When the German judiciary sentenced former colonel in Syrian intelligence, Anwar Raslan, to life imprisonment on 13 January, after convicting him of crimes against humanity including, torture and murder of detainees in Damascus, Syrian victims felt they were one step closer to achieving justice, and that the road to holding Syrian war criminals accountable is not dead-end.
This also encouraged other Syrian refugees in European countries to pursue more officials and individuals implicated in horrific crimes in domestic courts in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, and Austria, under the principle of the universal jurisdiction that allows prosecuting international crimes perpetrators, regardless of the nationality of the accused or the victim or the place where the crimes occurred.
Since 2012, Syrians have used this principle, with all its possibilities, to issue international arrest warrants from European judicial authorities against a number of Syrian officials involved in crimes against humanity. Most prominently, in 2018, the French judicial authorities issued an international arrest warrant against senior Syrian intelligence officers, namely: Jamil Hassan, head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate; Ali Mamlouk, director of the National Security Office; and Abdul Salam Mahmoud, head of the Investigations Branch in the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, based in the Al-Mezzeh military airbase.
Despite the dose of hope European courts give Syrians of recovering some of their rights and holding those responsible for their suffering accountable, the burning question is: “Why does Europe allow sanctioned Syrian ministers to roam around the EU in the first place?”
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, the EU has imposed a package of sanctions on a total of 287 Syrian individuals, including President Bashar al-Assad, official figures, economic entities, and prominent businessmen. These sanctions included travel bans, freezing of assets and bank balances, and other measures to punish war criminals, pressure them economically, and isolate them diplomatically to stop their years-long repression and brutal killings against civilians.
However, the EU countries have received sanctioned Syrian ministers and allowed them to travel to their lands without hindrance, under the pretext of attending UN and intergovernmental conferences. This raises doubts about the seriousness of the international community’s intention to hold al-Assad’s government accountable and the significance of its bragged-about sanctions since there are exceptions allowing sanctioned individuals to enter the EU under two conditions: entering the EU to attend a conference convened or supervised by the UN, or to attend sessions related to humanitarian aid.
On 30 November 2021, the Minister of Tourism, Mohamed Rami Martini, participated in the 24th session of the World Tourism Organization in Madrid. In December of the same year, the Minister of Communications and Technology, Iyad Al-Khatib, attended the activities of the 16th Internet Governance Forum in Katowice, Poland. In the same month, the Minister of Education, Darem Tabbaa, participated in the 41st General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.
These visits came in accordance with European Union Council Resolution No. 255 of 2013 regarding the restrictive measures against Syria, specifically Article 27, which recognizes that Syrian government ministers are allowed to come to Europe and participate in international sessions. Using this legal exception, some of these ministers tried to help the Syrian government get out of economic hardship and diplomatic isolation by promoting investment in economic sectors such as tourism.
These moves were preceded by violations of European sanctions imposed on key figures in the Syrian government between 2016 and 2018, most notably Ali Mamlouk’s secret visit to Berlin, which followed a similar visit by Major General Deeb Zaitoun, head of General Intelligence in Syria, to Rome, and another visit by Mamlouk to Italy by a private plane provided by the Italian authorities.
There are three points that make these exceptions and violations of European sanctions a major problem. First, they impede punishing Syrian ministers in a way that suits war criminals and instead give them a platform to participate politically and publicly speak about the future of Syria as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.
Second, they flagrantly challenge the sanctions’ very purpose of changing the regime’s behavior at all levels: achieving political transition, stopping repression, releasing detainees, revealing the fate of the missing, and putting an end to impunity, so that the Syrians reclaim their legitimate political rights, as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, said in 2012.
Do European countries believe that the Syrian government has taken a different direction from what it has followed over the past years in order to open its arms to it? Do they expect Bashar al-Assad and his men to stop committing human rights violations while treating them as untouchable high-ranking figures?
Third, these legal exceptions inflict severe psychological harm to thousands of victims and survivors whose lives have been destroyed by the Syrian regime’s violations, and they are still suffering the brunt of these violations and their consequences to this day. Legal exceptions indicate that European countries underestimate the victims’ demands for justice, making them lose confidence in the concepts of truth and justice in the judicial application.
If the international community does not bother to reconsider the lax sanctions mechanism or does not support it with more effective and strict punitive measures that diplomatically isolate criminals at all levels, then these policies are useless because they contribute, in one way or another, to the continuation of the Syrian government’s violence and repression against its citizens, forcing Syrians to pursue other legal leads, individually, and with lower hopes, to recover their rights.
Finally, it goes without saying that what is most feared about this lax policy is that other authoritarian regimes that defy international norms will receive an indirect message that “there is always impunity.”