Berlin (CNN)A German court has convicted a former Syrian regime officer for crimes against humanity, in a first-ever trial of people linked to the government in Damascus.
Former intelligence officer Eyad al-Gharib, 44, was sentenced to four-and-a-half-years in prison by a court in the German city of Koblenz for aiding crimes against humanity.
Gharib was convicted of accompanying the transportation of 30 detained demonstrators, despite knowing about the systematic torture in the prison the detainees were being sent to, according to the prosecutors. The protesters were allegedly beaten on the way to prison.
The former junior regime officer was arrested in Berlin alongside former senior regime officer Col. Anwar Raslan in February 2019 under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which gives a national court jurisdiction over grave crimes against international law, even when they were not committed on the country’s territory.
Both Raslan and Gharib defected from the regime in late 2012.
Raslan, a high-ranking former intelligence officer, is still standing trial. He is accused of overseeing the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners during Syria’s uprising. At least 58 of the prisoners died. Rape and sexual assault allegedly occurred in at least one case.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity over the course of the country’s nearly decade-long war. But attempts to set up an international tribunal have been hampered by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council.
Syrian officials have repeatedly denied the allegations, insisting they target terrorists and not peaceful protesters.
“Today is an exceptional day in the lives of Syrians,” Amer Matar, a 33-year-old Syrian man who said he was tortured by Raslan, told CNN. “This is a very important message to us as Syrians that justice can truly be achieved, even in a very distant place like Germany, even if partial, and to specific people.”
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), investigators who provided documentary evidence used by the prosecution, called Tuesday’s verdict “historic.”
“This is a historic verdict,” CIJA Director Nerma Jelacic told CNN. “Not only because it is the first to convict a Syrian regime official for crimes against humanity, but also because it recognizes his crimes were part of a widespread and systematic attack orchestrated by the highest bodies of Assad’s regime.
“This is only the first of many other trials and investigations we are supporting,” Jelacic added. “It is almost 10 years since the crimes Eyad A. [al-Gharib] was convicted for were committed in those early days of the uprising as the regime cracked down on bare-armed protesters.”
Since 2012, CIJA has collected evidence of the Syrian government’s alleged crimes from investigators known as “document hunters.” These are Syrians recruited and trained by former war crimes investigators and lawyers to smuggle thousands of government documents out of Syrian war zones.
Human rights group Amnesty International urged more countries to follow Germany’s suit. “We call on more states to follow Germany’s example by investigating and prosecuting individuals suspected of committing war crimes or other crimes under international law in Syria through their national courts under the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction,'” said Lynn Maalouf, the organization’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who is considered one of the driving forces behind the Koblenz trial, called the ruling “a message to all criminals who still commit the most horrific crimes in Syria and to remind them that the time of impunity has passed, and there is no safe place to flee to.”
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh and Eyad Kourdi contributed to this report.