Rifaat Al-Assad case: 9 years of hope and uncertainties

13.12.2022 ( Last modified: 19.12.2022 )

On the 13th of December 2013, alerted of his presence in Switzerland, TRIAL International filed a criminal denunciation against Rifaat Al-Assad before the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) for his alleged responsibility in the massacre that took place in the Syrian city of Hama in February 1982.

Today, TRIAL International and the Syrian human rights defender Anwar Al-Bunni discuss the key moments of the case, which is still being investigated in Switzerland and not yet closed, nine years after the opening of the proceedings against the man known as “the Butcher of Hama”.

Photo of destruction in Hama following the Hama Massacre in 1982
Photo of destruction in Hama following the Hama Massacre in 1982.

A procedure that crystallizes a lot of hope…

On the 19th of December 2013, a criminal investigation for war crimes was opened in Bern against Rifaat Al-Assad – the uncle of the current Syrian president – who was leading the “Defense brigades” back in February 1982. Al-Assad’s troops allegedly participated in the siege and assault of the city of Hama alongside regular Syrian army. During almost a month, Hama’s inhabitants were trapped under constant artillery bombardments, without electricity nor access to any supply.

According to various sources, several tens of thousands of people – civilians for the majority of them – have died in one of the worst bloodsheds in Syrian history. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed during the almost four weeks of attack.

Anwar Al-Bunni remembers : « I was still living in Syria when I heard that a criminal investigation had been opened against Rifaat Al-Assad in Switzerland. I was very happy that an organization felt concerned about Hama. This case was the demonstration that the prosecution of regime members was indeed possible. It was going to pave the way for other criminal proceedings”.

More than 40 years after the massacre, the need for Rifaat Al-Assad’s prosecution remains undeniable and the hopes to see an indictment and a trial in this case are still unaltered.

According to Anwar Al-Bunni “the Hama massacre has been a turning point in the takeover of the country by the Assad’s clan. Beyond the individual criminal prosecution of Rifaat Al-Assad, this case also highlights the responsibility of his brother Hafez and of other high-level officials of the regime”, which is another reason why it is now crucial that justice be done for the victims of the regime.


…and uncertainties

Within the course of the investigation, Rifaat Al-Assad was briefly heard in September 2015 by the OAG as he was, once again, on the Swiss territory. This was the only hearing of the suspect, which took place several years before he fled Europe to return to Syria, where he remains and is protected by the regime.

Indeed, in October 2021, Rifaat Al-Assad fled from France, where he was residing, despite his conviction in 2020 to four years in prison for financial offences (money laundering and embezzlement). This conviction was confirmed in appeal and then definitively upheld by the Cour de Cassation on the 7th of September 2022.

According to Anwar Al-Bunni, «the news about his escape was a huge disappointment for the Syrians and the circumstances of his departure leave many unanswered questions. How France allowed him to leave the territory while he had been criminally convicted and was under judiciary control? ».

In Switzerland, the criminal procedure on the Hama massacre does not seem to have substantially progressed since his departure. According to Benoit Meystre, legal adviser at TRIAL International, « the suspect’s return to Syria does not mean that justice cannot be done. The authorities must continue their work in accordance with Switzerland’s international obligations, bring their investigation to an end and send Rifaat Al-Assad to trial».

Considering that the suspect is currently 85 years old, it is all the more necessary that steps be taken shortly to bring him to trial.

[ VIDEO]: Syria – Time for Rifaat Al-Assad to go on trial for the Hama massacre!

Universal jurisdiction: a tool at the service of justice and victims of the crimes committed in Syria

The application of universal jurisdiction – this legal instrument that allows for Rifaat Al-Assad’s prosecution in Switzerland even though the massacre was committed in Syria – has already proven efficient with regard to the crimes committed in the country. This was particularly the case in Germany where the historical trial of Anwar Raslan, a former senior official of the regime, took place and saw his conviction to life in prison in January 2022 for numerous acts of torture, murders and sexual violence as crimes against humanity.

« The Koblenz trial highlighted the crimes against humanity committed by the regime. It brought light into the darkness» Answar Al-Bunni explains before adding that : « the criminal proceedings initiated on the basis of universal jurisdiction are highly important as they send a strong message to the perpetrators of the Syrian crimes. They won’t be able to hide and they are not untouchable anymore».

In this respect, Anwar Al-Bunni insists on the need for ever greater cooperation between Syrian and international organizations as well as for more effective means provided by the Sates to prosecute the perpetrators of the abuses committed in Syria: «There are currently ten ongoing procedures against Syrian alleged perpetrators in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland and these States must work together to achieve more effective justice».

Anwar Al-Bunni reminds us that the prosecution and conviction of Syrian perpetrators on the basis of universal jurisdiction « also send an important message to the victims of crimes committed elsewhere in the world, particularly in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Venezuela».


The courage of the victims to be highlighted

Criminal proceedings initiated against perpetrators of the Syrian regime could not take place without the victims’ participation, whose courage and perseverance constitute examples of humility. According to Anwar Al-Bunni’s words: « I am proud of the courage demonstrated by the victims who take risks in providing their testimonies in these proceedings so that justice can be served, while some of them still have family in Syria».

When he is asked what he would like to tell them, Anwar Al-Bunni answers without hesitation: “I would like to encourage the victims to stay strong. The stronger they will be, the weaker the perpetrators will be ».


Anwar Al-Bunni :

Anwar Al-Bunni was born in Hama in 1959. He is a lawyer and human rights defender. In Syria, he has represented many political prisoners before being incarcerated for his activism. He fled from Syria in 2014 and was granted asylum in Germany where he currently resides. He is at the origin of the prosecution and conviction of Anwar Raslan in this country.

Anwar Al-Bunni has been listed amongst the hundred most influential persons of 2022 by the Time magazine for his fight against impunity of the crimes committed in Syria together with his fellow Syrian lawyer, Mazen Darwish.


Read the article in Arabic here

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