The “gravedigger’s” testimony at the Syrian war crimes trial in Germany created shock in the courtroom as he gave his horrific account of crimes committed by the regime. The grisly details brought to mind the familiar horrors of Nazi crimes, leaving the courtroom reeling.
The “gravedigger”, whose identity remains concealed at the hearing, said he continues to be haunted by the mass graves he dug for the victims killed by the Syrian regime during the nearly decade-long conflict. One image that has been etched in his memory is that of a deceased, woman who was still hugging her dead child, whom he lowered into a mass grave in Damascus.
Recalling such horrors, the witness broke down in tears before the court. The presiding judge at the Koblenz court adjourned the session until he could collect himself. Once resumed, the “gravedigger” recalled another horrific image, that of a man piled onto hundreds or even thousands of corpses, who was still breathing. The supervising Syrian officer noticed that he was still alive and ordered the vehicle that was digging up the grave to run him over, turning him into yet another corpse in the mass grave.
Such stories went on throughout the gravedigger’s three-hour testimony.
The unprecedented court is trying former Syrian intelligence senior officer Anwar Raslan and former officer Eyad al-Gharib for crimes against humanity committed in Syria after the 2011 uprising. The trial kicked off four months ago and is the first against security officials in Bashar Assad’s regimes for crimes against humanity. Raslan and Gharib are still the only two officials whom lawyers and Syrian and European activists have compiled complete cases against.
Raslan is accused of torturing some 4,000 people and killing 58 others at the Khatib detention center in Damascus. Gharib is accused of arresting protesters and turning them over to the center where they were tortured and sometimes killed.
Since the opening of the trial in Koblenz on April 23, the world listened with extreme shock to firsthand accounts of the horrors endured by the Syrian people for years: arbitrary arrests, severe torture, mass graves dug up by the regime…
Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni had persuaded witnesses to testify at the court. He himself gave his testimony after spending years in jail in Syria. He is now living in Germany where he is working tirelessly to bring justice to the Syrian people.
He spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat of the German people’s shock to learn of the crimes that have been committed in Syria. Many have compared them to Nazi crimes and the Auschwitz trials.
“The greatest shock of all is that these crimes are still happening in Syria,” he added.
The “gravedigger”, he said, had continued to work on burying the detainees until 2017 when he left the country. He confirmed that these crimes are still being committed in Syrian jails.
The most significant revelation provided by the witness, added Bunni, was the “missing link”. He said that people have often wondered where the corpses were being buried. “What happens to the detainees when they enter the security department branches and then disappear?”
“We now know,” Bunni remarked. Most significant of all, he stressed, was that the gravedigger confirmed that all security departments throughout Syria were complicit in the systematic mass killing, meaning the whole regime is involved.
Many families of missing Syrians learned of the fate of their loved ones after seeing photographs of their corpses taken by a former Syrian army photographer, codenamed Caesar, who fled in August 2013 with thousands of photos that document the regime’s crimes. It was his job to record the deaths in military prisons. The photos, which show the world the atrocities of the regime, are but some evidence the prosecution is using at the Koblenz trial.
The gravedigger continued his grim testimony by recalling how corpses were transported in refrigerated trucks from all security departments and military and even civilian hospitals. He detailed how he was “recruited” by a member of Syrian intelligence in 2011. He was tasked to form a team of 10 to 15 men who would be in charge of escorting the trucks, which would be loaded with bodies, four times a week to mass graves. The gravedigger said the intelligence provided him with a small truck without a license plate and that was covered with posters of president Bashar Assad. Some three trucks used to transport hundreds of bodies that were piled on top of each other. Each truck was designated to specific security departments and detention centers.
The bodies, however, did not have names. All that identified them were the signs of torture. Some faces were disfigured, possibly by acid. The corpses were just numbers for the perpetrators. The numbers were etched on the chests or foreheads of the victims. Some corpses were dumped in graves with their hands still tied behind their backs. All the bodies showed signs of beatings, many had their nails plucked out.
The gravedigger estimated that each truck transported some 300 to 700 corpses at a time. They would embark on their grisly journey at dawn from the Tishreen, Harasta and Mezzeh military hospitals to two mass graves in al-Qutayfah north of Damascus and al-Najha to its south. The bodies are unceremoniously dumped in a massive 6-meter deep and 100-long pit. Each pit would take some 150 truck trips to fill.
The gravedigger performed this job from 2011 to 2017. No details were revealed about his identity, despite the defense’s demands, for fear over the safety of his family that is still in Syria. His testimony concluded the witness testimonies, which included five from former detainees.
Raslan’s voice and face
None of the detainees could identify Raslan by looking at his face because they were always blindfolded when he interrogated them at the Khatib detention center. However, evidence is available that showed that he was an interrogator at the center and that he ordered the torture of prisoners.
He has refused to appear before the trial and is only speaking through his lawyer. Prior to the beginning of the trial, he confessed to a German investigator that he had interrogated one of the main witnesses at the trial: Wassim Mukdad, the famed Syrian musician who sought refuge in Germany. Mukdad told the court that he was interrogated by only one officer during his time in detention and that he would be able to identify him by hearing his voice as he was always blindfolded. The musician and other witnesses requested a sample of Raslan’s voice to confirm his identity but his lawyer vehemently refused.
Even though the witnesses have not identified Raslan, Bunni told Asharq Al-Awsat that upcoming witnesses will be able to verify him by looking at his face because they had seen him at detention centers.
The hearings will resume in May.
Raslan had defected from the regime and arrived in Germany as a refugee in 2015. He has rejected the accusations against him, saying he had no knowledge of the alleged torture at the Khatib detention center. He even claimed that he used to help some of the prisoners.
He was arrested in Berlin after he turned to the police to explain to them that he was concerned that he was being watched by other Syrians. He admitted in his request that he was a former officer in the Syrian army, which prompted the police to refer his case to the criminal police to probe whether he may be tried for possible crimes.
Gharib arrived in Germany in 2018 and was arrested after providing testimony before immigration authorities. He admitted that he used to work for Syrian intelligence, but has rejected the accusations against him.