Syrians track regime war criminals in France, 40 cases on track

Female Syrian refugees during a protest stand in Germany to demand accountability for those responsible for committing violations and for knowing the fate of the forcibly disappeared people, with a French court building in the background (modified by Enab Baladi)

Female Syrian refugees during a protest stand in Germany to demand accountability for those responsible for committing violations and for knowing the fate of the forcibly disappeared people, with a French court building in the background (modified by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

The Syrians, who have been on French territory for years, have been seeking ways to achieve justice and hold accountable the perpetrators of violations who caused their pain and were one of the main reasons for them seeking asylum.

While the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe has continued since 2011, including perpetrators of violations from various parties to the conflict, the French judiciary plays a role in tracking and holding them accountable under extraterritorial universal jurisdiction.

On 28 November, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), and the French-Syrian Cooperation (FSE) association held a symposium entitled “What means of justice are there for Syrian survivors and victims in France?” to be part of the organizations’ efforts to support the course of justice and raise the awareness of Syrians about this process.

A pivotal role

Many Syrians testified in support of the French authorities’ investigations and secured evidence that made a difference in many cases.

The symposium called on the Syrians to engage in the path of justice and strengthen their efforts, considering their testimonies as one of the most important elements of accountability and limiting impunity.

The principle of universal jurisdiction enables France to prosecute the perpetrators, regardless of their nationality or the nationality of their victims, under certain conditions, primarily the presence or residence on French territory.

Lawyer and legal and human rights advisor Owais al-Dabash told Enab Baladi that Syrians play a pivotal role in the prosecution of war criminals on French territory.

The role of Syrians depends on their involvement in justice mechanisms and their reporting of the perpetrators of violations in coordination with Syrian human rights organizations and the authorities responsible, according to al-Dabash.

Al-Dabash added that witness testimonies were the main factor in moving these cases forward, making Syrian participation an essential part of justice.

Lawyer specializing in international criminal law, Al-Mutassim al-Kilani, agreed with Owais al-Dabash, as he said that Syrians have an essential role to play in combating impunity, which is certainly aimed at establishing full and undiminished peace in Syria.

Organizations’ guidance and support

Many Syrian human rights organizations seeking to achieve justice are active in France and are looking for the best ways to accomplish such tasks.

During the workshop conducted by the organizations, the officials stressed the importance of the Syrians’ choice to consult them and their constant readiness to provide advice and support.

In al-Kilani’s view, it is the responsibility of the organizations to accompany victims who wish to give testimony and reach witnesses to support cases.

The organizations are also responsible for protecting the information provided by witnesses and keeping them informed of developments in the file, as well as focusing on the importance of Syrians’ role in achieving justice and highlighting such a role.

For his part, lawyer and legal and human rights advisor Owais al-Dabash said that the litigation procedures are complex and require experts and specialists, which brings us to the role of Syrian organizations.

Al-Dabash added that the organizations are working to collect high-quality documentation to meet international standards and support investigations against war criminals on French territory.

The organizations’ role also revolves around establishing good relations and links with local legal and human rights bodies in France, according to what the lawyer said. He pointed out that organizations seek the assistance of local French lawyers before initiating the reporting procedure or filing a complaint in order to achieve maximum benefit.

Organizations facilitate logistical and legal matters, support and evaluate testimonies before taking any action, as well as inform victims of their rights and duties with regard to protection procedures.

The organizations conduct seminars and training to guide Syrian victims. The Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) have also published booklets on universal jurisdiction in various countries, including France.

The booklets elaborate on local legislation and how to engage in justice paths in a non-legal language.

Obstacles to organizations and victims

Many obstacles to the course of justice arose with thousands of perpetrators of violations and limited jurisdiction capacity, in addition to the dispersion of Syrians as a result of their asylum in different countries of the world.

One of the main obstacles facing human rights organizations and victims wishing to hold perpetrators of violations accountable is the victims’ security concerns, according to lawyer Owais al-Dabash.

Al-Dabash explained that the perpetrators of the violations continue to have authority to take action against the victims’ relatives in their areas of control, which makes the security concern a reason for blocking many cases.

Security concerns are linked to the limited access to testimonies, as they make victims reluctant to provide their testimonies and the evidence they possess.

Insufficient evidence bothers us, as it bothers the victims, and we always try to find evidence in order to reveal the truth and contribute to achieving justice.

Lawyer and legal and human rights advisor, Owais al-Dabash

The inability to assess evidence and assess its relevance plays an important role in impeding cases, underscoring the need to constantly consult experts and rights organizations to overcome this obstacle.

Al-Dabash added that indiscriminately-circulated video recordings of violations could lose their value and hinder the case, as they are criminal evidence that requires rigor and accuracy upon examination.

For example, the circulation of recordings of one of the perpetrators during the period of investigation resulted in his escape outside Swedish territory, and Syrians lost an opportunity for justice, according to al-Dabash.

For his part, lawyer specializing in international criminal law, Al-Mutassim al-Kilani, believes that one of the main obstacles facing this process is the lack of financial resources to support these mechanisms.

Al-Kilani added that some of the crises of trust between victims and this process created by raising expectations are the most significant obstacles, considering that Syrian organizations played an important role in overcoming this obstacle.

Adjusting expectations

The first trials raised the expectations of Syrians and made many victims believe that universal jurisdiction is capable of holding all perpetrators accountable and reducing impunity.

Al-Kilani considered that adjusting expectations is the responsibility of the organizations that play an important role in conveying the true picture to the victims and witnesses.

We must make it clear to victims that international jurisdiction is neither an international criminal court nor a Syrian national judiciary but a narrow and viable route that does not achieve universal justice.

Lawyer and legal and human rights advisor, Owais al-Dabash

For example, judicial jurisdiction in France cannot try persons at higher levels of authority, as it is a national court and these persons have immunity from the principle of State sovereignty.

Lawyer al-Dabash added that the victims should know that the judiciary in France is fair and guarantees the alleged perpetrator the appointment of a lawyer and that it does not take any step in the event of insufficient evidence.

Judicial jurisdiction clauses in France in case the offender or victim are not French nationals:

– That the suspect is present or a resident on French territory;

– That the characterization of the crime in question be within war crimes or crimes against humanity, as well as France’s obligation to prosecute the perpetrators of such crimes under an international convention, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.

Two categories of perpetrators

The alleged perpetrators are divided into two categories, the first being those belonging to groups classified as “terrorists”; holding these individuals accountable requires establishing their affiliation with the said terrorist groups.

On the other hand, judicial procedures against people who fought in the ranks of factions not classified on the “terrorist” lists require the submission of evidence proving their involvement in the violations.

Al-Dabash explained that fighting was a legitimate right under international law and was only prohibited in cases of human rights violations. He stressed the need for Syrians to understand these cases to adjust their expectations.

The French judiciary is considering more than 40 files under universal jurisdiction, lawyer Owais al-Dabash said.

The most prominent of these files is the case of Majdi Nehme (known as Islam Alloush), who is the former spokesman for the Jaysh al-Islam faction, accused of “systematic international crimes” against civilians who lived under his rule from 2013 to 2018. The cases are still under consideration by the French authorities.

Among the cases being considered by the French judiciary is the case of the Lafarge Company and its cement subsidiary in Syria as a result of a criminal complaint in 2016, which was filed against it by 11 former Syrian employees, along with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).

On 18 May, the Paris Court of Appeal upheld the charges against Lafarge for complicity in crimes against humanity in Syria.


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