It was a chilly, overcast February day in 2015 when Anwar R. walked into a Berlin police station to file a complaint.

An alleged former Syrian military intelligence officer now living in Germany, Anwar R. believed that Syrian government operatives were following him in Berlin, he said. He feared being kidnapped. At the bottom of his written complaint, he signed his name using his military title, “Colonel.”

The police were unable to find evidence he was being followed. But they did carefully note the slivers of information Anwar R. shared about his alleged intelligence career.

Anwar R., 58, was put on trial in Koblenz, a small city in western Germany, charged with crimes against humanity allegedly committed before his defection in 2012. The trial began in April 2020. He was  charged with 4,000 counts of torture, 58 killings, and for rape and sexual assault committed while he allegedly headed investigations at a military intelligence facility known as “Branch 251” in Damascus.

After more than a year and a half of hearings, including testimony from over 60 witnesses, on January 13 the court found him  guilty of committing crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison.

Anwar R. — Germany’s privacy laws require withholding an accused’s full name — is the most senior alleged former Syrian government official to be tried in Europe for crimes against humanity committed in Syria.

This trial came about thanks to a combination of individual initiative, dogged group efforts, and innovative technology —  as well as sometimes chance encounters and human foibles.

A second trial, of a Syrian doctor accused of torturing prisoners, began in Frankfurt on January 19.

The stage for the Koblenz trial was set long before Anwar R.’s arrest in 2019.

German authorities have been investigating crimes in Syria since the uprising in the country began in 2011. In 2015, large numbers of Syrians fleeing the conflict arrived in Germany. While they were seeking a fresh start in a new home, their personal histories from war-torn Syria could not be erased. This meant that previously unavailable victims, witnesses, material evidence — and even some suspects — came within reach of European judicial authorities.

Another essential element: Germany’s laws allow trying serious crimes there, even without a German connection to the crimes — a principle known as “universal jurisdiction.”

This trial was unique in other ways, too.

Roughly a decade after the war began, fighting in Syria has nearly stopped. President Bashar al-Assad and other government officials have tightened their grip on power and recaptured most of the country.

Accordingly, when it comes to criminal responsibility for crimes in Syria, the idea of fair trials within the country is inconceivable. At the same time, attempts to involve the International Criminal Court or ad-hoc international tribunals have been thwarted. With zero accountability, grave abuses by all sides continue unimpeded.

Meaningful justice in Syria — for now, at least — is not possible. So why does a case against an alleged mid-level intelligence operative thousands of miles away from where the atrocities took place even matter?

The Witness

Amer Matar, a Syrian journalist and documentary filmmaker, walked into the courtroom in Koblenz to confront the man who he alleges had tortured him a decade earlier. It was April 7, 2021 — day 67 of the hearings against Anwar R.

Matar, 34 at the time, sat at a table facing the five judges. Anwar R. was to his right at another table.

He told Human Rights Watch that he had long repressed what he said happened to him at Branch 251. But in court, as he prepared to address the judges, the details of the room — the tall windows, the clear COVID-19 dividers between desks, the wall of books behind the judges —  faded. “I was back in jail in the prison cell and Syria,” he told us.

When anti-government protests erupted in Damascus, Syria’s capital, in early 2011, Matar threw himself into the fray, he testified in court, reporting on the demonstrations and discussing them on television.

Then, on March 28 that year, security forces raided his home, he told the court. In that moment, Matar thought his life was over, he said. Syrian security forces hit him, insulted him, and searched everything. He was arrested, and his laptop and other equipment were seized and searched, he testified. Then he said he was taken to Branch 251.

On his laptop, the security services found a photo he had taken of Anwar R., Matar testified.

At that point, Matar said he knew Anwar R. by sight, but not by name.

In February 2011, Anwar R. was among the officers who accosted two of Matar’s friends, he said in court. They had planned to protest near Parliament in Damascus, he said. When some of the officers started beating up his friends, Matar said, he walked up to Anwar R., who was standing by, and asked him to intervene. Instead, Anwar R. hit him, too, he said.

Not long after this alleged run-in, Matar said he spotted Anwar R. at the funeral of the Syrian documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay, a well-known critic of the Syrian government. Matar took a photograph of Anwar R., he said, saving it to his computer with the caption “the evil one.”

Matar said that at Branch 251 he had been “degraded, blindfolded and handcuffed and beaten by multiple people.”

At first, interrogators beat him with a cable, he said in court. Later, they used a whip. He begged them to stop. At one point, he testified that interrogators ordered him to stand up, but he couldn’t.

All the while, he heard the screams of detainees in other interrogation rooms.

Matar was held in several cells at Branch 251, he told the court, some with 20 or 30 people.

There was no space. Sometimes people had to stand up so that others could sleep, Matar testified. Sometimes guards wouldn’t let them fall asleep. He could see people in other cells handcuffed to bars across the windows, he said, which prevented them from sitting down.

At one point he said he was blindfolded, and an interrogator asked him, “Whose photo is on your laptop?” Matar said he answered, “I don’t know.”

The man took off Matar’s blindfold, called him a “son of a bitch” and hit him in the face. It was Anwar R., Matar told the court.

Anwar R. put Matar’s blindfold back on, he said. At that point, Matar said, he feared for his life.

But he survived.

The Accused

The war in Syria has killed at least 350,000 people, forced over 12 million to abandon their homes, and left more than 12.3 million Syrians hungry. While parties on all sides to the conflict have committed serious crimes, Syrian government and pro-government forces account for the majority of atrocities committed against civilians.

There is the violence above ground: the bombing of hospitals, markets, and schools, as well as the deadly chemical weapons attacks against civilians, including children. But there is also the violence that is not readily visible: the hidden prisons and torture centers, into which tens of thousands of Syrians have disappeared — sometimes to re-emerge years later, sometimes never to be heard from again.

Branch 251 was one of 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies that Human Rights Watch identified and located in 2011 and 2012, when Anwar R. was in Syria.

Anwar R. is accused of playing a role in this clandestine part of Assad’s machinery of war and repression. The court in Koblenz heard that he joined the Syrian secret service in 1993. From 2006 to 2008 he worked in intelligence before being transferred to Branch 251. Judges were told by witnesses that by January 2011, he was the head of interrogation at the detention center.

He fled Syria in 2012 following a massacre in his hometown of Houla, in Homs governorate, and after a grandchild was killed, the court heard.

At his trial, Anwar R. never took the stand. But on May 18, 2020, the fifth day of hearings, his lawyers read a prepared statement to the court. “I never had anything to do with torture,” Anwar R.’s lawyer read.

The Lawyer

The Syrian activist and lawyer Anwar al-Bunni had his own insider information about torture in Syria’s intelligence facilities, and he says he knew about Anwar R. long before the Koblenz trial, when he testified in court on June 4 and 5, 2020.

In 2006 in Damascus, al-Bunni was arrested. Men pulled him into a van, and some beat him.  Although he never hit al-Bunni, Anwar R. was one of these men, he said in court.

After this arrest in 2006, al-Bunni went to prison for five years, until May 2011. He was tortured while in detention, he told Human Rights Watch.

His family fled Syria and were able to go to Germany. Shortly thereafter, al-Bunni and his wife were shopping near the Berlin Marienfelde refugee center where they lived, when al-Bunni spotted someone he thought looked very familiar but couldn’t place, he said.

It was only later, when a friend told him that Anwar R. was also staying in Marienfelde, that al-Bunni made the connection. It was Anwar R., he told Human Rights Watch. Al-Bunni had continued his activism in Germany. When asked about seeing Anwar R. in Berlin, al-Bunni said: “This is not a personal issue. It is not about if this person detained me or not, hit me or not. It is about the regime and what it does.”

“The road to Damascus has to be built,” said James Rodehaver, a former coordinator with the UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry who now works in Myanmar. The trail of Anwar R. is, Rodehaver said, “the first paving stone” for rebuilding justice in Syria.

Additionally, the trial sends a message to other officials and agents of the Syrian government. “Even if they go to the end of the world, someone will get them,” said a Syrian refugee who owns a Syrian restaurant near the Koblenz courthouse. “I am very happy about that.”

Amy Braunschweiger is a longtime journalist and author who is the senior digital communications manager at Human Rights Watch.