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France to try senior Assad allies for crimes against humanity in Syria

French judges have ordered senior officials of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to stand trial for collusion in crimes against humanity, a first in France, according to court documents seen by AFP Tuesday.

The order, signed last Wednesday, says the officials, all senior advisors to Assad, are charged with complicity in crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

They are Ali Mamlouk, head of the National Security Bureau of the Ba'ath party, Jamil Hassan, former head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, another Air Force intelligence officer.

French prosecutors believe the trio, who are not expected to show up for the trial or have lawyers represent them, are responsible for the deaths of two French-Syrian nationals, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, who were arrested in 2013.

France has issued international arrest warrants for the three.

A preliminary investigation into possible forced disappearances and acts of torture constituting crimes against humanity was launched in 2015 after the family of the two filed a complaint, which widened into a full-blown probe in 2016 and led to international arrest warrants two years later.

Mazzen Dabbagh, pedagogical advisor at the French school in Damascus, and Patrick Dabbagh, who was studying in the literature and humanities faculty at Damascus university, were arrested in November 2013 by officers identifying themselves as members of the Air Force intelligence services.

'Historic decision'

According to Mazzen Dabbagh's brother-in-law Obeida Dabbagh, who was also arrested but released two days later, the two were taken to Mezzeh prison, believed to be the government's main torture centre.

They were not heard from again, and 2018 the government declared them dead, dating Patrick's death to 2014 and his father's to 2017. 

According to witness statements collected by French investigators and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an NGO, they were beaten with iron bars on the soles of their feet, subjected to electric shocks and had their fingernails torn out.

The French investigating judges said it "seems sufficiently established" that they were subjected to torture "so intense that it killed them".

Their house was confiscated and later rented to Hassan for around 30 euros ($32) per year, a fact that makes him an accomplice to war crimes, according to the judges.

Obeida Dabbagh welcomed the trial order, telling AFP it signalled to the Syrian government that "one day the impunity will end".

The International Federation for Human Rights, an NGO, called the indictment "a historic decision".

While this is the first time the French judiciary prosecutes Syrian officials for serious crimes, neighbouring Germany has already brought similar cases to court.

In January of last year a German court sentenced a former Syrian colonel to life in jail for crimes against humanity in the first global trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria.

Anwar Raslan, 58, was found guilty of overseeing the murder of 27 people and the torture of 4,000 others at the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus in 2011 and 2012.


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