Abu Nabout case: Personal efforts culminated in international arrest warrants
Enab Baladi – Baraa Khattab
“The case is the first phase towards peace,” says the French-Syrian Omar Abu Nabout, who did not have any legal information to open a case regarding the killing of his father in Syria on June 7, 2017.
But his insistence on filing a complaint and taking a first step towards justice in his father’s case made him a person motivated to learn the French language faster and engage in French society, to be able to follow the case file that he prepared himself and presented to the public prosecutor when he was 21 years old after a few months have passed since his father’s death.
Omar Abu Nabout, 27, decided to file a case against those responsible for killing his father, Salah, the French-Syrian man who was killed by Syrian regime aircraft in the southern city of Daraa. He initially avoided revealing the details of the case for fear of the frustration that was dominating those around him.
On June 7, 2017, the city of Daraa, specifically the Sadd Road neighborhood, was subjected to intense bombardment by the Syrian regime under the framework of a military operation led by regime forces and key ally Russia on the city of Daraa, southern Syria.
During the attack on the city, Salah Abu Nabout’s house was targeted with explosive barrels launched from helicopters, and he was killed in the attack, according to the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).
The targeted building included a children’s school, Al-Sadd School (Ajyal), which was managed by a Jordanian non-governmental organization.
Salah Abu Nabout was arrested in 2013 and released in 2015, during which Omar left with his family for France, but Salah did not join his family after his release and remained in the city of Daraa until his death.
Omar began collecting evidence and preparing a file for the case after his father’s death. He filed a complaint before the Paris Court in 2017. The public prosecutor approved the complaint, and it was transferred to the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Unit at the French Court, according to what Omar Abu Nabout told Enab Baladi.
The court’s war crimes unit opened an investigation based on the complaint regarding the killing of his father, two judges were appointed to investigate, and the victim’s son Omar was accepted as a civil party.
Omar worked to communicate with witnesses and played the role of lawyer and plaintiff at the same time for three years. He appointed a lawyer to follow up on the case with him, but he was not trustworthy and missed the first session with the judge in early 2018.
Omar attended it with a translator only due to his inability to speak French fluently, as he had recently arrived in the country.
The rights SCM monitoring group joined the proceedings as a civil party in the case, and the center contributed by providing the investigating judges with the names of witnesses and a large collection of photos and video recordings that documented the bombing of June 7, 2017, in Daraa.
Omar later appointed the center as a civil party in 2020, with his desire and approval to present the largest number of evidence to the judges and move faster on the path of justice to which he aspired.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) also contributed to supporting the investigation by providing judges with detailed information about the bombing incident with explosive barrels on June 7, 2017, and providing witnesses and survivors of this incident, and about the Syrian regime’s use of this weapon, and other information and details.
The case was entrusted to Clemence Bectarte, a lawyer who specializes in international criminal law and is experienced in war crimes in Syria.
A step towards justice
After six years of effort and collecting evidence, Omar made progress towards justice for his father, and the French judiciary on October 19 issued arrest warrants against top four generals in the regime’s army and intelligence.
The decision against the former Minister of Defense, Fahd Jassim al-Freij, the former Minister of Defense, Ali Abdullah Ayoub, the Commander of the Air Force, Ahmed Baloul, and the Commander of the 64th Helicopter Brigade, Ali al-Saftli, stated that they had complicit in war crimes and they deliberately directed attacks against the civilian population and killed a (French) person protected under agreements, including international humanitarian law.
The international arrest warrants were not issued randomly, as the four officers were directly and fundamentally linked to the killing of Salah Abu Nabout, according to the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
Fahd Jassim al-Freij, who was Minister of Defense at the time and coordinated with the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Bashar al-Assad, was among those who participated in military decision-making and developing combat strategies.
Ali Abdullah Ayoub, by virtue of his position as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces at the time, also participated directly in coordinating and implementing military operations.
As for Ahmed al-Baloul, as Commander of the Air Forces and Air Defense in 2017, he was directly responsible for all matters related to the activities of the Air Force, including the raids that took place in Syria.
Based on his rank as commander of Blai military Airport, Ali al-Saftli issued combat orders, which included the type of mission, its location, the type of ammunition, the target, and the aircraft used.
Omar considers that the effort made during these years, which culminated in the issuance of arrest warrants against Syrian officers, makes him feel a sense of victory, not only for his father but for all Syrians against whom war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed. He also sees it as a step towards justice in Syria.
Keep justice and accountability files open
Mohammad al-Abdallah, director of the US-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), does not expect that these warrants will lead to the resignation of these figures, nor to their arrest by the Syrian government and their handover to the French judiciary, nor to their dismissal from their positions, as they have become wanted on charges related to war crimes and crimes against humanity. He also does not expect the case to provide a change within Syria in the behavior of the security services or the army regarding violations.
The human rights defender gives an illustrative example of the French arrest warrants issued against senior officials in the regime’s intelligence, which included three individuals directly facing charges related to torture, but they did not achieve any progress in changing the practices of torture and violations that occur in Syria.
But the arrest warrants help the Syrian file by keeping the issue of justice and accountability open, and they also help shed light on the violations committed in Syria, specifically “unlawful” attacks, such as targeting civilians with random strikes and explosive barrels, according to al-Abdallah.
“War crimes” and “crimes against humanity” do not have a statute of limitations, and the passage of time does not apply to them, and keeping the file open is essential and important in the Syrian file.
It is possible that the file will remain forgotten, given that there are other political files, such as Ukraine and Gaza, that compete with the Syrian file for priority and media and diplomatic attention. Therefore, these arrest warrants help keep the matter of justice and accountability open, according to what al-Abdallah told Enab Baladi.
The rights advocate believes that the usefulness of the arrest warrants is limited, and given the limited options in Syria, and considering that there is no special international court in Syria, “we remain limited to what the local judiciary in a group of countries can do,” in accordance with the principle of universal human rights jurisdiction.
This is considered the maximum that can be done in the current situation, which is to issue arrest warrants and prosecute those responsible, said al-Abdallah.
Courts in absentia and impact on Syrian file
The French judicial system drew attention to the role of the four senior officials in war crimes committed against the Syrian people.
This step is considered a strong message that extraterritorial justice has an essential role in prosecuting those responsible for the “most serious” crimes committed against civilians in Syria since March 2011, without access to the International Criminal Court, transitional justice, or a joint court.
Regarding the impact of in-absentia judgments in the absence of the defendants on French soil, al-Abdallah stated that these judgments are legitimate with the implementation of the verdict. If one of the defendants is arrested, they will be retried in person, and this has a positive impact on the Syrian file and the long-term establishment of the rights of Syrians.
This will allow the evidence accumulated about these files to be used by organizations, the United Nations, and public prosecutors, allowing the victims to make their voices heard and give their testimony about what happened and confirming the victims’ narrative about who was the party that was committing the violations in this context, specifically the “unlawful attacks” that targeted civilians, including barrel bombs.
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