The lack of translation in German trials on Syria: A barrier to seeing justice

Syrian doctor Alaa Mousa attending the first hearing session of his trial in the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, western Germany - 19 January 2022 (AFP)

Syrian doctor Alaa Mousa attending the first hearing session of his trial in the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, western Germany - 19 January 2022 (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas

Accessibility to information or the use of tools to provide victims access to information is a fundamental human right on the path towards achieving some justice to victims of war crimes in Syria.

Information flow and accessibility are essential for victims to understand their rights within a certain case, away from any fallacies or negative information that may result from misunderstanding the case.

On 19 January, the first trial session of Syrian doctor Alaa Mousa was held in the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, western Germany. The prosecution team read out the indictment against him, including 18 charges of torture, sexual violence, and murder cases.

Mousa spoke during the trial’s first hearing session but chose to speak in German and introduced himself fluently, claiming that he was a civil doctor who never held a military rank.  

By choosing to speak in German, Mousa waived his right to interpretation, and the court did not provide Arabic translation only in exceptional cases to avoid vagueness.  

In Germany, the right to translation is guaranteed to those on trial, but in human rights violations trials such as that of Alaa Mousa, translation into Arabic was denied to audiences and journalists. 

The denial of accusations

Mousa did not address his charges or his defense plan at the trial.

The Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt will start hearing the testimonies of the prosecution team’s witnesses throughout its sessions, expected to be at least 15. 

The arrest warrant of Alaa Mousa read that in late April 2011, The Syrian regime forces, mainly the intelligence services, began using “brutal force” to suppress all activities critical of the regime’s government to intimidate the population and dissuade them from further protests.

As a result, actual or alleged Syrian opposition figures were detained, tortured, and killed all over Syria.

Dr. Mousa worked at a military intelligence prison in Homs in 2011(from 23 October to 16 November 2011). During this time, one of the detainees named Mahmoud, who was arrested for participating in Homs demonstrations, suffered a seizure as a result of torture and needed a doctor. 

Prison guards summoned Mousa, and when he arrived to see Mahmoud, he hit him with a plastic tube and kept hitting and kicking him on his head. 

Without doubt, the trial of Alaa Mousa is another step towards bringing perpetrators of serious crimes in Syria into accountability; however, the lack of Arabic translation and the use of German language during court proceedings will prevent the participation of many Syrians in the trial and cause an outreach gap between the court and the Syrian audience.

Victims, witnesses, and other non-German speakers following the trial will have to rely on reports of those able to attend court hearings to stay updated with the trial’s developments.

Arabic translation in Koblenz

The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz recently sentenced former Syrian General Intelligence officer Anwar Raslan to life imprisonment after convicting him of crimes against humanity, including torture, 27 murder cases, and 25 assault cases, including sexual violence.

The Court released its verdict translated into Arabic that said, “Violence was not only used individually and incidentally but as part of a broad strategy for the Syrian regime. According to the assessment of the Judicial Council, this attack on the Syrian civilian population was not only extensive in quantitative terms but also systematic in qualitative terms.”

The Arabic translation of the court ruling against Anwar Raslan ensured a clear understanding of precise information about the court’s opinion in the case in an attempt to reduce any vagueness that might surround the ruling or doubts about the integrity of the German judiciary on the part of the Syrian audience, particularly survivors and victim communities, the primarily concerned in these trials.

Arabic translation as part of the justice process

The Arabic translation of Anwar Raslan’s verdict came in response to demands by Syrian rights groups and activists. In August 2020, the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) and Syrian human rights defender Mansour al-Omari filed a petition to the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, requesting interim measures to give the public access to Arabic translation in the Koblenz trial.

In the same month, the German Constitutional Court in Koblenz ruled that accredited Arabic-speaking journalists are entitled to German-Arabic simultaneous interpretation during Koblenz trial sessions.

Back then, the SJAC issued a press release saying that access to Arabic interpretation would make the proceedings accessible to those it primarily concerns: Syrians, especially survivors, their families, and Syrian civil society as a whole.

“Not only must justice be done, but it must be seen to be done. We believe that the public most affected by the crimes—in this case, Syrians—should have meaningful access to the proceedings,” said Mohammad al-Abdullah, Executive Director of SJAC.

“Providing Arabic language interpretation to the public gallery would magnify the impact of the trial, sending a message to the world and particularly those in Syria, that there is no impunity for atrocity crimes,” al-Abdullah said.

The lack of translation in Alaa Mousa’s trial

“In German courts, the official language is German, but Arabic translation is available to the accused and the plaintiffs. The Koblenz court has denied the audience and journalists the German-Arabic simultaneous interpretation service,” Syrian journalist and human rights defender Mansour al-Omari told Enab Baladi.

“The preliminary order of the Constitutional Court affected two of the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights, the right to equal treatment and the freedom of the press,” al-Omari added.

The Koblenz court complied with the Constitutional Court’s ruling in the trials of Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, while it dismissed a similar case, al-Omari said, describing the ruling of Arabic translation provision as “exceptional.”

He added that this ruling must not be limited to the Koblenz trial but should include future similar trials in Germany, such as the trial of Alaa Mousa in Frankfurt. 

In the trial of Alaa Mousa, Arabic translation during court proceedings is only available to those participating in the trial and accredited journalists, excluding broader affected communities, activists monitoring the trial, and Syrian and Arab journalists reporting on the trial.

Under the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, victims are entitled to “access to relevant information concerning violations and reparation mechanisms.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report in which it said, “Court authorities should make Arabic translation more widely available for these cases involving the world’s worst crimes committed abroad. The impact of accountability efforts on affected communities is strongly related to how much outreach is conducted around the case.”

The report continued, “Having Arabic translation more easily available would encourage other Syrians to come and could provide a glimpse of justice and a reminder that the world has not forgotten them.”

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