France begins first war crimes trial of Syrian officials

Three officials are being tried in absentia over the deaths of two French Syrian men arrested in Damascus in 2013.

France Syria trial
Human Rights League President Patrick Baudouin, left, and lawyer Clemence Bectarte, right, attend the trial against three Syrian officials for their complicity in crimes against humanity, in Paris, France, on May 21, 2024 [EPA-EFE/Mohammed Badra]

France has opened its first trial into officials from the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad with three top security officers tried in absentia for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The Paris Criminal Court was on Tuesday hearing the cases against the officials for their alleged role in the deaths of two French Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, who were arrested in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in 2013.

Ali Mamlouk, former head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Jamil Hassan, former director of the Air Force intelligence service, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations for the service in Damascus, are subject to international arrest warrants and will be tried in absentia.

“For the first time, French courts will address the crimes of the Syrian authorities and will try the most senior members of the authorities to ever be prosecuted since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011,” said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The al-Assad government has been in conflict with armed opposition groups after it violently repressed protests calling for democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners in 2011.

More than half a million people have been killed in the war, which has displaced millions and ravaged Syria’s economy and infrastructure.

Trials into abuses in Syria have taken place elsewhere in Europe. In those cases, the people prosecuted held lower ranks and were present at the hearings.

Last January, a German court sentenced Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian colonel, to life in prison for crimes against humanity.

The trial in France results from a seven-year investigation carried out by a French judicial war crimes unit.

Speaking before the hearing, lawyer Clemence Bectarte, representing the Dabbagh family and the FIDH, hailed “the culmination of a long legal battle”.

System of torture

At the time of his arrest, Patrick Dabbagh was a 20-year-old arts and humanities student at Damascus University.

His father, Mazzen, was a senior education adviser at the French school in Damascus.

The two were arrested in November 2013 by men who claimed to belong to the Syrian Air Force intelligence service.

“Witness testimony confirms that Mazzen and Patrick were both taken to a detention centre at Mezzeh military airport, which is run by Syrian Air Force intelligence and notorious for the use of brutal torture,” FIDH said, stressing that the pair were not involved in protests against al-Assad.

They were declared dead in 2018. The family was formally notified that Patrick died on 21 January 2014 and his father on 25 November 2017.

In 2016, Mazzen Dabbagh’s wife and daughter were evicted from their house in Damascus, which had been requisitioned. According to the prosecution, those acts were “likely to constitute war crimes, extortion and concealment of extortion”.

The investigating judges said it was “sufficiently established” that the two men “like thousands of detainees of the Air Force intelligence suffered torture of such intensity that they died”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies