Koblenz Trial 15.07.2021: Witness arrested in Harasta filming demonstration to show international community the truth of what was happening in Syria

Written By Luna Watfa
Translated to English by Diane Lockyer

When Raslan realised the witness had only written half a page, he angrily threw the papers in the witness’s face and told the lieutenant colonel he knew the witness wouldn’t understand his instructions. He ordered the jailers to take him away and force him to speak which Mr Shaar explained was an explicit order to apply torture.

Here is my report of the hearing on July 15, scheduled with witness Mohammed al-Shaar, who began by telling judges about the security and repression in Syria for the last 40 years. He described the beginning of demonstrations in 2011 when people were demanding reforms that were met with excessive violence on the part of the regime. In the first six months in 2011, as liberated areas were formed the regime began using aerial bombardment because it was unable to enter these areas.

Mr Shaar remarked each security branch was responsible for a certain area in Syria and the al-Khatib Branch 251 was responsible for the eastern Ghouta area.

So when demonstrations began in Ghouta, the demonstrators were confronted with al-Khatib’s members and arrested. On 14 October 2011, the witness and others went to a demonstration at the Al-Zahra Mosque in Harasta, where he was carrying a camera and documenting the demonstration to be uploaded to YouTube later to show the truth to the international community of what was really happening, he said, and it was here the security forces advanced and began their campaign of arrests.

Mr. Mohammed al-Shaar was arrested that day by Al-Khatib members who immediately began kicking him with their feet and beating him with the butt of their gun. They then placed him in a closed car and took him to the al-Biruni hospital which was used by the regime as a detention centre before transferring detainees to the al-Khatib branch. Once transferred to Branch 251, he was subjected to the usual « reception » in every branch and a body search. The accused, Anwar Ruslan, began the investigation followed by a phase of torture which caused the witness suffering he was still enduring and was being treated in Germany by a psychiatrist as well as in a clinic in Amsterdam as a result.

The investigation went on for four days as he continued denying filming the demonstration so he was transferred to the General Intelligence Department Branch 285 and remained there for six days where he was interrogated, beaten and tortured. However, when a picture of the witness was discovered in Al-Khatib’s branch they demanded his return as they realised he was the photographer.

Once back in the Al- Khatib Branch, Lieutenant Colonel Abdel Moneim al-Naasan, responsible for the interrogation, began questioning him and gave him a pen and paper telling him to write down everything he had done against the Syrian state and had him return to his solitary cell.

After finishing writing, the witness knocked on the door of his cell and the jailer took him back to the investigation office. The blindfold was removed from his eyes and he could see a large office where the accused Colonel Anwar Raslan sat and the Lieutenant-Colonel on his left who took the papers and gave them to Colonel Raslan. When Raslan realised the witness had only written half a page which did not contain the information he wanted, he angrily threw the papers in the witness’s face and addressing the lieutenant colonel told him he knew very well the witness wouldn’t understand his instructions. He then addressed the jailers and told them to take him away and force him to speak which Mr Shaar explained was an explicit order to apply torture.

At first he was taken back to the cell and deprived of sleep and obliged to remain seated for three days based on clear verbal instructions from the Lieutenant Colonel Al-Naasan. The interrogations went on for a period of four days and each day he was brought back to the solitary cell. He was charged with the following accusations:

« undermining the prestige of the state, communicating with other parties, and spreading unrest in the state for the benefit of foreign parties.« 

Mr Shaar was later taken by car from the Branch to the Harasta area to show them where he met his friends, and of course they did not find anyone there because the witness had a prior agreement with his friends that if one of them was arrested, the location should be changed immediately.

The witness was taken back to another unit where he remained for 25 days. The Lieutenant Colonel Al-Naasan then informed him they had discovered he was responsible for the media file and had satellite internet and Thuraya devices and asked him to hand the devices over to them and he would be freed.

Later on, the lieutenant colonel told the witness that his friends had not handed over the devices as requested by the mayor and that they had abandoned him. He returned a few days later and asked him for the devices once again but this time he was furious. They discovered he had tampered with them after they managed to monitor a call recorded from one of the revolutionary leaders in which he said that the witness had sent them information from inside the branch about where the devices were located.

It was a perfect reason for him to be beaten once again.

Mr Shaar described how he suffered from a heart condition and the torture so severe that he fainted and was not even given medication once. He was brought back to his solitary cell where another wounded detainee was placed with him so he could only lie on his back.

Mr Shaar spent 87 days in all there after which he was transferred to the General Intelligence Department for a second time and remained there for a period until he was released at the initiative of the Arab League on 16/01/2012.

25 days after his release, he was arrested once again from his home with one of his relatives by marriage and this time, he remained detained for 15 days in al-Khatib’s branch. The witness noted:

“I have been brought back here and yet in those 25 days I have done nothing; my health is not good so I can’t go walking or go anywhere and anyway you are occupying the city of Harasta.”

Al Nasan replied:

We don’t know anything about this but we want to ask you about some of the people who are wanted and visited you. We want to know why they visited you and what you talked about. We will let you go this time, but every time you meet someone or when something happens you must inform us because as you have seen we will come and get you. »

Three days after this meeting, the witness was transferred to the General Intelligence Service and spent another 10 days there and was then released.

During the hearing, Mr Shaar was then asked to describe the general conditions in the prison, the lack of health care and the psychological and physical torture methods used, which corresponded to all accounts from other witnesses so far. He also spoke about the effects of torture he had personally seen corresponding to the signs of torture he had documented himself when outside the branch found on bodies handed over to their families in Harasta.

He also told them about a person he knew who was arrested and tortured to put pressure on his brother and force him to surrender, however, the detained brother was martyred under torture, the witness added.

When asked how his personal arrest had affected him, the witness replied:

« I have had a psychological problem from the very moment I was arrested. I still sleep badly and have been feeling confused for such a long time I was referred to a psychiatrist in Amsterdam. From a physical point of view, I still have my medical file and had to undergo treatment even trying 17 sessions of physical therapy. In the end, they told me that the nerve of my right hand was damaged to the point that it will never be back to normal so I have to live with it.”

« As a result of   this, I took an exemption from work and now work 16 hours instead of 32 hours a week and only light work because I can’t carry weights. »

He was then asked about his documentation and where his videos were   published. Mr Shaar replied that certain documents had been shown on some news channels such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera as well as on the « Harasta 2011 » YouTube channel but YouTube had deleted many of those videos although some of them still existed today.

He was then asked to define the traces of torture he had documented on bodies to which he replied there were bruises piercings on bodies or deep wounds and they all took place between the beginning of the revolution and May 2012 when he left Syria – and all belonged to the bodies of detainees in Al-Khatib Branch 251.

This information attracted the attention of both civil and public parties when the session had nearly ended and they began asking questions about it.

Mr. Shaar was first asked to explain how he knew the victims were from the al Khatib branch. He remarked that just as residents in Koblenz knew that it was the Supreme Regional Court building and a trial against Raslan was ongoing inside it, so the residents of Harasta knew the al-Khatib branch was responsible for the arrests in the area. It was common knowledge that the bodies he and his friends documented were people who had first been arrested by the al-Khatib branch and their bodies later handed over to the Tishreen military hospital. The Branch then contacted the mayor to tell him there were bodies in the Tishreen military hospital and he had to deal with them. He added it was happening all the time at that period.

He even recalled documenting the bodies of two of his personal friends. The mayor contacted their families after they were arrested by al-Khatib’s branch and told them later on that their bodies were in the Tishreen hospital.

During the break, the civil defense attorney asked for Mr Shaar to identify the videos that he spoke about and were already identified on Internet and, despite requests by the lawyers to view these videos in the courtroom, Chief Justice Ms. Kerber rejected the request.

After the break, a long discussion followed when Judge Kerber asked the witness about two of the videos and he replied that the first belonged to a detainee “D.K.” The Al-Khatib branch security called the mayor and told him that his body was in Tishreen Hospital, so the mayor told the parents to come and collect their son’s body, which is what they did. The witness accompanied them and photographed the body.

As for the second video, it belonged to a friend of his called “A.Z.” The witness did not photograph his body because he was detained at the same time. After his release, he was surprised by the news of his friend’s death. One of their friends filmed his body and uploaded the video to YouTube so the witness was able to identify him because he was not only a friend but also his neighbour.

Mr. Al-Shaar added that this friend was arrested along with five others, including his cousin, and a few days later they were all handed over to their families. He added:

‘My cousin wouldn’t even take part in demonstrations yet they took him from the house because his brother was wanted to later hand his body over to his parents.’

After further consultations and a break, one of the civil rights prosecution lawyers asked the panel of judges to view a picture of the bodies from the video without showing the video itself, which was approved by the panel of judges and the two photographs of the bodies identified by the witness as the ones the judges had been informed about were displayed.

The hearing ended at around 3 p.m. without any further questions to the witness.