Germany must investigate sexual and gender-based violence in Syria for what it is: a crime against humanity

Berlin/London/Gaziantep – It is long overdue for sexual and gender-based violence in Syrian detention facilities to be investigated and prosecuted as a crime against humanity. This demand is at the core of a criminal complaint submitted on 17 June to the German federal public prosecutor on behalf of seven Syrian survivors of President Bashar al-Assad’s torture regime. It was drafted by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and filed jointly with the Syrian Women’s Network and Urnammu.

The accusations – crimes against humanity, including various sexual and gender-based crimes – are directed against nine high-ranking officials of the Syrian government and Air Force Intelligence Service, including Jamil Hassan, its former head. This criminal complaint expands on a November 2017 complaint by ECCHR and its partners, which resulted in an arrest warrant against Hassan for crimes against humanity.

The June 2020 complainants – women and men who were held in four Syrian Air Force Intelligence prisons between April 2011 and October 2013 – survived or witnessed various forms of sexual and gender-based violence including rape or its threat, sexual harassment, electrical shocks to the genitals, as well as forced nudity and forced abortion.

“I want the international community and judicial authorities to know what we went through just because we are women. We have suffered all kinds of torture, and verbal and physical abuse,” said one witness. “My greatest motivation to participate in this complaint is my faith in Germany’s impartial judiciary.”

The world’s first criminal trial on state torture in Syria began in Koblenz, Germany, in April 2020. Along with the arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan, this has been an important step for those affected. “Yet, when it comes to recognizing the gender-specific harm of international crimes, particularly sexual violence, the German justice system fails to explicitly charge suspects with crimes against humanity – which these crimes are,” said Alexandra Lily Kather, legal advisor at ECCHR, on behalf of the human rights organizations that filed the complaint.

The complaint aims to amend the charges in the arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan to include sexual and gender-based violence as a crime against humanity under German Code of Crimes against International Law (CCAIL) Section 7(1) Number 6, as well as to encourage the German justice system to open investigations and issue arrest warrants against the other eight suspects. It clarifies that these sexual crimes are not isolated incidents. Sexual and gender-based violence in Syrian detention facilities were and continue to be part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population. Assad’s government targets women, men and LGBTQI people because of their gender and sexual orientation.

“The physical, psychological, social and economic impact of these crimes destabilize civil society as a whole. Sexual violence often results in further discrimination against survivors. After women are released from detention, the majority face isolation and rejection from their family and wider community due to the occurrence of, or perception of, sexual violence against them,” said Joumana Seif, research fellow at ECCHR.

This complaint is part of ECCHR’s work on Syria, which includes seven other criminal complaints in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway. It is also part of a series of legal actions challenging sexual and gender-based violence in Chechnya, Chile, Colombia, DRC, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Contact:

ECCHR, Anabel Bermejo, + 49 30 6981 9797 / + 49 172 587 0087 / bermejo@ecchr.eu

Syrian Women’s Network, Karima Al-Saed, +905397412092 / media.s.w.n@gmail.com

Urnammu, Sema Nasser, +44 757 6700 067 / media@urnammu.org