Studio 9 Films gets exclusive behind-the-scenes access to first high-profile Syrian war crimes trial
At first, Anwar Al Bunni couldn’t place the man looking back at him, whose eye he’d caught crossing paths outside the asylum centre he was living in near Berlin. He felt ashamed he couldn’t recognise his neighbour, who so clearly recognised him. It wouldn’t be until two weeks later that Al Bunni, a Syrian human rights lawyer, would come to a chilling realisation.
That man, his neighbour, who shopped at the same grocery store as him, was Anwar Raslan. A notorious, ruthless former colonel who formed the backbone of the Assad regime’s torture system and gave orders for Al Bunni’s arrest and kidnap a decade earlier.
Raslan was living incognito among his victims in Berlin, as an asylum seeker. But with the help of Al Bunni, the former colonel has now been brought to justice, found guilty of crimes against humanity following a trial in Germany and sentenced to life in prison*.
Al Bunni, now pivotal in helping bring other perpetrators to trial, is just one of a number of key players Studio 9 Films’ speaks to as it gains exclusive behind-the-scenes access to evidence used as part of the trial in its new two-part series, The Trial of Anwar R. The in-depth look at the landmark case, the first to deal with Syrian state torture at a senior level, broadcasts on Al Jazeera’s People and Power.
In the film, Al Bunni speaks directly to those who’ve committed atrocities when he tells viewers: “We want to send a message. We will follow you, we will persecute you, you will never find peace after all these crimes you committed in Syria”.
Patrick Kroker, an ECCHR Human Rights lawyer is also featured in the series. Speaking after the verdict, he said: “Today is only a first step in addressing the crimes in Syria – but this first step is often the most difficult. The goal remains to bring senior Assad associates [...] to justice for their crimes.”
Raslan - part of the Syrian intelligence service - oversaw the notorious Branch 251 detention centre at the start of the Syrian uprising and subsequent civil war. In the first episode, one of the co-plantiffs bringing the trial against Raslan in the small German town of Koblenz, Wassim Mukdad, details how he was brutally tortured under the Colonel’s direct orders. Told to lie on his belly and beaten until he gave Raslan the answers he wanted, Mukdad recounts the moment he came face-to-face with his tormentor in court.
The history of the former colonel’s prosecution is detailed, his crimes, the suffering of his victims and the wider significance of the trial for others who have suffered abuses at the hand of the Assad regime. Raslan was tried under universal jurisdiction - an inventive form of international accountability invoked by a handful of European states as an antidote to the limits of the UN Security Council and The Hague.
In the second episode, viewers are given a detailed look at the evidence being used to bring such war criminals to justice and hold the Syrian state to account, as increasingly the Syrian diaspora comes forward to testify. In one interview, the experienced war crimes investigator, Nerma Jelacic, tells our reporter, Nina Donaghy, that documents paint in painful detail the regime’s structure leading all the way up to the top, to President Assad. In another exclusive, insight is given into how the evidence is dangerously smuggled out of Syria by those willing to risk their lives to fight injustice.
The series also interviews Stephen Rapp, Ambassador for global criminal justice, who served under the Obama Administration from 2009 to 2015, and is an important international figure when it comes to international peace and war crimes. In the documentary, Rapp says that there is a lot at stake if atrocities go unpunished: “We need to really make it clear to people that face these choices that they will eventually be in the dock and at the moment Assad stands for a lesson that you can get away with, that impunity works and the world can't live with that.”
Speaking about the films, Studio 9 Films’ founder and the series’ executive producer Fiona Lloyd Davies said: “These films show the shocking truth of the crimes committed in Syria. It’s humbling and inspiring to hear from survivors of torture who have the courage to speak out and ensure the world knows what happened and continues to happen in Syria even today.”
The two-part series‘The Trial of Anwar R’ is available to watch on Al Jazeera: People and Power. The story is reported by Nina Donaghy and filmed on location in the UK and Western Europe.
*The court in Germany ruled that Anwar Raslan's face should not be recognisable in media coverage, so we have taken the decision not to include any photos of Raslan in this post at this time.