News | War / Peace - Lebanon / Syria / Iraq “Transitional Justice Is a Long Process”

The conviction of Syrian war criminal Moafak D. raises important questions about pursuing justice for the regime’s victims


A vigil in Idlib commemorating the ninth anniversary of an alleged chemical attack by Syrian government forces in Eastern Ghouta in which over 1,400 civilians allegedly died, 21 October 2022. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The ongoing war in Syria has witnessed countless war crimes, leaving in their wake a trail of victims who continue to pursue justice. Yet since the crimes occurred within Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains in power, and most of the victims are now in exile abroad, legal retribution has proven elusive.

Anwar Al-Bunni is a Syrian human rights lawyer. He has lived in exile in Germany since 2014.

Last week, however, a district court in Berlin issued a life sentence for a man known to the media as Moafak D., a Palestinian Syrian militia member found guilty of committing war crimes in Damascus in 2014. Also known as Abu Akar, Moafak D. worked as a concrete carpenter and had a history of previous convictions before coming to Germany as a refugee in 2018. He was arrested in August 2021, after the Syrian Center for Legal and Research Studies documented testimonies from witnesses represented by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and submitted them to the prosecutor’s office to initiate an investigation.

The life sentence for Moafak D. serves as a reminder of the importance of international justice, the protection of human rights, and ending impunity for war criminals. The trial has brought some measure of justice for the victims of the attack, but most importantly, it raised crucial questions about the current state of the justice system in Syria. As the conflict in this war-ridden country continues, it is clear that the need for justice and accountability is more pressing than ever.

To gain further insight into these issues, Syrian journalist Joud Hasan spoke with Anwar Al-Bunni, a prominent human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, about his thoughts on the recent trial as well as his vision for achieving transitional justice in the country.

What is the significance of Moafak D.’s trial? As a member of the pro-Assad Free Palestine Movement, he was accused of massacres against civilians in the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus. Given that the trial has now concluded with a life sentence, what were the specific charges brought against Moafak D. and how did the court deal with the roles that the militias played during the siege?

The Free Palestine Movement is one of the militias that aided the Syrian regime in suppressing peaceful civilians. The regime recruited members of the movement from within the besieged camps to assist in quelling peaceful protests, leading to numerous arrests and instances of torture against protesters, and ultimately besieging them inside the camp.

Moafak D. is accused of being a member of the armed Free Palestine Movement that fought alongside government forces. Now, what specific charges have been brought against him? The defendant had previously been associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command before joining the Free Palestine Movement. He was heavily involved in the siege of the camp and the capture of numerous activists, as well as participating in campaigns of physical abuse, torture, and sexual assault, particularly those that took place in the Al-Bashir Mosque near the checkpoint at the al-Batikha roundabout.

Moafak D. was accused of committing several crimes, including killing seven civilians in the Yarmouk refugee camp and participating in the siege and starvation of civilians during his time with the Free Palestine Movement, which fought alongside Assad’s forces. These actions are part of a broader pattern of atrocities committed against innocent civilians in the region and have been deemed unacceptable by the court. As a result, Moafak D. was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

What mechanisms did the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research use to collect testimonies and assemble the case presented to the prosecutor? What challenges did you encounter in gathering evidence and testimonies?

The Center prepared the entire file, communicated with witnesses, documented their testimonies, and ensured their credibility. It also collected reports and videos from other human rights organizations, in addition to documenting videos and photos from social media that reported on the crime at the time.

Later, we presented a summary of the testimonies with other evidence to the prosecutor, who in turn opened an investigation. Ensuring the credibility of evidence and documents is essential in the process of building a legal case, so that it can be adopted as reliable evidence by the court against the accused.

The future of justice in Syria depends on the establishment of a transitional justice governing body that goes beyond simply punishing criminals.

There are many challenges we faced during the process of building the case, the first of which was primarily related to the witnesses, who feared for their families and relatives in Syria if their involvement with the court became known. They feared that the Syrian regime could arrest or torture them for that.

The second challenge revolved around the process of searching for open sources and ensuring the credibility of witnesses. Despite these challenges, the witnesses’ response and their belief in achieving justice helped greatly in building a credible and comprehensive case.

This is the third trial of its kind to hold criminals associated with the Syrian regime accountable for crimes committed in Syria since the uprising began in 2011. What is the significance of the Berlin district court hosting this trial? How confident are you in the court’s ability to achieve justice in this case?

Since 2002, the German judiciary has been establishing specialized units to handle cases related to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although both the Koblenz and Frankfurt am Main district courts handled cases related to crimes against humanity, the trial of Moafak D. is considered the first successful war crimes trial.

What is your perspective on the international community’s role, including human rights organizations, in ensuring accountability for war crimes? How do you foresee the future of international justice for war crimes committed in Syria?

The future of justice in Syria depends on the establishment of a transitional justice governing body that goes beyond simply punishing criminals. Transitional justice must also include compensating victims, ensuring their protection and safety, and amending laws to prevent the perpetration of such crimes in the future.

Currently, criminals in Syria enjoy full legal immunity under the Syrian regime, which allows them to continue committing crimes without fear of prosecution. To achieve transitional justice, special courts must be established by a Transitional Justice Authority, which would include both Syrian and foreign judges to ensure impartiality.

The primary goal of transitional justice is to build peace, and part of this work involves creating reconciliation committees and committees to reduce tension and revenge in areas affected by the conflict. Revealing the truth is also an essential component of transitional justice, as it can provide relief and compensation for victims.

While the process of achieving transitional justice is a long one, it sends important messages to both victims and criminals. For victims, it is a message that there is still hope for them to achieve justice after years of suffering. For criminals, it is a warning that there is no longer any safe haven for them and that they will eventually be held accountable for their actions.