Since 2011, Syria has been ravaged by civil war on a huge scale. The conflict has already caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, while millions of Syrians have had to leave the country. Syria has been, and continues to be, the scene of many mass crimes. TRIAL International fights against widespread impunity by investigating individuals and companies suspected of such acts.
Since the al-Assad family came to power in 1971, the repression of any dissident voice has been systematic. The Hama massacre of 1982 marked a turning point in the violence, as between 10’000 and 40’000 civilians were massacred in three weeks.
In 2011, peaceful demonstrations were suppressed through violence, giving rise to the beginning of the present armed conflict. All its participating groups are committing human rights and humanitarian law violations. They include the use of torture, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence and enforced disappearances, as well as the use of chemical weapons.
To this dismal record is added the fact that perpetrators of abuses enjoy total impunity in Syria. For now, victims have no choice but to seek justice outside the country. In the absence of the jurisdiction of an international tribunal, it is for States to allow them to exercise this fundamental right, particularly on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction.
What does TRIAL International do on Syria?
To put an end to the impunity of international crimes committed in Syria, TRIAL International investigates specific and targeted cases. When it has enough incriminating evidence, the organization files criminal cases with prosecution authorities to initiate cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The organization does not make political distinctions; anyone suspected of serious crimes must answer for their actions.
Proceedings in Switzerland too
Historically, the first Syria-related case addressed by TRIAL International regarded Rifaat Al-Assad, uncle of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He is suspected of orchestrating massacres of civilians well before the emergence of the current conflict.
As a former commander of the “Defense Brigades”, Rifaat al-Assad led the elite troops suspected of having played a leading role in the Hama massacre of 1982. TRIAL International denounced these acts in 2013 when he was in Switzerland. In July 2023, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court (TPF) ordered the issue of an international arrest warrant against the former Vice-President for his alleged role in the massive war crimes committed in the city of Hama in February 1982.
TRIAL International works on other cases, some of which have already been denounced to the authorities. As such, it enjoys the valuable support of Syrian organizations with which it collaborates.
Companies are not immune to scrutiny
But the abuses committed in Syria are not only the acts of individuals; companies too can be complicit in these crimes. In 2019, TRIAL International filed criminal complaints against European companies suspected of having exported dual-use chemical components to Syria in violation of United Nations sanctions. Isopropanol and diethylamino are commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry, but they can also be used in chemical weapons, including sarin and VX. TRIAL International works on this case alongside other European NGOs.