Verdict based on principle of universal jurisdiction

The historic ruling of a German court in a trial about state-sponsored torture in Syria is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Statue of Lady Justice
Statue of Lady Justice dpa

At the beginning of 2022 the Koblenz Higher Regional Court in western Germany delivered a judgment that received worldwide attention. The court sentenced the Syrian Anwar R to life in prison for crimes against humanity. This historic verdict concluded what according to Germany’s Office of the Federal Prosecutor was the world’s first criminal trial for state-sponsored torture in Syria. The ruling was based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Here we will explain what is behind this and the legal bases upon which a German court was able to judge the defendant.

What was this concrete case about?

The State Security Senate of the Higher Regional Court judged that in 2011 and 2012, during the initial phase of the Syrian civil war, Anwar R committed crimes against humanity. The 58-year-old was responsible for the torture of at least 4,000 people as head of interrogation in a general security service prison in the Syrian capital Damascus.

What does the principle of universal jurisdiction involve?

Anchored in international criminal law, this principle allows serious crimes to be pursued worldwide irrespective of the citizenship of the perpetrator or the victim and irrespective of where the crime was committed. This means judgments can also be made before German courts on possible war crimes by foreigners in other countries. “It is based on the principle that the prosecution of core crimes under international law is in the interest of humanity as a whole,” is how Koblenz Higher Regional Court explained the principle of universal jurisdiction. The underlying idea is that war criminals should not be able to find safe refuge anywhere, even abroad.

Which criminal offences can be prosecuted?

Since its introduction in Germany in 2002, the International Criminal Code (VStGB) defines genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as criminal offences, among others. The Office of the Federal Prosecutor is responsible for investigating such offences as Germany’s highest law enforcement agency. At an international level, the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands has been responsible for pursuing especially serious crimes since 2003.

How does the Federal Government assess the judgment on state-sponsored torture in Syria?

Federal Justice Minister Marco Buschmann referred to the “pioneering work” of the German judiciary. He said the judgment reached far beyond Germany. “Crimes against humanity must not remain unpunished. No matter where they are committed, no matter by whom.  That is the profound and powerful principle on which international criminal law is based,” said Buschmann. “Appalling injustices” were committed in the “torture prisons of the Assad regime”. He added: “Answering this in the language of the law is the responsibility of the whole international community.” He said he would welcome it if other constitutional states followed this example. “Anyone who has committed crimes against humanity must not be allowed to find safe refuge anywhere,” explained the minister.