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War Crimes survivors turn to German courts when international tribunals are blocked


German courts and investigators are taking on some of the most difficult criminal cases in the world. These are crimes that happened far outside German borders. That includes the genocide of Iraq's Yazidi minority and torture in Syria's prisons. NPR's Deborah Amos has the story.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: So why is Germany taking on these international cases? It's partly because of history.


ARTHUR GAETH: This is Arthur Gaeth reporting from Nuremberg.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I was an eyewitness.

PATRICK KROKER: I mean, with the Nuremberg trials, basically the idea of international justice was more or less born here, or at least the practice, like the real, first practice of international criminal law happened in Germany.

AMOS: That's German lawyer Patrick Kroker, who says there was also a new legal language allowing crimes against humanity to be taken to court.


GAETH: Justice has been done. This is Arthur Gaeth reporting from Nuremberg.

AMOS: Fast-forward 75 years. Germany is now the go-to place to seek justice for the gravest international crimes, including potential cases in Iran, Saudi Arabia and The Gambia. Kroker represents Syrian victims in a German trial that addresses state-sponsored torture.

KROKER: How does the law actually deal with the most extreme human behavior that you can imagine?

AMOS: The answer in Germany and other European states is a legal principle known as universal jurisdiction. It allows for cases even if the alleged crimes were committed outside German borders. One example in Munich - the world's first trial for genocide committed against the Yazidi minority in Iraq.

KROKER: The latest information I have was from, I think, September 2020, when the federal prosecutor publicly said that there are - I think it was 120 or 130 ongoing investigations. By far, the majority relates to Iraq and Syria.

AMOS: Germany's universal jurisdiction has been on the books for decades, fast-tracked after nearly a million refugees arrived from conflict zones in 2015, among them witnesses, victims, even some suspects. Syrian activists and lawyers brought new expertise. They spoke Arabic, and they knew the inner workings of the Syrian prison system. They teamed with German lawyers to push the high-profile trial of a former Syrian intelligence official charged with crimes against humanity. I went to the place where a chance meeting accelerated the search for Syrian accountability.


AMOS: I'm at the Marienfelde refugee transit camp outside of Berlin, where some refugees spend their first few months when they come to this country. You could say that our story starts moving faster because of what happened here. In 2014, a Syrian human rights lawyer spotted someone he knew from back home - a Syrian intelligence officer who had arrested him. The two men would meet again in a courtroom in Koblenz. The lawyer was Anwar al Bunni.

ANWAR AL BUNNI: Yeah, I saw him. And he smiled as, you know, who are you to speak about me? One time he looked angry - I am the God; who are you? In another situation, all of you will die. He don't realize, really, the real situation.

AMOS: Al Bunni helped identify other survivors willing to testify. German police arrested Anwar Raslan, the former intelligence officer, in Berlin in 2019. The federal prosecutor charged him with 58 counts of murder and 4,000 counts of torture. Raslan has denied those charges, and he has denied that torture took place under his watch. Al Bunni says he and his team are tracking other former Syrian officials in Europe.

AL BUNNI: We have information about more than 100. There is between five or 10 cases we'll open in the next year.

AMOS: Syrians have turned to European courts because the international system is blocked, says Joumana Seif, a Syrian lawyer in Germany. At the U.N., China and Russia vetoed referring Syria to the International Criminal Court.

JOUMANA SEIF: We applaud Germany. That really opened the path of justice for us, for the Syrian, after years of atrocities - everything happened. We can prove it in legal document, and that is very important.

AMOS: But even Germany's system has limitations. Cases take years to build. Plus, there's also a political hitch - Germany's justice ministry can block an investigation if it clashes with foreign policy considerations. But this is a start, says Stephen Rapp, who served as U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues.

STEPHEN RAPP: Yes, it's a good thing. I mean, I would like there to be justice at home, but that's not really possible unless the bad guys have been beaten. It is the only way that we can achieve justice. It sends a signal to the country that you can't sweep justice under the rug.

AMOS: And Germany is sending a signal that more trials are coming.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.