“Informed Witnesses”: Critical source of information crippled by fear

Syrian Iyad al-Gharib is a former Syrian intelligence officer convicted of four and a half years imprisonment for inciting crimes against humanity in the Koblenz courtroom in southwestern Germany - 24 February 2021 (AFP/Thomas Lonis)

Syrian Iyad al-Gharib is a former Syrian intelligence officer convicted of four and a half years imprisonment for inciting crimes against humanity in the Koblenz courtroom in southwestern Germany - 24 February 2021 (AFP/Thomas Lonis)


Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

From behind the barriers set up by the Syrian regime to hide what is happening in its halls, making its detention centers and other facilities look like a “black hole,” dozens of testimonies and evidence from people who had previously worked in its secret places emerged to reveal details of what was happening there.

During the past years, many human rights reports have relied on the testimony of persons called “informed witnesses” by human rights organizations, considering that they were able to access information beyond others’ reach.

The testimonies and evidence submitted by these persons made a difference in many cases and reports, most notably the Caesar Photographs and the clips of the Tadamon Massacre, as well as the recent report of the Association of Detainees and The Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) on the administrative structure of the prison, and the Grave Digger.

But the number of such testimonies has declined over the past months following concerns raised by recent trials in EU countries of dissident officers.

In this report, Enab Baladi discusses with human rights defenders the importance of such testimonies, the sound mechanism for dealing with “informed witnesses,” as well as the reasons for their reluctance to testify and their legal future.

“Information treasure”

The Caesar Photographs documented the reality of what was happening in Syrian prisons and were enough to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime. The testimonies of dissident officers in the Association of Detainees and The Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) report also unraveled the secrets of the notorious Sednaya prison. The Grave Digger’s testimony helped locate one of the Syrian regime’s most prominent mass graves.

Despite the hundreds of testimonies provided by the victims of the Syrian regime, the testimonies of “informed witnesses” and the evidence submitted by them bore different human rights values, as it was information that was revealed for the first time.

Caesar is the name of the Syrian defector officer who, in 2014, leaked 55,000 photographs of 11,000 detainees who were killed under torture. At the time, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) confirmed its authenticity while it stirred global public opinion. It also resulted in the United States’ imposition of the Caesar Act, which came into force on 17 June 2020.

Coordinator at the Association of Detainees and The Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), Munir al-Faqir, told Enab Baladi that “informed witnesses” were in direct contact with the regime, which gave them access to accurate details related to its structure.

The building of real and legal solid reports or documentary files requires “informed witnesses,” according to what lawyer and legal and human rights adviser Uwais al-Dabash told Enab Baladi, considering these persons to be “information treasures.”

Al-Dabash added that the victim or survivor had been violated but was unable to know the perpetrator of the violation against them, noting that the importance of the victim’s testimony was linked to knowing the event and not what was behind the event.

Trials in European Union States are based on structural investigations conducted by war crimes units or public prosecutors’ offices, which, according to al-Dabash, rely primarily on “informed witnesses.”

These persons’ testimonies reveal the administrative and military hierarchies in the regime’s ranks and contribute to building leadership responsibility, according to lawyer al-Dabash, pointing out that the judiciary depends primarily on individual responsibility or command responsibility.

For his part, Yahya, a dissident officer and former detainee at Sednaya prison who refused to disclose his full name for security reasons, said that the information he had been able to gather during his four years of detention could not be obtained by a civilian.

Yahya, a Khan Sheikhoun-native who has defected since 2011, explained to Enab Baladi that he had applied what he had learned at the military college to gather accurate information revealing what was happening behind the walls of Sednaya and how the prison was run.

Legal cautions

Despite the importance of obtaining the testimony of “informed witnesses,” their handling imposes numerous legal cautions to ensure access to fair trials.

Lawyer and legal and human rights adviser, Uwais al-Dabash, said that obtaining information from “informed witnesses” required an honest and adequate explanation of which judicial entities would be informed and the implications thereof, as witness consent is one of the basics of a fair trial.

Human rights bodies that have received information from “informed witnesses” are not entitled to provide them with any legal advice if they are interrogated or arrested by the judiciary, according to al-Dabash, stating that this is considered bias by the human rights body towards the witness.

In turn, human rights defender Munir al-Faqir said that the basis for dealing with “informed witnesses” was confidence-building, and one of the foundations for building trust is not to give false promises or create illusions and to emphasize that the human rights body cannot grant immunity to the witness.

The human rights body is supposed to inform the “informed witnesses” of the dangers and benefits of presenting their testimony, said Munir al-Faqir, adding that it is necessary to focus on the importance of their participation in the achievement of justice and to emphasize their human responsibility to do so.

The human rights defender argues that justice cannot be forfeited in exchange for obtaining information, explaining that granting immunity to a witness implicated in committing hundreds of violations in return for providing the information is a new violation.

Accountability concerns

The trials of dissident officers, notably the trial of Anwar Raslan, raised concerns for many “informed witnesses” wishing to submit their testimonies to human rights centers and deterred others from defecting from the Syrian regime, according to information that Enab Baladi had obtained from the Association of Detainees and The Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) and the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC).

Yahya, one of the defected officers who is currently residing in the Turkish town of Reyhanli on the border with Syria, stated that many of his former colleagues who had taken refuge in Europe had great fears of communicating with him or having any conversations related to their previous job.

Their fears are linked to being held accountable and prosecuted, as was the case with Iyad al-Gharib, Anwar Raslan, and others, he said.

Yassin al-Majed, another officer who tried to defect from the Syrian regime in 2011, which resulted in his arrest, said that the regime has recently been using the case of Iyad al-Gharib to deter people wishing to defect.

For his part, human rights defender Munir al-Faqir said that the partial accountability process made many “informed witnesses” feel wronged.

The human rights defender noted that, while important, the trials conveyed a negative image of the fate of the defectors from the Syrian regime, holding them accountable while hundreds continued to commit violations against civilians.

Lawyer and legal and human rights adviser, Uwais al-Dabash, said that many “informed witnesses” who were interested in providing their testimony retracted after Iyad al-Gharib’s trial, as the court had dealt with a dissident person like them who had taken the initiative to give his testimony, only to be later held accountable and tried.

For instance, these trials prompted one of the “informed witnesses” to leave Germany for fear of trial, ignoring his dangerous asylum journey to get there, according to al-Dabash.

According to al-Dabash, human rights activism, in some cases, has been more harmful than it was beneficial, considering that mistakes made by some people in Koblenz are incompatible with the true justice and human values that human rights centers must seek.

Anwar Raslan’s trial received tremendous backlash from human rights bodies for providing “conflicting testimonies,” irrationally raising public expectations and portraying the trial as capable of creating terror among Syrian regime officers.

The trial of dissident officer Iyad al-Gharib had also divided Syrians. Some felt that his sentence of four and a half years imprisonment was “unfair” considering his defection from the regime since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, while others felt that al-Gharib was involved in the violations and deserved imprisonment.

What is their fate?

While many “informed witnesses” granted asylum in Europe fear the continued investigations and trials of the perpetrators of violations in Syria, many questions arise as to their fate once Syria reaches the stage of transitional justice.

Lawyer and legal and human rights advisor, Uwais al-Dabash, said that criminal accountability does not tolerate such a large number of criminals or perpetrators of violations.

Al-Dabash added that “human rights activity does not make invalid what happened before,” explaining that people who have testified will not be exempt from accountability, but the accountability process will be multi-leveled.

The lawyer explained that it was necessary to start holding the most criminally accountable, while a socially agreed mechanism on the application of a transitional justice mechanism should be put in place for the people that criminal courts will not be able to hold accountable.

Exclusion will likely be the fate of most of them within the framework of excluding the corrupt, according to al-Dabash.

Coordinator at the Association of Detainees and The Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), Munir al-Faqir, believes that people who voluntarily submitted their testimonies and contributed to achieving justice can obtain reduced sentences in cases related to public rights.

However, private rights issues are related to the desire of the victims or their relatives and the judges’ perception, said Munir al-Faqir.

While the Koblenz trial concluded on 13 January with the sentencing of Anwar Raslan to life imprisonment, the trial of Syrian doctor Alaa Moussa in Frankfurt, western Germany, and the trial of Mowafaq D. (full name was not disclosed for privacy reasons in German courts), which had recently begun, continues.


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