High-ranking Syrian suspected of torturing prisoners arrested in Germany

Germany's arrest of a high-ranking Syrian suspected of crimes against humanity marks the first big success for a team of investigators who smuggled out a vast trove of incriminating evidence early in the war, one of its members said Wednesday.

Team of investigators led by Canadian consider Anwar R. 'a big fish'

A Syrian arrested in Germany is suspected of heading up the most 'effective, dangerous and secretive branch' of Syria's General Intelligence Directorate. (Louai Beshara AFP/Getty Images)

Germany's arrest of a high-ranking Syrian suspected of crimes against humanity marks the first big success for a team of investigators who smuggled out a vast trove of incriminating evidence early in the war, one of its members said Wednesday.

German prosecutors said the suspect, a man identified as Anwar R., and one other Syrian citizen identified as Eyad A., had been arrested on suspicion of crimes including torture of prisoners during their work for Syria's intelligence service. A third arrest was made in France.

Germany has "universal jurisdiction" laws that allow it to prosecute people for crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world. Such crimes can be prosecuted in France if the suspect is resident there or a victim is French.

"The significance of the arrests is that the trials are going to be the first time that torturers and victims are going to come face to face in a court of law," said Mazen Darwish, a Syrian lawyer.

"Survivors of the systematic torture of civilians in Assad jails are going to give evidence against their executioners, and this is a first," he said.

The investigation was supported by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a team funded by the United States and several European governments, which has been quietly building cases for years.

Its deputy director, Nerma Jelacic, said CIJA had provided documentary evidence and witness testimony against Anwar R.

"For the kind of people you can find in Europe, this is a big fish," Jelacic told Reuters.

'Systemic and brutal torture'

In 2011 and 2012, Anwar R. headed Branch 251 and later Branch 285 of Syria's General Intelligence Directorate, where officials had free rein to detain and interrogate suspected opposition activists, she said.

"These two branches are the most notorious ones. One of our witnesses has described Branch 251 as the most effective, dangerous and secretive branch, and responsible for 98 per cent of the violence committed.

"That branch was not only receiving people into detention but also carrying out raids and searches for individuals wanted for organizing the protests [against President Bashar al-Assad's rule]."

Anwar R. would be on the third rung down from Assad and would not have had direct contact with him, she said.

"As head of the so-called investigative department, Anwar R. assigned and directed the operations in the prison, including the use of systematic and brutal torture," German prosecutors said in a statement.

The other Syrian is suspected of helping to kill two people and torturing at least 2,000 people as an intelligence worker between July 2011 and January 2012, it said. He is suspected of working in the department Anwar A. was directing.

The suspect in France was arrested on Tuesday near Paris on suspicion of committing torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes between 2011 and 2013, Paris prosecutors said.

Canadian ex-soldier at the helm

CIJA is led by Bill Wiley, a Canadian ex-soldier who advised the defence in the trial of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and is a veteran of the Rwanda and Yugoslavia war crimes tribunals.

By working with Syria's opposition, not including groups designated by the United Nations as "terrorists," CIJA managed to exfiltrate 700,000 pages from Syrian intelligence and security archives, a potential gold mine for human rights prosecutors.

Wiley told Reuters in 2014 that CIJA was preparing prosecution-ready dossiers, despite not having a court that would hear its cases.

Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. Its allies on the UN Security Council, Russia and China, have blocked efforts to refer the matter to the ICC, despite reams of evidence collected by the United Nations, CIJA and others.

Jelacic said CIJA was now providing support to 13 countries, and was getting requests for assistance "almost on a daily basis." It answered close to 500 requests from law enforcement last year, with information pertaining to ISIS as well as Syrian government officials.

Last month its evidence and testimony were used in a U.S. lawsuit where a judge ruled that Assad's government was liable for at least $302.5 million in damages for its role in the 2012 death of renowned U.S. journalist Marie Colvin.