Accessibility links

Breaking News

Syrian Victims of Chemical Weapons Attacks Look to Germany for Justice

FILE - Syrians who were displaced with their families from eastern Ghouta hold their pots as they wait to receive food from the main kitchen at a shelter in the village of Horjelli, in the Damascus countryside, April 13, 2018.

Human rights lawyers have filed a complaint in Germany asking authorities to probe the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria by government forces, which killed hundreds of civilians.

At least 1,400 people died in sarin gas attacks in Ghouta in 2013 and four years later in Khan Sheikhoun. Now, lawyers believe they have gathered enough proof to charge President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Survivors provide evidence

The evidence includes accounts from survivors of the two attacks and testimony from defectors with knowledge of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program or plans to carry out the attacks.

"Prosecutors may ultimately determine they have sufficient evidence to issue arrest warrants for members of the Assad regime," Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Foundation's Justice Initiative, one of three organizations behind the complaints, told Reuters.

Although the Syrian government denies it used chemical weapons against its own civilians, Kostas is optimistic this "would be a major step in the longer-term process to secure trials against Syrian officials."

Trio of groups file complaint

The trio of human rights groups who filed the complaint — the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the group Syrian Archive — are counting on Germany's "universal jurisdiction" law, which allows it to prosecute people for crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

Earlier attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria have been blocked by Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council.

Meanwhile, Syrian lawyers and victims of alleged torture are also pursuing cases against former Syrian military and security officials who are accused of human rights violations and now live in Germany.

In April, a German court began hearings for two former members of Assad's security services that German prosecutors charged with crimes against humanity, including torture and sexual assault.

Arrest warrant issued

The country's prosecutor general also issued an international arrest warrant for the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity even as the Assad government denies torturing its prisoners.

The three rights groups believe perpetrators of those atrocities must face justice for peace to prevail.

"We are afraid that if we go to a political agreement without justice and accountability, this means that we will return our country to a second round of war," Mazen Darwish, director-general and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, told The Associated Press.

Darwish fears the new war may be built on revenge.

The German Federal Prosecutors' Office, confirming receipt of the complaint to the Associated Press, said it would be studying the criminal complaint submitted by the groups.