Ten years on, victims still hope a landmark trial will open in Switzerland against former Syrian vice-president Rifaat al-Assad

19.12.2023 ( Last modified: 18.12.2023 )

Ten years ago, to the day, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) of Switzerland, opened a criminal investigation for war crimes against former Syrian Vice-President Rifaat al-Assad. A criminal complaint had been filed by TRIAL International just days prior, while Mr. al-Assad was present in Switzerland. Throughout these years, TRIAL International has continued to support the plaintiffs in their quest for justice.

Screenshot video_PG Hotel Rifaat holding picture
Philip Grant, Director of TRIAL International, sitting on the same sofa in a hotel in Geneva, where Rifaat al-Assad was spotted in December 2013, holding the picture that had been made of Mr. al-Assad ten years ago.

Since December 2013, Rifaat al-Assad has been under investigation for his alleged role in the massacres committed in the Syrian city of Hama in February 1982 by the “Defense brigades”, that he commanded at the time. Alongside the regular Syrian army, Rifaat al-Assad’s troops are suspected of having participated in the three-week siege and assault of the city that caused between 10’000 and 40’000 deaths, mainly civilians. Executions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture were committed on an unimaginable scale. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed during the attack.

The criminal investigation against the “Butcher of Hama” is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows States to investigate and prosecute suspects of international crimes, irrespective of where they were committed and the nationality of either suspects or victims.

The OAG has only once briefly interrogated Mr. al-Assad in September 2015, when he was again present in Switzerland. After more than 3 decades in exile, mostly in France, Rifaat al-Assad fled back to Syria in October 2021 and to the protection of his nephew, Bashar al-Assad. An international arrest warrant issued by the Swiss prosecuting authorities against Rifaat al-Assad was only made public on 16 August 2023.

After so many years and a winding procedure, the victims are still waiting for light to be shed on the crimes committed in Hama by the Syrian regime against its own people. The massacre that took place in 1982 is engraved in people’s mind as a landmark moment in the recent history of Syria. The lack of accountability for past crimes has fueled the brutality of the al-Assad regime, whose violence since the beginning of the revolution has already been qualified as crimes against humanity by a German court.

The three plaintiffs in the case eagerly await the filing of an indictment and the opening of a trial. TRIAL International urges the Swiss authorities to expedite the judicial process, as justice delayed is justice denied. With Mr. al-Assad now 85, any further delay risks depriving the victims of their right to justice.

The prospective trial of Mr. al-Assad in Switzerland would be groundbreaking. Rarely are such high-ranking officials tried for international crimes based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. It would send a powerful message that those in power in Syria, even when their name is al-Assad, are not beyond the reach of justice.

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