French court indicts 3 Syrian officials for war crimes

  • In 2013, Syrian officials arrested family members of Syrian-French citizen Obeida Dabbagh.
  • In 2014, Dabbagh’s nephew died in a notorious prison; his brother suffered the same fate in 2017.
  • Dabbagh is now seeking justice in the highest court in Paris against those responsible who imprisoned his family.

For five years, Obeida Dabbagh held her breath, hoping that her brother and nephew were simply missing or in jail.

But in the summer of 2018, he received news through official death certificates from the Syrian government about his family members who were all too familiar to Syrians: his brother, Mazen Dabbagh, died in 2017 in Mezzeh prison – a gruesome theater of torture and death – near Damascus airport. Mazen’s son Patrick died in the same prison years earlier, in 2014.

The war in Syria has raged since 2012 following a mass uprising against dictator Bashar Assad to which his government responded with gunfire, indiscriminate arrests and torture. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group, more than 15,000 Syrians have died from torture at the hands of Syrian intelligence agents and more than 111,000 Syrians have been victims of enforced disappearance. .

Throughout the war, the United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 Syrian civilians have been killed – and the international body has estimated that Mezzeh, the prison where Dabbagh’s family members died, had one of the highest death rates in the country.

It can be difficult to move on after the death of a loved one. It’s especially difficult when it’s happening like it’s happening in Syria, where the truth can be hard to come by.

“There is still a bit of doubt, even if it is 1%, that they are still alive and that this was all a scheme of the regime,” Obeida Dabbagh told Insider during a phone call from his home in Paris, with a hopeful but hardened tone.

And the loss forced Obeida Dabbagh, a French-Syrian dual citizen in France, to spring into action and pursue a mission that brought him before the highest court in Paris, all in the hope of succeeding in hold accountable senior Syrian intelligence officials who he claims tortured and killed his brother and nephew.

A familiar nightmare sets in

The Dabbagh family nightmare began in November 2013.

At the time, Patrick Dabbagh, Mazen’s son, was a second-year psychology student at Damascus University.

“He was a warm and generous young man with a youthful madness,” Obeida Dabbagh told Insider.

In the family, which was part of the Syrian professional upper middle class, Patrick Dabbagh was the first target of the government.

On November 3, 2013, at midnight, several soldiers and police arrested him and took him to Mezzeh prison. They arrested his father, Mazen Dabbagh, the next morning on charges of not raising his son properly, according to Obeida Dabbagh’s lawyer.

Neither man was militants, who are usually targeted, Obeida Dabbagh said.

Their family received little information from the government beyond news of their arrest.

In February, the French government negotiated the release of a Franco-Iranian academic held in an Iranian prison, the fruit of months of negotiations. Dabbagh wanted the same kind of urgency and success to apply to his family.

“I think the French authorities could have intervened,” Obeida Dabbagh told Insider. But they didn’t, “and unfortunately my brother paid for it with his life.”

“They often help save French people abroad,” Obeida Dabbagh continued, “and my brother was someone who was French and worked in a French school and gave 25 years of his life to spreading culture. French. And they did nothing to stop their deaths.”

23 victims of torture reunite

Personal resentment, coupled with the lack of sustained pressure against the Syrian government at the international and UN levels, has not caused Obeida Dabbagh to lose hope – or countless other Syrians whose family members are detained or missing.

In 2016, Obeida Dabbagh and three non-governmental legal organizations – the International Federation for Human Rights, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and the League for Human Rights – filed a criminal complaint against Major General Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian security services and close adviser to Assad; Jamil Hassan, director of the Syrian Air Force; and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, the head of investigations at Mezzeh military airport in Damascus.

Months after Obeida Dabbagh received the death certificates of Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh from Syria, a French criminal prosecutor in Paris indicted the three senior Syrian intelligence officials and issued international arrest warrants in October 2018.

In France, 23 Syrian victims of torture at Mezzeh prison provided testimonies and evidence that enabled prosecutors to build a case against senior government officials.

And the past five years have been filled with more movement from French justice. The litigation mirrored, in some ways, the case and convictions of Syrian intelligence officers in a regional court in Koblenz, Germany. They were found guilty of crimes against humanity.

Dabbagh was represented by Clémence Bectarte, human rights lawyer at FIDH.

“When the arrest warrants were issued, we know that the prosecutor could not have supported the arrest warrants if there had not somehow been the green light from the government French,” Bectarte told Insider.

“More than symbolic”

Prosecuting war crimes is tricky, because not all populations can file complaints in their own country or through the International Criminal Court, to which Syria is not a party. At the United Nations, Russia, a key Syria ally with veto power in the Security Council, vetoed investigations into alleged war crimes by the Syrian government.

Universal jurisdiction, the third-best option, is an international legal mechanism where Syrians living in countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden can file complaints with crime investigation units. states for violations they say Assad loyalists, or others in Syria, have committed.

Obeida Dabbagh and Bectarte hope successful localized cases will be key to broader justice efforts down the line.

“I think it’s more than symbolic because we would also have an acknowledgment of the crimes and the responsibility of these individuals who are very highly placed in the Syrian regime,” Bectarte told Insider, referring to the French case. “But there would be no more legal capacity on the part of French courts to enforce the decision than international arrest warrants.”

This year, five years after learning of the death of his family members, Obeida Dabbagh learned on January 27 that France’s highest prosecutor’s office had issued an advisory opinion that the three intelligence officers would be brought to trial in Paris for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes related to the arrests, disappearances and deaths of Patrick and Mazen.

The officials’ case will go to trial

On March 29, the Paris court issued a final indictment order committing the three men to trial, with a date expected to be set in 2024. Obeida Dabbagh said the final order and indictment accusation by the Paris prosecutor was a “great victory”.

There are unknowns before the trial.

European law allows for trials in absentia, meaning the three officers are unlikely to show up or send a lawyer, and the public trial will take place before three professional judges, as opposed to a jury.

Another provision allows defendants to have a new trial if they are absent at the first trial.

“If one day they were to be arrested, they would be entitled to a completely new trial,” Bectarte said.

The verdict could also have major repercussions, as Mamlouk is Syria’s top intelligence officer responsible for the government’s external intelligence relations. He visited Italy as recently as 2018, according to Obeida Dabbagh’s lawyer.

If the officers are found guilty, Obeida Dabbagh and his legal team hope other European Union countries will help extradite them to France.

Add insult to injury

The bodies of Mazen and Patrick were never returned to the Dabbagh family, and the family still does not know where or if they were buried.

One of the intelligence officers in the trial, Mahmoud, brought government deportation documents to Mazen Dabbagh’s family, deporting Mazen’s family and Patrick after the men were arrested.

“It was a mafia-like act. They kidnapped the son and the father, then they took over the house,” Obeida Dabbagh said.

Mahmoud and his family now live in the house where Mazen and Patrick celebrated their last life together, Dabbagh told Insider, adding that they were spreading false rumors to neighbors that Mazen was being held because he was a spy. .

“We will never know what happened to them or why,” he said. On the other hand, “the officers will be entitled to a fair trial and a new trial in France”.

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