From torture charges in Belarus and Syria to alleged genocide in Iraq, plaintiffs in some of the world’s most serious legal cases are increasingly turning to German courts in their quest for justice.
Last week, ten Belarusian dissidents filed a criminal complaint in Karlsruhe against President Alexander Lukashenko and members of his regime for crimes against humanity in a brutal post-election crackdown in 2020.
The accusations of systematic torture are the latest in a series of complaints filed in Germany by NGOs and victim groups on the principle of “universal jurisdiction”.
Introduced in Germany in 2002, the principle allows courts to try people for serious offenses such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, even if they were committed elsewhere.
The cases examined include a complaint by Chechen LGBT activists who accuse Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime of torture and sexual abuse, and a complaint by the NGO Reporters Without Borders against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials responsible for it. murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
– ‘Nowhere to go’ –
Universal jurisdiction also applies in other European countries such as France, Sweden, Belgium and Austria.
However, “all hopes are currently on Germany,” Jeanne Sulzer, head of the International Justice Commission at Amnesty International, told AFP.
Unlike other European countries, German law allows complaints to be filed even if the suspect is not currently in the country, the French lawyer explained.
According to the German government, the ZBKV War Crimes Police Unit conducted 105 investigations between 2017 and 2019 into crimes committed in countries ranging from Syria and Iraq to Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan. South and Mali.
“These procedures are an increasingly important part of international efforts to bring those who commit atrocities to justice,” said Maria Elena Vignoli of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In the absence of a necessary link with Germany, such cases offer “a chance to obtain justice for victims who have nowhere to turn,” she added.
Germany has also played a major role where international justice has failed, such as in the alleged abuses of the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria.
In February, a Koblenz court handed down the world’s first conviction of a former member of the Syrian intelligence services for complicity in crimes against humanity.
A larger case involving a senior Syrian official is expected to result in a verdict in the fall.
Relatives of the victims also hope that a doctor accused of torturing the wounded at a military hospital in Homs will be brought to justice after his arrest in Germany last year.
And in a groundbreaking case that began in Frankfurt last year, an Iraqi former Islamic State fighter is on trial for committing genocide against the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq.
Such cases ensure that countries like Germany, which has hosted 800,000 Syrian refugees over the past decade, “do not become safe havens for perpetrators of human rights violations,” HRW’s Vignoli said.
– Limitations –
Yet legal experts have also warned that universal jurisdiction also has its limits.
“Syria is political safe ground for European prosecutors,” lawyer Patrick Kroker, who represents some of Koblenz’s plaintiffs, told AFP, stressing that the Assad regime has lagged internationally since start of the civil war in 2011.
“The German judicial authorities must apply the same standards to suspects from friendly countries,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, head of the Berlin-based human rights NGO ECCHR.
In the mid-2000s, German courts dismissed a criminal complaint by Kaleck against then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for alleged torture in US military prisons.
Another obstacle is the “difficulty of carrying out on-site investigations,” Amnesty International’s Sulzer said. Instead, investigators are often forced to use satellite images or ask victims to draw the places where they were held.
Cost and time are also factors.
A recent trial of two Rwandans for war crimes lasted four years and cost nearly five million euros, only to have its verdict later declared partially invalid because the evidence adduced was deemed insufficient.
© 2021 AFP