Written By Luna Watfa
Translated to English by Diane Lockyer
On 14/07/2021, a witness who expected the court to keep his identity anonymous and whose name would not be made public in the courtroom discovered that it was quite the opposite that occurred. As this case proved, some witnesses have no experience in German courts, are often not represented by a lawyer, and when they do not follow court hearings through written reports, they are not aware of the required procedures to follow.
Since the trial of the defendants Iyad Al-Ghraib and Anwar Raslan began, the panel of judges has repeatedly refused requests by witnesses who do not wish to have their personal information revealed for security reasons in the courtroom. The panel has justified its decision claiming the absence of a real or substantiated threat to the witness up till recently. Over time, the bench has become more flexible in this respect and has already allowed several witnesses not to give their personal information in court although this often depends on the presence of a witness’s lawyer who can explain to the court, the audience and the press why it is important to keep his client anonymous so his personal information is simply communicated to the parties involved in the case.
However, when a lawyer is not present or when the witness alone cannot convincingly justify the cause of his concerns to the bench, it obviously becomes almost impossible to accord the witness his demand.
It was also noteworthy this witness’s testimony concerning his arrest by the al-Khatib Branch occurred prior to the beginning of the revolution. He began telling his story to the judges:
« One day at the end of 2010 someone knocked on the door of our house at 4:00 a.m. I woke up ahead of my brothers and asked: Who’s knocking on the door? They answered in a decisive voice: Open the door! When I opened the door, several officers armed with Kalashnikov rifles broke into our apartment and immediately ordered me to lie on the ground. My hands were handcuffed behind my back and my undershirt was lifted over my head and then each security officer started handing me over to another one and each of them started hitting me on the head or the back. I was young at the time, just 17 years old. They put me in a car and told me to keep my head down, and when I tried to raise it a little someone hit me with a gun on my head. It was really horrible.”
After the witness arrived at the security branch and was received as usual by beatings and body searches, he was taken to the investigator’s room, and here he added:
« When I entered the office I was not blindfolded but I was only wearing my underwear, it was then I saw Anwar Raslan inside the interrogation office. I did not know what he looked like or his name. I received an order to turn around and when I did I saw my elder brother. I didn’t know they had arrested him too! There were other detainees as well. »
Raslan was leading the investigation, according to the witness. He ordered his officers to separate the detainees into two groups and to take them to the cells. They then began to summon them one by one to be interrogated in the same office where they were earlier. When his turn came, a jailer took him to Anwar Raslan’s room once again and remained standing behind him ordering him to keep his head down.
The witness said he couldn’t remember all the questions he was asked but he could remember one in particular when Raslan wanted to know if he was a Kurd from Kobane or if he belonged to the Kurdish community. He replied he was not from Ain al-Arab or “Kobani” which was a Kurdish name and not Arabic.
“Every time I answered “no” to one of his questions, he would point at the officer behind me, and then the latter would start beating me. I was so badly beaten, he even kicked me and I fell to the ground. Then the guard ordered me into the hall. At the time I didn’t know what it meant but then I found out. In the hallway, he put me on the floor and hit my feet with a quad cable. My hands were tied to my back. Then they brought me back to the cell and summoned my brother and other detainees after me. I was the youngest prisoner in my cell.”
When the public prosecutor asked him if his detention was legal because it happened before the beginning of the revolution, the witness replied:
“I studied law in Syria, my arrest was arbitrary and outside the framework of the law. Besides, there was no arrest warrant and I was still a minor. Arbitrary arrests are systematic in Syria and always practiced by the Syrian regime.”
At this stage, the witness directed his statement to the accused and added that he wanted to ask Raslan a question. However, Judge Kerber made it clear to the witness that it would be best not to do so for the moment but to go on describing what happened to him, and then if there was something he wanted to say to the court, he could go ahead.
The witness told the judges that his brother had been tortured more than he had in several ways, including wheels, electric shocks, and beatings with a cable. He was released after the witness had been and carried traces of torture on his body as a result of the electric shocks.
The witness added that they did not know why they were arrested, but two charges were brought against them: the first was that they were learning the Kurdish language, and the second charge was that his brother had not yet done his mandatory military service and therefore they concluded he intended to join the Kurdistan Workers’ Party organization.
The witness wanted to make it clear to the panel of judges that they had moved from Ain al-Arab to Damascus because of their financial situation and for no other reason, which was why his brother had not done his military service because he was the family breadwinner. In his opinion, their arrest could only be explained by the fact that the Syrian state and the Baath regime were a security and repressive regime even before the revolution in Syria began. It was the beginning of the Arab Spring at the time which explained why they launched several security campaigns to terrorize the Syrian people.
The witness stated there were about thirty detainees in the cell and he had not spoken to the other detainees about the reasons for their arrest or the ways they were tortured for fear that there might be an informant among them. But he told the judges that when one of them returned from the investigations there was no need to ask him how he was tortured because you could clearly see it on his body. The witness was interrogated about seven or eight times, always in the same office and mostly by the same investigator, he said.
The German criminal police showed the witness several pictures with likenesses of the accused Raslan, and although the witness had not previously seen a picture of the accused nor heard of the prosecution against him until after making his statement to the criminal police, and also despite the presence of some differences between the picture and the person he had seen 11 years earlier, he recognized Raslan at once. At the time, he noted, he was in better health and had more hair, and believed his birthmark was smaller, but he did not really recall much about it. However, he could easily distinguish his image among the photos of the look-alikes at the police station.
Of course, he also recognized him in the courtroom when he was asked to look around and try to identify anyone in the courtroom. After looking at the faces of the people around him he replied that the only person he had recognized there was Anwar Raslan.
Regarding the prison conditions he lived in, the witness mentioned a situation he said he could never forget. He said: “I saw a man who was 75 years old, or older, in a solitary cell in the corner. A person who is that old and can barely walk, so what is the use of imprisoning him?”
“There were other types of torture, both mental and physical, for example when we were allowed to go to the bathroom for a moment. There the guard would tell us he would start counting to 10 and if we couldn’t finish he would come in and beat us. That is why we had to designate a corner in our dormitory as a toilet we covered with a military blanket.”
“It was very bad in this cell; we could only sleep during the day because the cell was very full. We also had skin diseases like scabies. I once had acute tonsillitis. There was a doctor in the branch and I told him I needed medicine and he replied that I should only eat salt. The doctor did not act like a doctor but like a security element. I received small amounts of salt each time food was served. Whenever I ate salt, I would bleed.”
The witness was arrested as previously mentioned at the end of 2010 and released in early 2011. His detention lasted for about 45 days, as he had previously explained to the criminal police in 2019.
He was also asked what he meant when he told the criminal police:
“The person who is arrested was missing but once outside is reborn.”
He explained that this statement in Syria referred uniquely to the security branches because those who left the prisons were like someone who was destined for a new life.
At the end of his session and the end of the questions of the parties to the case, the witness asked for permission to speak and then said:
“I hope that you will try even the radical opposition war criminals who commit crimes against the Syrian people in general and the Kurdish people in Afrin in particular. Thank you all ».