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Landmark war crimes trial for 3 top Syrian officials in Paris

The Palais de Justice, Paris, France; Credit: Sygic Travel

Even as the Assad regime in Syria continues its efforts to normalize relations with the rest of the world, international efforts to hold its members accountable for the many atrocities it has routinely committed as a means of maintaining its authoritarian rule continue. For the many families of its victims, these efforts to achieve justice bring some comfort even as they continue to grapple with the pain of losing their loved ones.

On Tuesday, May 21, 2024, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) which is headquartered in Paris, France, announced the beginning of a Paris Criminal Court trial in absentia of three high-ranking Syrian officials, Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hasan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes related to the torture, enforced disappearance and subsequent deaths of French-Syrian nationals Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick Abdelkader Dabbagh who was 20 years old at the time of their arrests.

Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick; Credit: Social media

Although several other countries have successfully tried members of the Assad regime for war crimes and crimes against humanity, this is the first time French courts will address the crimes of Syrian authorities, notably three of the most senior members of Assad’s authorities to be prosecuted since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011. “At a time when certain States are normalizing their diplomatic relations with Bashar al-Assad, France must continue to firmly oppose any attempt at normalization. In view of the scale and gravity of the mass crimes committed in Syria, it must demonstrate its resolute commitment to the fight against impunity, and we hope this trial will be one of the first steps in this direction,” said FIDH lawyer Patrick Baudouin.

This historic trial is the culmination of more than a decade of persistent advocacy by the victims’ family and their representatives which led to a seven-year investigation carried out by a French judicial war crimes unit. “This trial will mark the achievement of a long struggle before French courts to ensure that those responsible for the enforced disappearance of my brother and nephew are punished,” declared Mazzen’s brother Obeida Dabbagh. “Our family was deliberately kept in ignorance of the fate that befell them for so many years, so this is also a trial to establish the truth,” he added.

As a part of its crackdown on young activists in response to the uprising that began in 2011, Patrick Abdelkader Dabbagh, a second-year student of Arts and Humanities at the University of Damascus, was taken from his Mezzeh home on the outskirts of Damascus by Syrian authorities sometime around midnight on November 3, 2013. 

According to a summary of the facts by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, a group of “officers, soldiers and a computer expert, who claimed to belong to Syrian Air Force Intelligence, forced Patrick Abdelkader to follow them for interrogation, without indicating any grounds for his arrest.”

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria believes that Mezzeh has one of the highest mortality rates among detention centers in Syria

At the same time the next day, the same individuals returned to the Dabbagh family home, this time accompanied by nearly a dozen armed soldiers. They accused Patrick Abdelkader’s father, Mazzen Dabbagh, of failing to raise his son correctly and proceeded to arrest him, claiming that this would teach him how to properly bring up his son. At the time, Mazzen worked as a senior education adviser at the French High School of Damascus.”

Witness testimony confirms that Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader were both taken to a detention center at Mezzeh Military Airport, which is run by Syrian Air Force Intelligence and notorious for the use of brutal torture. The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria believes that Mezzeh has one of the highest mortality rates among detention centers in Syria.

Despite their inquiries, the Dabbagh family was given no information about Mazzen and his son until July 2018, when the regime informed them that death certificates had been issued by Syrian authorities stating that Patrick Abdelkader had died in January 2014, shortly after his arrest, and his father Mazzen almost four years later in November 2017.

The case of Mazzen and Patrick Dabbagh is not unique in the history of the Assad family’s brutal treatment of anyone even suspected of not supporting their totalitarian rule. Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have either disappeared or been arbitrarily detained, the majority of them tortured while in the custody of the regime resulting in many deaths. Several attempts to obtain a resolution from the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC have been undermined by Russia and China’s repeated vetoes, making efforts by individual countries such as Germany, Sweden, and France the most effective avenues for achieving justice for the families of their victims.

“it [the trial] serves as a reminder that war crimes and crimes against humanity do not expire and that their perpetrators must be held accountable.”

Almoutassim Al Kilani

“After seven years of investigation carried out by the war crimes unit of the Paris Judicial Court, Ali Mamlouk, close advisor to Bashar al-Assad and former head of the National Security Bureau, Jamil Hasan, former director of the Syrian Air Force intelligence service, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations for the said service at the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus, were indicted before the Paris Criminal Court in March 2023,” FIDH stated in its press release on Tuesday.

Almoutassim Al Kilani, a human rights and international criminal law expert currently based in Paris, told SYRIAWISE that the trial that has begun against Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Mahmoud is of “great importance, as it constitutes a crucial part of the efforts to achieve the long-awaited Syrian justice and deliver justice to the victims and their families. Additionally, it serves as a reminder that war crimes and crimes against humanity do not expire and that their perpetrators must be held accountable.”

“The verdict on Friday is important because it will block any international efforts to rehabilitate this corrupt regime and reestablish normal relations with Assad.”

Anwar al Bunni

Although top officials in the regime are rarely personally responsible for the deaths of the regime’s victims, these men are being prosecuted due to the positions they held in the chain of command at the time of the arbitrary arrests and subsequent deaths of Mazzen and Patrick Dabbagh. In January 2024, a German court sentenced Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian colonel, to life in prison for crimes against humanity. Videos showing Raslan (who had entered Germany claiming to be a refugee) shooting blindfolded Syrians were circulated on social media and many of his torture victims had recognized him which contributed to his arrest and prosecution. In contrast, the case currently being heard in the Paris Criminal Court is supported by the testimony of 23 witnesses and photos from the Caesar file. The four-day trial will conclude on Friday.

Anwar al Bunni, a Syrian lawyer who was instrumental in the prosecution of Raslan in Germany, told SYRIAWISE that these men are being “prosecuted for their participation in crimes against humanity. French law allows those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity to be tried ‘in absentia’ if their victims are French nationals. These types of crimes are systemic to the Assad regime and Ali Mamlouk is the mastermind of all the atrocities being committed on their behalf. The verdict on Friday is important because it will block any international efforts to rehabilitate this corrupt regime and reestablish normal relations with Assad.”  

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