Lawyer Anwar al-Bunni is the person mainly behind the trials of Colonel Anwar Raslan, an Assad regime security figure who has been given a life sentence for torturing detainees, and Dr. Alaa Mousa, a physician accused of crimes against humanity. SYRIAWISE interviewed Mr. al-Bunni to shed light on his work and personal life back in Syria and abroad.
The Syrian regime was happy that you left Syria in 2014, and expected that you would disappear in exile and not be heard from again. Instead they now know that Anwar al-Bunni is once again practicing his human rights work in Europe. Have there been direct or indirect messages to you from the Syrian regime since you’ve been in Germany?
In fact, I do not know if the Syrian regime was happy or unhappy with that. I did not ask them if I could leave because they had already prevented me from getting a passport and an exit permit so I fled illegally and managed to enter Lebanon where I had already sent my family. At the time, the regime was granting passports to many members of the Syrian opposition inside Syria.
You delivered a speech to the United Nations in 2015 at the invitation of Amnesty International and you spoke to the world about arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances in Syria. Have you received other similar international invitations to talk about human rights violations in Syria?
There were always calls, but sometimes I felt these calls were useless since many activists and organizations were already doing advocacy work.
I spoke to the Human Rights Council twice, but in the end I felt that there were no results for what is happening in my country, Syria. It was just denunciation after denunciation of what Assad is doing and talk about crimes being committed without real action.
Many Syrian and international organizations work on advocacy, including Amnesty International, and I decided to take another approach which is the issue of legal prosecution rather than advocacy. This is what made me move away from the idea of attending conferences, United Nations councils, or others.
We are now seeking with the United Nations to work on issuing a decision to establish a court after an international mechanism was established to collect evidence, and now we are working to mobilize organizations and voices to establish this court, either through the General Assembly or through an international agreement.
Did the speech by former US President George W. Bush directed at Syrian authorities help to get you released?
Unfortunately, this regime did not, not once, succumb to any international appeal for the release of detainees. I completed my entire prison term and did not leave with an amnesty or any exceptional measure. The regime did not comply or respond to any international call in this matter.
You were given the Human Rights Award by the German Association of Judges in 2009 and at that time you were in prison. What is your comment?
The first award I received was the Front Line Award for Frontline Human Rights Defenders. My wife went to Ireland to receive it because I was in prison. The German award from the German Association of Judges was granted a year later. I do not consider the award as personal. The important thing for me regarding these awards is to shed light on the issue of detainees and political detention and to try to draw the world’s attention to the conditions of public freedoms in Syria and freedom of expression in particular.
As head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, are you coordinating or consulting with other international human rights bodies and is the center’s advisory board composed of only Syrians or are there other nationalities?
We at the Center cooperate with many international human rights and legal organizations all over the world including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Arab organizations. For example, the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), and European organizations working on the issue of human rights prosecutions such as Civil Rights Defenders in Sweden and the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris (FIDH), in addition to the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) in Austria and Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) in Oslo.
Now, we are intensifying our efforts by communicating with a network of prosecutors and police units in all European countries which are concerned with prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity.
To what extent have you succeeded in putting pressure on governments, decision-makers and international bodies to hold human rights violators accountable and to defend political prisoners in Syria and for defending the rights of Syrian survivors and victims across the world?
We have contacts with the American Human Rights Syndicate and the American Bar Association, which is a fruitful cooperation. And, God willing, there will be new optimistic news that will appear soon on the level of legal action in America. I hope that it will receive support and resonate with others in the pursuit of criminals in Syria.
We succeeded in conveying the message to all concerned European and Western countries, but the problem is politics. In fact, it was a shock to me when I arrived in Europe and we were meeting with policy makers and I later discovered that the human rights slogans in Europe and the West in general are sometimes fanciful slogans where the interests of countries come first. I will not say that this is normal, but often the issue of human rights is put on the shelf as opposed to the economic or political interests and this really caused me great disappointment. However, we did not despair. We proceeded to pressure the decision-makers from many sides. The best way to put pressure is to find a real action, not just appeals, and this is what happened by moving the prosecution files, as it was a reason to put pressure on the decision-makers and force them to take positions and do something for the sake of prosecution. We see the results of this being reflected through the media in Europe and America in terms of positions or practical steps. In France, for example, several days ago, the law that allows for the prosecution and conviction of human rights violators was changed, and we hope that this will be implemented in other countries as well.
Are you still afraid of Assad and his gang escaping from punishment and standing before the International Criminal Court (ICC)?
It really isn’t a question of whether I’m afraid or not. Capturing Assad is really not a priority for me now and one day he will be arrested, and I am not worried that he will be arrested and will face trial if he is not killed before. One of my priorities now is to ensure that Assad will not be part of Syria’s future, neither in the transitional phase nor in Syria’s future. His conviction does not lie in the issue of his arrest, but rather in his removal from the future of our children, and this is my first goal.
My concern now, which is beginning to be achieved, is that Assad has been removed from any dealings and the rehabilitation of his criminal regime is not longer on the top of the world agenda.
How many times have you been on hunger strike in prison?
Three to four times. When I was arrested, I went on hunger strike for 17 days, and for the last few years I had to end the strike because my children were in poor condition due to their important articulated exams. The second time is when we asked for a protest against the ill-treatment in prison and the third time in solidarity with other detainees who were in prison for violations against them.
Can you tell us about the fact that you presented a blood-stained handkerchief to the judge while defending the politician Aref Dalilah as evidence that detainees had been beaten in prison and as a result you were prevented from practicing any judicial activity for the rest of your life.
We formed a team to defend the political detainees in the Damascus Spring period and the 10 Damascus Spring detainees who were arrested and transferred to the Supreme State Security Court. One of them was Aref Dalilah. As for the latter, devices were installed to monitor the conversations between the detainees and they were heard criticizing the regime while talking to each other. Aref Dalilah was beaten in prison after the hearing of the recordings by the prison administration which led to bleeding from his ear and nose. He had kept the blood-stained tissues and told us about it when he arrived at the court. I showed the handkerchiefs before the judge and asked him, as he is responsible, to investigate this incident of assault and the result of this court session. The security forces attacked me and kicked me out of the court on the stairs in a humiliating and ugly manner. Then the Syrian Bar Association took quick action against me. As it represents the authority, it issued a decision against me to stop me from practicing my profession for reasons related to my defense of political detainees.
You and some of your family members spent many years in Assad’s prisons on various human rights and political charges. How do you want Syria the future?
Forging the future of Syria has been an obsession for me since the beginning, and it is not just about defending the detainees. My goal is to formulate the entire legal structure of Syria in order to be safe and respectful of human rights and freedoms. For this reason, we issued the first study at the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research; the topic was “The Mechanism of Domination and Control in Syrian Laws.” We talked about how the Assad regime controls and dominates Syrian society through laws and not only through security violations, as security violations are part of what is permitted by law. Assad made laws designed to protect his security abuses and give him absolute protection from any accountability for the crimes they are committing. We completed that study in 2004 and followed it up with the first draft of a new, complete Syrian constitution in 2005 which would move Syria from the stage of tyranny to the stage of democracy and freedoms. We worked on the implementation of the Parties Law and the Elections and Judicial Authority Law while I was in prison in 2007. Therefore, the idea of drawing and formulating the future of Syria is one of our main concerns. For this reason, we are now working on workshops to spread the constitutional culture in Syrian society now so that all Syrians know how to build a country that respects freedoms and adopts a democratic mechanism to reach power.
Your eyes recognize beauty thanks to your father who bequeathed you the tradition of antiques making. Did you manage to do something while you were in prison?
The gold industry was my father’s profession as he used to practice it at home in addition to his job to support the family. And I worked with it after he died. The financial situation of the family was very bad, but I did not continue with it because it was not my dream and if I continued with it, I would be one of the wealthy. My obsession was changing the country and the advancement of society. I used to make simple sweets from dates, milk powder and coffee, and then send them to my wife, children, or friends. Of course, these simple recipes I learned in prison and they remain in my memory.
Khalil Maatouq and Razan Zaitouneh, the forcibly disappeared, have contributed with you to the establishment of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research. Can you tell us more if there are other personalities who have worked with you and are still inside Syria?
Dear Razan, she was kidnapped, and our colleague Khalil Maatouk was also arrested by the security forces in 2012. He is still missing and there is no news about him. Yes, there are many lawyers inside Syria who contributed with us in establishing the center and their efforts are still wonderful in defending the detainees. But I cannot reveal their names to protect them.
With your continuous and tireless work, defending human rights and achieving justice, do you think that your message and your struggle will reach other peoples and places in this world where there are tyrants like Assad?
Of course it will reach them. As for me, my vision on the issue of accountability is not only against Assad and his clique, but that the message reaches all the tyrants on this planet that the safety they feel and the support of the Security Council and their political relations with certain countries will not protect them from prosecution. There are tools for their prosecution which are not subject to political pressure and this is what happened in the trials in Berlin. I believe this action will save millions of people from tyranny in North Africa, the Gulf States, Iran, Venezuela, and Mexico. Assad’s impunity encouraged their tyranny. Things are different now.
The Assad regime’s plan is always to dwarf or minimize the demands. Is it possible to have an example?
This is the policy of the regime. An example of that is the arrest of opponents and opinion activists. Here the demands for their release begin, and here the regime begins its game. As it works to hide them, the demands are dwarfed to reveal their fate. Then they are subjected to torture and here the demands become to stop their torture. They are brought before illegal courts, so the demands become that they are given fair trials. This is his policy to make us demand simple things. I was focusing on this point while I was in prison and when Michel Kilo, Khalil and Razan were visiting me as well and told them not to focus on what I’m going through now, but to focus on the main problem.
Is there a time limit for perpetrators of crimes and do these crimes have a statute of limitations?
Crimes against anti-Semitism and war crimes never have a statute of limitations. Thus, this type of crime can be prosecuted for life but we hope that we will not reach a stage that will be long and that their trial will be sooner rather than later.
The French judiciary showed cooperation to prosecute criminals within this procedure. To what degree is this similar to what Germany did and what is available in Germany? Is there a difference?
No one has reached the judicial level of Germany except Sweden and Norway but not to the same level. This is in terms of universal jurisdiction, but the level of experience in units for prosecution is only present in Germany because this universal jurisdiction was established in Germany in 2002 and therefore has a history of this work, while in Sweden and Norway the matter is recent (either 2014 or 2015) so they lack experience in building special units. In short, three countries have universal jurisdiction and can prosecute criminals even if they are outside the European territory. As for the rest of the European countries, they have the possibility of prosecution, provided the criminals are found in their territories. France had a legal problem with this prosecution, which was that the act or crime must be criminalized by national law, but they have been successful in bypassing it, and have abolished this condition.
To whom will the Human Rights Award be granted in the new Syria?
Only Syrian victims have the right to receive this award, especially those victims who had the courage and the strength to present their testimonies in the courts in Europe and who will give their testimonies in the future as well. These testimonies exposed them or their families to many physical risks due to psychological and social pressures put on them, and they are the only ones who deserve the Human Rights Award in the future.
Will any of your kids follow in your footsteps in the field of human rights?
The issue of human rights activism is a personal matter and it is not a must that my children study law. But my niece is a lawyer and she is pursuing the same endeavors, and my daughter is in the field of human rights in organizations that work on documentation and support.