Alex Rowell

Prosecutors close in on Assad

From Lebanon to Leidschendam, it’s been a bad week in court for the Syrian regime

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on January 15, 2015 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad giving an interview to the Eterarna Novina Czech newspaper in Damascus

You wouldn’t know it reading the international news, but it’s been a bad week in court for Bashar al-Assad. From Beirut to The Hague, prosecutors have inched closer to unearthing Syrian regime involvement in two mass-fatality crimes; both of them, incidentally, committed outside Syrian soil.


To take them in order, a week ago today Lebanese Judge Alaa al-Khatib issued a 44-page indictment in the case of the Tripoli mosque bombings of 23 August, 2013, naming two Syrian intelligence officers, Captain Muhammad Ali Ali of the so-called ‘Palestine Branch’ and a lesser official, Nasser Jowban, as the “planners and supervisors” of the twin car bomb attacks. Judge Khatib also initiated an inquiry into the identities of those who gave Ali and Jowban their orders, adding investigations had revealed a “high-level security apparatus” within the Syrian mukhabarat was responsible.


An ‘inquiry’ is a nice idea, but unless you’re prepared to believe Assad was unaware of the activities of his own intelligence agencies (and was equally oblivious to the presence inside Syria of several other key suspects wanted by the Lebanese judiciary, including Arab Democratic Party founder Ali Eid, who died in Tartous in December), then it’s an ‘inquiry’ that’s answered as soon as it’s asked. Which is why Lebanon’s former police chief and justice minister, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, wasted no time after Khatib’s filing in demanding the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador and the lodging of a formal complaint with the UN. Needless to say, nobody (besides Samir Geagea) dared echo his call, which shows the general level of respect among the establishment for its own judiciary, to say nothing of national security and sovereignty.


Meanwhile, 2,600 miles away in The Hague’s suburb of Leidschendam, prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon made a disclosure on Monday rightly described by Judge David Re as “hugely interesting” with regards to the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. While no Syrian officials have been indicted by the Tribunal (despite widespread suspicions that Damascus stood behind the bombing), the prosecution has occasionally hinted in recent months at a Syria angle to their case. On Monday, during a lengthy discussion on the east Lebanese border town of Anjar, prosecutor Nigel Povoas suggested for the first time that this was the town from which “explosives were brought back to Beirut for the construction of the car bomb.”


Why is this significant? Anjar is a small, sleepy settlement known chiefly for three things: its quietly spectacular UNESCO-listed Umayyad ruins; its 20th-century repopulation by Armenian refugees; and its selection by Syrian intelligence as the location of their Lebanese headquarters during their decades of occupation. Mr Povoas was unlikely to have been implying Hariri’s killers obtained the explosives from the local Tashnag Party official. When defense counsel Thomas Hannis, clearly caught off-guard (“this is news to me”), asked Povoas just what the hell he was implying, Povoas turned coy. The court would have to wait until “the evidence develops at the end of the Prosecution case,” at which point “there would be an inference available to the Trial Chamber.”


Well, when you put it like that, there’s an inference available to anyone who understands English, and it goes something like this: one way or another, and whether the judges choose to emphasize it or not, the evidence trail will end up pointing at least partially in the direction of Damascus.


Which is not so unusual these days. The Tripoli and Tribunal examples are two in a growing list of similar cases around the world that are slowly but inexorably building momentum. In July, the family of the late Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, killed in Homs in 2012, filed a lawsuit in Washington accusing the Assad regime of deliberately murdering her and her French photojournalist colleague Remi Ochlik. The family’s lawyers reportedly obtained documents showing that Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamluk (who was also implicated in the Michel Samaha bomb plot) tasked a Brigadier General Rafiq Shahadah to start killing foreign journalists in Syria shortly before Colvin’s and Ochlik’s deaths. (Incidentally, the documents are also said to reveal involvement by Lebanese intelligence officials, who allegedly passed information to their Syrian counterparts about CNN, BBC, and Sunday Times reporters who had crossed the borders.)


The surprise is not that such indictments keep coming out – as former Rwanda and Sierra Leone prosecutor Stephen Rapp told The New Yorker in April, the evidence incriminating Assad is more abundant than anything since Nuremberg. The surprise is rather how little attention and esteem they seem to receive, not just from the media but from policymakers and so-called ‘world leaders’. In the case of Lebanon, this might be written down to indifference to its citizens’ dispensable lives – were it American places of worship or British prime ministers being blown up, one imagines a different attitude would hold. Still, Colvin was American, and Dr. Abbas Khan was British. Is it not about time Western governments grasp that when they entertain leaving Syria in Assad’s hands for the indefinite future (“it doesn’t have to be done on day one, or month one, or whatever”) they are lending legitimacy to a man who will one day be an officially certified war criminal? 

The evidence incriminating Assad has been described by war crimes prosecutor Stephen Rapp as more abundant than anything since Nuremberg (AFP PHOTO/HO/SANA)

As former Rwanda and Sierra Leone prosecutor Stephen Rapp told The New Yorker in April, the evidence incriminating Assad is more abundant than anything since Nuremberg

  • Petrossou

    Assad, just as Hassouna and many others, will have to account for their deeds. The tribunals emphasizing their involvement in crimes are maybe ignored for the time being, but will eventually blow in their faces. It will be done in due time.... Patience is the mother of virtues...

    September 28, 2016

  • Diocletian

    I don't think Assad gives a (...), to be honest

    September 13, 2016