For Syria, a light of justice in a German courtroom

The trial of two former secret police is a first in using an independent court to expose war crimes in Syria. It probably won’t be the last.

Judges and plaintiffs stand in a courtroom prior to the start of the first trial of suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's security services for crimes against humanity, in Koblenz, Germany, April 23.

After nine years of a brutal war in Syria against pro-democracy civilians, a bit of sunlight began to shine Thursday on the war’s atrocities. Two former members of Syria’s secret police went on trial in Germany for crimes against humanity based on evidence of state-sponsored torture.

The trial is the first time an independent court will be able to provide some justice for victims of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At the least, the courtroom exposure of the regime’s systemic abuse of civilians will set a precedent for the eventual truth-telling necessary to heal Syrian society once Mr. Assad is removed from power.

Germany was able to prosecute the two defendants, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, because they were found living in the country and arrested last year. Like the victims who will testify against them, they too chose to flee Syria.

Germany abides by the principle of universal jurisdiction, or the idea that a country can prosecute war crimes committed outside its borders. Such a claim is supported by the fact that Russia, the main ally of Mr. Assad, has prevented an international court from pursuing cases involving Syrian atrocities. Russia can use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block this path of justice.

In addition, Germany has been affected heavily by the war in Syria. It has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the war, many of them victims of torture and rape.

The trial is also made possible because of a global effort to document war crimes in Syria, including the amassing of more than 50,000 photographs and thousands of witness accounts. In 2016, in defiance of Russia, the U.N. General Assembly established an independent investigative mechanism for Syria.

Now, in this first step toward justice, victims of the war will be able to confront their alleged perpetrators. This display of accountability could send a signal to those still in the Assad regime that they could face such a trial someday. The trial also sends a “signal of hope” to the many Syrians who have suffered war crimes, says Germany’s justice minister, Christine Lambrecht.

If the two men are convicted, it may embolden more victims to provide evidence of war crimes, perhaps hastening an end to the conflict. The voices of the innocent can be a powerful antidote to the violence of war. They are also essential to national reconciliation in such a war-ravaged country.

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