Ms. Seif, you are working for the ECCHR (European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights). Could you start by describing your work at ECCHR and your main objectives and tasks?
I started working with ECCHR in May 2017. Access to justice for crimes has been restricted in Syria as the country has not accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and because the attempt by the United Nations Security Council to refer Syria to the court was blocked by Russia and China. ECCHR’s work towards accountability for international crimes under the principal of universal jurisdiction drew me to work with them. For the last five years I have been helping not only to support individuals who wish to participate in active investigations across Europe, but also to develop complaints before different European jurisdictions. My special focus has been sexual and gender-based crimes. In 2018, when German authorities issued an arrest warrant against then-head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service Jamil Hassan, we saw that conflict-related sexual violence was missing from the charges brought against him. Along with a colleague I worked on investigating the sexual crimes that took place under his command. We filed a special complaint in 2020 demanding that SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) be recognizedas crimes against humanity.
Recently, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung organized a panel discussion, which you took part in, about the film “The Lost Souls of Syria” which focuses on crimes against international law in Syria and their international prosecution. In this context, the movie referred to the Al-Khatib trial. What is the movie about and what has it to do with your work at ECCHR?
The film "The Lost Souls of Syria" is about the story of the deserted military photographer "Caesar", through whom more than 27,000 photos of prisoners tortured to death from the secret archives of the Syrian regime were released to the international public in January 2014. They are more revealing than anything held against the Nazis at Nuremberg. The photos shocked people around the world, including UN officials, politicians and lawyers. They were also the basis for further U.S. sanctions against the Syrian regime under the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.
In 2020, the landmark Al-Khatib trial (Al-Khatib means intelligence site/investigation and torture center) took place in Koblenz, Germany, where perpetrators or agents of the Syrian regime were convicted for the first time. It is possible to indict violations of international law through the principle of international law at the national level, and Germany was the first country to apply it in this process.
The elaborate and accurate forensic examination of the Caesar photos proved the causes of death and the methods of systematic torture. Thus, the Caesar photos were incriminating evidence and clear documentation of the crimes. Since the photos were examined and examined by the German court once, they can be used then for further procedures. More information can be found in one of ECCHR’s publications.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) took on the important work of providing legal support and assistance to the 17 Syrians who appeared as witnesses and joint plaintiffs in the trial.
Could you describe your role in this trial?
I worked on the trial as member of a team at ECCHR working towards accountability for crimes in Syria. I primarily assisted with communication with and support for the survivors. We have been supporting the survivors since before the beginning of the trial, establishing and maintaining contact with individuals interested in being involved in ongoing investigations and empowering them through the process: We held many meetings where we explained to the survivors the process of being a witness and what they could expect. It was about them being prepared and, most importantly, being able to decide what they want to do based on all this information. Such a trial is emotionally very difficult for the survivors, so it was important for me to keep very close contact especially with the female survivors, to be there for them, to facilitate any requests and to be available for any questions they might have. At ECCHR, we greatly prioritize psychological support for survivors through collaboration with organizations such as the Zentrum Überleben. So my role was also to coordinate this, to be with the survivors and ready to support them at any moment.
I believe that the work of all those involved in the trial was brave and essential, but for me it was especially important to encourage women to cope with the particular barriers they faced such as patriarchy. Through this work towards justice we could empower them to also create different conditions for women in our society. Of course, I support everyone, all the Syrians, all the survivors, but I have been especially focused on shining light on accountability for sexual and gender-based violence.
How was as it perceived in the Syrian diaspora and what are the implications of this trial for the Syrian diaspora in Germany?
A lot of people were following the trial, including Syrians within the country and throughout the diaspora. I believe this was very important for the survivors and encouraged them to go through with the trial, to raise their voices on behalf of all the people that could not. Their aim was also to free those who were still in prison and thus still facing the same practices that were being revealed at the trial. The witnesses, the survivors, felt a great responsibility also to prove what is happening in Syria with the systematic torture across detention facilities under the Assad regime. I am sure the trial really succeeded to prove this and also to prove the narrative of the Syrian people: They went to the streets to fight for their basic rights – freedom, dignity, justice – and were then faced with countless international crimes and forcibly displaced.
It’s important to prove what has happened through legal proceedings before a court, and for all the evidence to be examined with findings presented in writing. Of course, this case is about justice for the survivors, but it also provides a strong basis for transitional justice in Syria.
What does the film “The Lost Souls of Syria” mean to you? What can be achieved with such a film?
It’s actually very painful. But the fact that this film hurts so much also means that it's a good film, that it's authentic and that it sets out very well what happened. It really reflects the struggle for justice and accountability that Syrians are seeking. But it also shows the difficulties of such a process, that justice sometimes takes time and might be slower than the survivors need it to be.
It is very important that the whole world sees what happened and what is still happening in Syria. I hope that the film can push people and especially the decision makers to do more for the survivors. I hope that for those watching it, more than the pain there is also encouragement to act, to support the families of the victims and to continue pushing for more humanity.
Joumana Seif is a Syrian lawyer and a feminist. She is a legal advisor in the International Crimes and Accountability program at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), with a particular focus on Syria and sexual and gender-based violence. She worked on the al-Khatib trial before the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz by closely supporting the survivors. She is awarded with the Anne Klein Women's Award 2023.She has been working in the human rights field since 2001 and supported the democratic movements in Syria with a focus on political prisoners. She left Syria in 2012, a year after the start of the uprising against the Assad regime. Since then, she co founded the Syrian Women’s Network (2013), the Syrian Feminist Lobby (2014) and Syrian Women’s Political Movement (2017). She is the chairwoman of The Day After: Supporting Democratic Transition in Syria. She is also a member of the Policy Coordination Group, a Syrian-led initiative on the missing and disappeared facilitated by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).