Crimes of the Syrian regime tried in France, a historic trial

Crimes of the Syrian regime tried in France, a historic trial
Crimes of the Syrian regime tried in France, a historic trial

It is the culmination of a very long fight for the loved ones of Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh, two of the countless victims of the Syrian regime’s crimes. To shed light on the circumstances which led to the arrest, in 2013, to the detention then to the death of this Franco-Syrian father and son, a historic trial opens this Tuesday, May 21 for four days at the Paris Assize Court.

Three senior Syrian officials will be tried, without being in the dock because they are absent from French territory: Ali Mamlouk, former head of the National Security Office and close advisor to President Bashar Al Assad; Jamil Hassan, former director of the Air Force intelligence services and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of the investigation branch of these intelligence services at the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus.

It was in the detention center at this airport, known for the brutality of the acts of torture carried out there, that Patrick Dabbagh, 20, and his father Mazzen, 48, were detained after their arrest. Patrick was then a second year literature student at the University of Damascus and Mazzen, senior education advisor at the French high school in Damascus. Neither was ever involved in protest movements against the Syrian regime, before or after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

“We are reduced to interpreting the arbitrary”

For nearly five years, their loved ones received no information or semblance of justification about their fate, other than extortion attempts, offering information in exchange for large sums of money. Consumed by uncertainty, Obeida Dabbagh, brother and uncle of the two disappeared, took legal action in France in 2016 with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Human Rights League (LDH) with the active support of Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).

“The property of enforced disappearance, is that we do not know what motivated these arrests. This leaves those around them without answers, with only speculation and uncertainty. We are reduced to interpreting the arbitrary,” explains Me Clémence Bectarte, lawyer for the FIDH, the SCM and the Dabbagh family. It was not until July 2018 that death certificates issued by the Syrian authorities revealed that Patrick Dabbagh died in July 2014 and Mazzen Dabbagh in November 2017.

After seven years of investigation carried out by the crimes against humanity unit of the Paris judicial court, the judges retained the classification as crimes against humanity. And the three men were formally indicted in March 2023 for torture, forced disappearances and murder, constituting crimes against humanity, as well as for confiscation of property, qualified as war crimes.

This public trial is historic in many ways. Firstly because the avenues of justice are extremely rare for Syrian citizens who are victims of the regime: they can neither obtain justice in their country, nor even benefit from an investigation by the International Criminal Court, blocked by Russian vetoes and Chinese, allies of Damascus. “Universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction, in the case of Franco-Syrian nationals, is all they have left to obtain justice,” explains the lawyer. “ It is also the first time that a trial on the crimes of the Syrian regime has been held in France with the highest ranking officers ever to be prosecuted, on an international scale.she adds.

112,000 forced disappearances recorded in Syria

During the Koblenz trial in Germany, Anwar Raslan, the Syrian officer sentenced to life in prison in January 2021, was “only” head of a branch of the intelligence services. However, the men tried from Tuesday in Paris are of a completely different caliber: Ali Mamlouk was the regime’s number 2 and is still advisor to Bashar Al Assad on security affairs. As for Jamil Hassan, he headed the air force’s intelligence services, the most formidable in the country, before retiring in 2019.

If the three accused treat these proceedings in France with contempt – they will not be represented at the hearing – their trial will have an echo beyond the Dabbagh affair. “There has so far never been a trial for enforced disappearances constituting crimes against humanity, which is important given the massive use of enforced disappearances by the Syrian regime”, adds Clémence Bectarte. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), which publishes an annual report on the “disappeared” in Syria, estimated their number at more than 112,000 in August 2023. “Through the story of Patrick and Mazzen, all the crimes committed against the Syrian civilian population, in the past, and still today, will also be highlighted,” adds the lawyer. A judicial truth that is all the more important at a time of the rehabilitation process from which Bashar Al Assad has benefited for several months on the international scene.

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