Al-Dabbagh case shackles three Syrian officials with life sentences in absentia

A solidarity stand in Châtelet Square in Paris ahead of the sentencing of Syrian regime officials - May 24, 2024 (Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression/X)

A solidarity stand in Châtelet Square in Paris ahead of the sentencing of Syrian regime officials - May 24, 2024 (Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression/X)

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Enab Baladi – Hani Karazi

A French court sentenced in absentia three officials of the Syrian regime to life imprisonment for complicity in war crimes. The trial, described as “historic,” marks the first time a Syrian official holding a position has been tried.

The trial targeted three defendants: the former head of the National Security Bureau, Major General Ali Mamlouk, the former head of Air Force Intelligence, Jamil Hassan, and the former head of the Investigation Branch in Air Force Intelligence, Abdul-Salam Mahmoud, over the deaths of two French nationals of Syrian origin, detained by the regime in 2013, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

On May 24, the Prosecutor General before the Paris Criminal Court requested the continuation of arrest warrants previously issued against the three officials.

The case revolves around the disappearance of two Syrians holding French nationality, Mazen al-Dabbagh and his son Patrick, who were detained by members of the Air Force Intelligence in Damascus since November 2013. Their families received news of their deaths in prison in 2018.

French courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed against French citizens or those with dual nationality, as well as crimes committed by French or dual nationals. Thus, based on dual nationality, a criminal investigation was conducted in France into the al-Dabbagh family case in November 2016, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

Important messages

Despite the French court’s decision to sentence the defendants to life imprisonment, some voices downplay the significance of this decision as the sentences were in absentia, and the accused officials are outside French territory.

However, international criminal law specialist attorney al-Mutassim al-Kilani stated, “Although the trial is in absentia, given that the defendants are in Syria, it remains legally significant as it targets three security symbols of the Assad regime.”

Additionally, this trial sends two messages to the international community: first, that normalizing with a regime committing war crimes and crimes against humanity is unacceptable and that rather than rehabilitating this regime, it should be prosecuted, and second, it asserts that those crimes must be accountable and that the principle of impunity has ended, according to al-Kilani.

Al-Kilani, residing in France, added to Enab Baladi, “The trial is of great importance as it constitutes an essential part of the efforts to achieve the awaited Syrian justice for the victims and their families, reminding that war crimes and crimes against humanity do not fall under the statute of limitations and their perpetrators must be held accountable.”

Similarly, Bassam al-Ahmad, the executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), confirmed the importance of trying regime officials in France even in absentia, considering it as “one of the historical trials for achieving justice.”

Al-Ahmad, who worked on the case with the International Federation for Human Rights, told Enab Baladi about the importance of separating the trial’s path from normalization with the regime, attributing it to the fact that “the countries that normalized with the regime have their interests, and the human rights file was not originally within the determinants of normalization for various considerations.”

Al-Ahmad mentioned that “the court’s decision is not final but it carries significant symbolism for the victory of justice. Furthermore, the trial contributed to highlighting the violations committed by the regime against thousands of detainees by hearing testimonies from several witnesses who were former detainees.”

Clemence Bectarte, the French lawyer representing the al-Dabbagh family, commented on the importance of the trial, saying, “It is historic because these are senior officers of the Syrian regime being tried.” She added that it is “important not only for the al-Dabbagh family but for many other Syrians who are still waiting for news about their loved ones who forcibly disappeared or to receive their bodies,” according to the British newspaper The Guardian.

How will the sentence be executed?

After the court’s decision to sentence the three officials to life imprisonment, the question remains on how the judgment will be executed given the defendants’ presence in Syria.

Bassem al-Ahmad said, “If the accused are arrested after being sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment, the European Court imposes on member states to retry the case from scratch,” noting that those trials are considered incomplete by European courts due to the complete absence of the defense party.

Al-Ahmad added that “conducting a trial in person for the accused is considered unlikely due to the improbability of their extradition by the Syrian regime or its allied countries. However, if these three officials travel to any European Union country, they can be arrested in cooperation with Interpol and brought to trial.”

Trial over several days

The trial sessions took place over four days, as observed by Enab Baladi. The first session was on Tuesday, May 21, during which witnesses and experts were summoned, one person testified before the judge, and French expert François Burgat and the author of the book “Operation Caesar,” Garance Le Caisne, also testified.

On the second day, the head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), Catherine Marchi-Uhel, testified before the court, alongside Véronique Sédès, a police officer from the War Crimes Unit, and another person, in addition to showing ten photos from the Caesar file, which show emaciated detainees’ bodies with signs of torture.

The third day saw the testimony of the victims’ families, Obaida al-Dabbagh and Hanan al-Dabbagh, before the judge, along with the testimony of the Director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Mazen Darwish, and two other individuals.

The fourth and final day included the victims’ families’ lawyers’ pleadings, the public prosecutor’s demands, and then the judge’s verdict was pronounced.

Why isn’t Bashar al-Assad tried in absentia?

While three senior Syrian regime officials have been tried in absentia in France, many have wondered why Bashar al-Assad is not tried, even in absentia.

In November 2023, the French judiciary issued an arrest warrant against the head of the Syrian regime, his brother Maher, and two senior aides, accusing them of carrying out chemical weapon attacks on Eastern Ghouta in 2013.

The arrest warrant was based on a criminal complaint filed by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and survivors of the massacre. It marked the first time a sitting head of state faced an arrest warrant in another country for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

However, international criminal law attorney al-Mutassim al-Kilani stated that under international law, an arrest warrant cannot be issued against a sitting head of state or tried in absentia, as it violates international agreements on diplomatic immunity for heads of state who are still in office.

Al-Kilani added, “Based on this, the French judiciary will have to cancel the international arrest warrant against al-Assad in the coming period, according to the Court of Appeal’s decision. Nevertheless, the French investigative judges who issued the warrant, argued that committing such crimes as using chemical weapons nullifies all laws and customs associated with immunity.”

Still, lawyers and human rights associations will attempt to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision to cancel the arrest warrant against al-Assad, according to al-Kilani.

Case details

The trial of al-Assad’s three officials in France is based on their complicity in committing crimes against humanity and war crimes following the deaths of French-Syrians in the regime’s prisons.

On the night of November 3, 2013, Air Force Intelligence arrested university student Patrick al-Dabbagh from his home in the Mazzeh area of Damascus.

The next day, his father Mazen was arrested, accused by security forces of failing to raise his son properly. They told him, “We will teach you how to educate him,” but no specific reason for their arrest was mentioned.

Contact with them was lost until the announcement of their deaths in August 2018, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

According to documents received by the family, Patrick died in January 2014, shortly after his arrest, while his father Mazen died nearly four years later, in November 2017.

In October 2016, the case was referred to the French War Crimes Unit after a lawsuit was filed by Obeida al-Dabbagh (Mazen’s brother), in collaboration with the International Federation for Human Rights and the French League for Human Rights. A month later, the public prosecutor opened an investigation and appointed three judges to investigate the case, with Obeida al-Dabbagh giving his testimony as a civil party to the case. This was followed by the issuance of arrest warrants for those officials in November 2018.

Three years after the warrants were issued, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression was accepted as a civil party to the case by providing numerous pieces of evidence and witnesses, including its director-general, Mazen Darwish, who was arrested along with his colleagues in the Air Intelligence branch in 2012.

Moreover, Mazen al-Dabbagh’s wife and daughter were expelled from their home in Damascus, which was seized by Abdul Salam Mahmoud, the former chief investigator of the Air Intelligence branch. The French court later stated that these incidents “are likely to constitute war crimes, extortion, and concealment.”

The al-Dabbagh family case is not the only one being pursued by the French judiciary, as it is examining more than 40 cases under universal jurisdiction. Notably, the case of Majdi Nehme (known as Islam Alloush), the former spokesperson for the Army of Islam faction, accused of “systematic international crimes,” against civilians living under the faction’s rule from 2013 until 2018. These cases are still under review by the French authorities.

 

 

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