lives, and he knew exile usually introduced a gradual slide into irrelevance. However in early 2014, contacts warned him {that a} new warrant was 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 overseas first, unfold the information that he had fled, too, and went into hiding to plan his personal escape.

He dyed his hair blond – together with his distinctive moustache: shaving it off would have left a telltale tan mark – and wore blue contact lenses. One buddy lent him their ID; one other drove him to the border with Lebanon and informed him to attend for a name. They set off at nightfall. “We wanted it to be at a time when eyes discover it tougher to see, however folks haven’t but turned on the lights, not so darkish that they’re utilizing torches on the checkpoints. That’s the proper time to cross.”

They handed six or seven checkpoints, his buddy flirting with guards to attract consideration away from her silent passenger along with his pretend papers. Barely an hour later, they reached an unguarded stretch of mountain, the place Bunni walked over the border into Lebanon and a brand new life.


Bunni’s contacts meant the household didn’t share the lengthy journey by land and sea of many Syrians who fled to Germany. Visas issued in Beirut allowed them to fly on to Berlin, the place they claimed asylum, and the place Bunni resumed his battle for human rights.

In March 2015, two days after shifting from the refugee camp into his first German residence, Bunni flew to New York to handle the United Nations. Invited by Amnesty Worldwide, he spoke on a panel about arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in Syria. In the course of the course of that transient assembly, he informed the UN, one other two detainees would have died in a Syrian jail; he additionally quoted estimates that 150,000 Syrians have been “lacking”.

However again in Germany, Bunni had no workplace, no licence to practise and, regardless of the UN invitation, European leaders confirmed little curiosity within the Syrian warfare. “I didn’t think about they might see all these items occur and keep silent,” Bunni says. “I didn’t wish to imagine that Europe would spend all this time standing by and watching. This actually shocked me.”

Anwar Raslan had maybe calculated that this lack of curiosity, or his resolution to defect in 2012, would shield him. He had left Syria a number of months after a bloodbath within the opposition stronghold of Houla, his household residence, heading first to Jordan after which to Turkey. There, he joined the opposition and later sought asylum in Germany.

He was open about having labored for the regime’s intelligence providers, assuming his previous was behind him. He even sought assist from the German police in 2015, when he turned satisfied that Syrian regime brokers have been following him. The police discovered no proof of this, however in 2017 Raslan was referred to as as a witness in an investigation into Syrian warfare crimes. That interview prompted investigators to begin wanting into Raslan’s personal actions, and in 2019 he was arrested and charged with crimes towards humanity.

In courtroom this Might, Raslan rejected all costs. In an announcement learn out by his lawyer, he stated he had handled detainees by the guide and “even supplied them espresso once they first got here to be interrogated”. Some had since met up with him in exile, he added. The speedy fee with which he had launched prisoners had led to a discount in his powers, he stated, in response to transcripts of the trial revealed on-line by the Syria Justice and Accountability 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 intimately from his personal expertise and after years representing survivors. “It’s not a private difficulty,” he says of the courtroom case. “My goal is justice for all Syrians.”

When he first arrived in Europe, Bunni was disillusioned by the west’s capability to disregard the Syrian authorities’s abuses. However in exile, he met up with legal professionals, activists and campaigners he knew from his years of battle, and found that a number of have been making an attempt to make use of Europe’s authorized techniques to mount a grassroots battle.

Bunni, with photographs of victims of the Syrian regime, outside the trial in Germany in June.
Bunni, with pictures of victims of the Syrian regime, outdoors the trial in June. {Photograph}: AFP/Getty Photographs

Whereas Bunni can not practise as a lawyer, he has one thing maybe extra helpful than a credential: belief among the many Syrian neighborhood that permits him to assist discover witnesses to testify about abuses of their homeland. Figuring out survivors, and having the ability to speak via any considerations they might have about testifying, is essential to any try to prosecute warfare crimes dedicated far-off, when there’s unlikely to be bodily proof. He’s now a part of a community of Syrian survivors and European authorized activists decided to assist drag circumstances in the direction of justice, who’ve submitted recordsdata to authorities in Sweden, Norway and Austria, in addition to Germany. At a time when the information from Syria is bleak, their progress is a uncommon spot of sunshine.

They don’t have any illusions that the case towards Raslan could have rapid implications for the Syrian regime. Even when he’s discovered responsible, he didn’t design or run the system, and left early within the warfare; in the meantime, the torture machine grinds on. However a felony case places a crack within the wall of impunity that Russian assist and western indifference have allowed Assad to erect round his internal circle.

“If because of this one much less particular person sleeps straightforward at evening in Damascus, it’s a step in the correct course,” says Patrick Kroker, a lawyer targeted on worldwide crimes and accountability on the European Heart for Constitutional and Human Rights, which has performed a key position within the continent-wide effort to make use of common jurisdiction to pursue justice for Syrians. Traditionally, warfare crimes tribunals – most notably the Nuremberg trials of senior Nazis – have been held after the preventing has stopped, and normally convened by victors. Unusually, this case opens because the warfare nonetheless rages, and the person within the dock labored for the successful facet; it might set new precedents, not just for Syria however for different international locations, too.

“This trial will have an effect on the people nonetheless committing crimes in Syria,” Bunni says. “It’s taking place whereas the occasions are nonetheless occurring, not after the battle finishes and everybody relaxes, and says, ‘Let’s have some justice.’”

He additionally factors to the integrity of the German authorized system as one that may present an incontestable file of crimes in Syria. “It’s vital to clarify for all of the world what actually occurred in Syria. Nobody can say this can be a pretend courtroom.”


Six years into his life in Berlin, Bunni is so satisfied he’ll in the future return to Syria that he hasn’t even tried to be taught a lot German. He’s grateful for the secure haven, however misses residence and its routines. Considered one of his favorite haunts was the legal professionals’ cafe within the Palace of Justice courthouse, a colonial-era constructing within the centre of Damascus, which served espresso, tea and cigarettes, in addition to a relentless weight loss program of authorized gossip as counsel gathered earlier than and after their circumstances, or met purchasers.

In Berlin, Bunni drinks largely prompt espresso – a number of cups a day – however presents friends fiercely sturdy Syrian espresso, aromatic with cardamom, and Syrian sweets. The push into exile implies that date muffins can now be purchased throughout Berlin.

His two telephones buzz with messages from Syrians throughout Europe who wish to search assist or supply it, and from activists. On the day we meet, his WhatsApp reveals greater than 4,800 unread messages. He’s apprehensive about Syrian asylum seekers who’ve been detained in Cyprus, and several other hundred vulnerable to deportation from Saudi Arabia.

Bunni is far safer than he ever was in Damascus, however there’s a fixed barrage of threats on social media – largely nameless, however a reminder that many in Syria could be completely happy to see his identify added to the lengthy lists of useless and disappeared. And he worries about colleagues nonetheless in Syria.

Whereas the Raslan case continues, Bunni is chasing different leads. As we converse, one torture survivor who bears everlasting bodily scars arrives to debate a case. New names of attainable suspects are all the time trickling in. “We simply heard about him three days in the past,” Bunni says of a Syrian now in Europe and suspected of warfare crimes.

He’s satisfied that Assad’s lieutenants can not maintain on to energy for ever. For now, he hopes that public relations campaigns, sanctions and the specter of arrest and trial might restrict their position in any worldwide negotiations over the nation’s postwar future, or profitable reconstruction efforts. “My foremost purpose is to maintain them excluded, and reduce off all of the roads to rebuilding their fame,” he says. “If they’re a part of our future, it will likely be a catastrophe.”

He additionally hopes that the circumstances he’s serving to piece collectively throughout Europe will resonate far past Syria – a warning that, even with highly effective worldwide allies, there isn’t any such factor as impunity from justice.

“Perhaps we are able to save folks somewhere else, the place there are dictators like Assad who suppose they will do that and survive,” he says. “As a result of the criminals now are afraid. They know they aren’t untouchable.”

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