German authorities have confirmed receiving a criminal complaint submitted by a group of NGOs accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government of using chemical weapons during his country’s long-running war.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and Syrian Archive want Germany’s attorney general to probe the deadly sarin attacks on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta and the town of Khan Sheikhoun that occurred in 2013 and 2017, respectively.
The three groups said on Tuesday that they had submitted what they described as adequate evidence to blame the Syrian government for the attacks and called for al-Assad to be investigated for his role in authorising them.
“By gathering evidence and identifying witnesses able to provide testimony to prosecutors, the complainants aim to advance the eventual arrest and prosecution of Syrian officials responsible for the attacks,” the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression said in a statement.
The groups chose to file their suit in Germany – home to a large Syrian refugee population – because the country applies the principle of “universal jurisdiction” that allows it to try crimes committed elsewhere. In April, two former members of Syria’s secret police went on trial in Germany accused of crimes against humanity over the torture of thousands of opposition protesters.
Later on Tuesday, the office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor confirmed that it had received and would be studying the criminal complaint submitted by the groups.
The groups said the dossier they submitted on behalf of victims of chemical attacks contained new information, including some gleaned from former Syrian government officials who have since defected.
They said the two attacks are estimated to have killed more than 1,400 people, including children. The use of chemical weapons and the targeting of civilians constitute war crimes.
The Syrian government denies it has used chemical weapons against its own civilians. Efforts to bring the Syrian government before the International Criminal Court have been stymied by Russia and China.
Mazen Darwish, director-general and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, said the complaint being filed in Germany is part of an effort to prevent those responsible for gross human rights violations from potentially evading justice under possible future peace deals.
“We are afraid that if we go to a political agreement without justice and accountability, this means that we will return our country to a second round of war,” Darwish told The Associated Press news agency. “And this time, we will have a new war built on revenge.”
“And speaking as a Syrian refugee, there is no way I will accept to go back to Syria if there is no accountability,” he said.
Even if German prosecutors add the chemical attacks to their existing investigation into crimes in Syria, it is unlikely that a case would ever go to trial unless the accused were to be brought to Germany, which does not try people in absentia.
A mother and father weep over their dead child, who was killed in a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013 [File: NURPHOTO/CORBIS via Getty Images]