FRANKFURT (AFP) — A Syrian doctor went on trial in Germany on Wednesday accused of crimes against humanity including torture and murder in his war-torn homeland, in the latest European court case involving loyalists of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Alaa Mousa, 36, who arrived in Germany in 2015 and practiced medicine there until his arrest, faces 18 counts of torturing detainees at military hospitals in Homs and Damascus in 2011-12, including setting fire to a teenage boy’s genitals.
He also allegedly administered a lethal injection to a prisoner who resisted being beaten, according to federal prosecutors.
The defendant, who arrived at the court in a blue suit and wearing an FFP2 face mask, has so far denied the charges.
The trial at Frankfurt’s higher regional court comes after another German court last week sentenced a former Syrian colonel to life in jail for overseeing the murder of 27 people and the torture of 4,000 others at a Damascus detention center a decade ago.
That verdict, hailed by victims as “historic,” marked the culmination of the first trial globally over state-sponsored torture in Syria.
The proceedings in Germany are made possible by the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows countries to try people for crimes of exceptional gravity, including war crimes and genocide, even if they were committed in a different country.
Other cases involving the Syrian conflict have also sprung up in France, Norway and Austria. In 2017, Sweden became the first country to convict a former Syrian soldier of a war crime.
“Over the past decade, a large amount of evidence about atrocities in Syria has been collected, and now… those efforts are starting to bear fruit,” said Balkees Jarrah of Human Rights Watch.
He criticized the Frankfurt court however for not providing Arabic translations of the proceedings for the public.
Mousa left Syria for Germany in mid-2015, arriving not as a refugee but on a visa for skilled workers.
He worked in several places as an orthopedic doctor, including in the spa town of Bad Wildungen, before being arrested in June 2020 after Syrian witnesses came forward.
German federal prosecutors say Mousa worked in military hospital 608 in the Syrian city of Homs and military hospital 601 in the capital Damascus, where injured detainees were brought after being arrested for opposing Assad’s regime.
But instead of being treated, many were tortured “and not infrequently killed” in such hospitals as part of Assad’s brutal repression of the opposition, prosecutors allege.
Reading the charge sheet at the start of the trial, public prosecutor Anna Zabeck accused Mousa of torturing detainees “within the framework of a widespread and systematic attack on civilians.”
In one case, Mousa is accused of pouring flammable liquid on a prisoner’s wounds before setting them on fire and kicking him in the face so hard that three of his teeth had to be replaced.
The former prisoner, Ahmad A., who now lives in Austria, will be one of the prosecution’s main witnesses, according to the weekly Der Spiegel.
Mousa is also alleged to have given a fatal injection to an inmate who was trying to fend off a beating, in what prosecutors say was to demonstrate his “absolute power” over the prisoners.
He allegedly doused a teenage boy’s genitals in alcohol before setting them alight, and did the same to an adult prisoner.
Rene Bahns, a lawyer for the civil parties in the case, representing victims’ rights, told AFP the examples highlighted “the use of sexualized violence” in the Syrian torture system.
On another occasion, Mousa was called to a prison in Homs where an inmate was suffering an epileptic attack. Prosecutors say the accused punched him in the face, hit him with a plastic pipe and kicked him in the head.
The man died a few days later, shortly after taking a tablet given to him by Mousa, though the cause of death is unclear.
Other inmates were kicked and beaten, sometimes with medical tools, according to prosecutors.
The war in Syria has killed close to half a million people since it broke out in 2011, and spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement of a population since World War II.
Germany has taken in some 800,000 Syrian refugees.