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Jailing of Syrian intelligence officer ‘step towards justice’, say former detainees | Syria

For survivors of Syria’s brutal detention system, the landmark conviction of a former Syrian intelligence official for crimes against humanity represents a vital step towards justice.

“We initially hoped for a trial at the international criminal court, but nevertheless this is an important step,” said Hussein Ghrer, one of 24 former detainees of Branch 251, a military intelligence unit with its own prison in Damascus, who testified against Anwar Raslan.

“Finally, we have an official conviction saying that these individuals have committed crimes in the context of mass attacks on Syrians and systematic crimes against humanity. I believe this is the most important thing to build on in future.”

Raslan, a former colonel with the Syrian intelligence service, was convicted by a court in Koblenz of crimes against humanity, including 27 counts of murder. He was accused by prosecutors of overseeing abuse, sexual assault and the torture of more than 4,000 people at Branch 251. The site became synonymous with brutal abuse by security officials after the government of Bashar al-Assad used maximum force to quell protests.

Raslan is the highest-ranking Syrian official to stand trial for atrocities committed in Syria. He was charged under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of serious crimes against international law, such as genocide and torture, in one country even if they happened elsewhere.

A tearful woman in a shawl and headscarf  holds photos of two men with Arabic script underneath
A woman with a picture of relatives who died in Syria, outside the court in Koblenz after the verdict against Anwar Raslan. One survivor said: ‘I want him to think about all the people who testified against him in court, all the people that he tortured.’ Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

At least 100,000 people are recorded as detained or missing in Syria, the United Nations said in 2019, although activists say the true number may be far higher. The Syrian Network for Human Rights puts the figure at about 150,000 and estimates that nearly 15,000 people have died from torture in Syria since March 2011.

Human Rights Watch described this as “violence that is not readily visible: the hidden prisons and torture centres into which tens of thousands of Syrians have disappeared – sometimes to re-emerge years later, sometimes never to be heard from again”.

Raslan is the second person to be convicted in Koblenz for activities related to Branch 251, after the conviction last year of Eyad al-Gharib, a former intelligence officer, for his role in transporting detainees to the prison. The trial represented the first opportunity of its kind for former detainees such as Ghrer to testify about their treatment in detention. “I was interrogated and beaten all over my body, but the worst was seeing others being brutally tortured, because you don’t know what could happen next,” he said.

Ghrer also described the experience of seeing Raslan – the man who directed his torture and that of his fellow detainees – in the dock, a decade after he was arrested in Damascus for filming protests. “We were powerless, we were mistreated. [Raslan] was not mistreated, and he has a right to lawyers and translators,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, of course,” Ghrer added, “but to be in a place where we are holding him accountable, it feels good. Finally, we were able to pursue a kind of justice.

“I don’t believe in full justice – I believe in a journey towards justice and this is the first step.”

In a statement read out by his defence lawyers during the hearing, Raslan claimed he was not associated with torture and denied that it had taken place under his watch. Martin Holsky, a chief inspector with the Baden-Württemberg state police, later testified that Raslan told him: “With this many interrogations in one day, you can’t always be polite. With armed groups, you sometimes need to be stricter.”

“He doesn’t believe he did anything wrong,” said Ghrer. “I was in court many times, watching his expressions. He looks at us with disgust. As if he doesn’t believe he’s being held accountable, or he believes he’s not like other members of the regime.”

Other survivors agreed. “In my testimony, I said that I wish for him to spend a lot of time in prison so he could think about all of us,” said Ruham Hawash, who was detained at Branch 251 in 2012.

“I want him to think about all the people who testified against him in court, all the people that he tortured and whose torture he was responsible for during his career. I think with enough time he will not be able to run from these thoughts.”

A woman arranges framed photos of people, including young children. on the pavement outside the court
Wafa Mustafa, a Syrian campaigner, sets out pictures of victims of the Assad regime outside the court where the trial was taking place in Koblenz. Mustafa was part of the resistance against the Syrian regime and fled to Germany in 2016. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty

Hawash said the trial in Koblenz represented an opportunity for justice she had not expected. “I was tortured at Branch 251. I felt like, at that time, a part of my dignity was taken from me. So another thing about this trial is that I feel like, for me personally, I’m getting some of my dignity back that I lost in 2012,” she said.

She also pointed to the body of evidence used to convicted Raslan, including thousands of photos of detainees tortured to death in prison, provided by a Syrian military photographer known only as Caesar. “This verdict is a tool to demonstrate that this regime uses systematic torture,” she said.

The verdict carries wider implications for countries across Europe, including the UK and Denmark, where governments have voiced proposals to return Syrian asylum seekers. “I see this trial not just as justice but as a sign to the world that this regime uses torture systematically – which also means we can’t send people back,” she said.

Raslan’s conviction also comes amid efforts by some governments across the Middle East to re-establish relations with Assad’s government, despite previously backing his overthrow. The verdict in Koblenz, as well as multiple ongoing trials against former regime officials in Germany and elsewhere across Europe, present opportunities for accountability alongside the risk that such trials might dissuade higher-level officials from within the Syrian regime from providing information, or being brought to justice outside Syria.

“Other perpetrators might see that they can’t get away with their crimes, but it also means they won’t leave Syria, or people who worked for the regime might not leave their posts,” said Hawash. “It’s complicated.”

Yet for campaigners and the families of thousands of those still missing inside Syrian detention centres, Raslan’s conviction represents an important step to providing vital information about their fate.

“There are still more than 100,000 people in prison – we have no idea where they are and if they’re alive or dead. Justice cannot truly come while there are still people in jail,” said Lamis al-Khateeb, a member of the group Families for Freedom, who gathered outside court to witness Raslan’s sentencing.

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Amidst the Technological Conflict with the US, China Intensifies Efforts in AI and Microchip Development

China is actively pursuing the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductors to secure its position in the global race for technological superiority, which has become a significant source of geopolitical tension with the United States.

Recognizing the critical importance of these two fields for China’s economic and military future, Beijing is intensifying its efforts to find domestic solutions. This comes at a time when the U.S. is aiming to restrict Chinese access to cutting-edge technology necessary for high-tech microchip production. Through substantial investments and President Xi Jinping’s call for “self-sufficiency” in science and technology, China’s strategy focuses on fostering a collaborative environment that accelerates development and narrows the gap between China and the West.

During a speech at the ZGC Forum, Mei Jianping of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology acknowledged the existing gap in various areas crucial to AI progress compared to developed countries. The technology fair, held in Beijing’s Zhongguancun district, a prominent tech hub, prominently features AI as one of its hot topics. Mei emphasized the need for an exchange of ideas and collective contributions to position China’s next generation of AI and its scientific and technological industry on par with the rest of the world.

The ZGC Forum encompasses various events related to sustainable development, financial technology, smart cities, identifying transformative young entrepreneurs, and the significance of innovation in state-run companies.

Dr. Yu Yue, from the Strategic Alliance for Technological Innovation in the Chinese Artificial Intelligence Industry, outlined China’s plan to boost technological growth through the establishment of a nationwide network of AI developers. The objective is to ensure high-quality development at every computing center and promote extensive collaboration, constructing a comprehensive network that facilitates the new model of AI technology development.

To inaugurate the ZGC Forum, President Xi sent a letter emphasizing the need for greater global collaboration without explicitly mentioning U.S. restrictions. Xi highlighted the importance of international cooperation, openness, and knowledge sharing to address common development challenges amid the ongoing scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation.

Renowned figures such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also participated in the forum, expressing their belief that China has the potential to contribute uniquely by sharing its technologies and experiences.

The forum takes place against the backdrop of strained U.S.-China relations due to repeated disputes over Taiwan and the U.S. shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon that violated American airspace without permission. However, recent weeks have shown some signs of thawing, as mentioned by U.S. President Joe Biden during the G7 summit in Hiroshima.

Another positive development occurred with a meeting between China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, and his U.S. counterpart, Gina Raimondo. Described as “candid” by the American government, the talks addressed the impacts each country’s actions have had on the microchip sector. Wang expressed concerns regarding the U.S.’s China policies related to the economy, trade, semiconductors, export control, and outbound investments review. Raimondo, in turn, voiced her concerns about China’s increasing restrictions on U.S. interests, such as the recent ban on the use of Micron’s semiconductors in critical infrastructure projects.

China’s actions can be partially seen as a response to Washington’s decision in October to limit exports of microchip-manufacturing technologies to China, aiming to prevent China from developing cutting-edge weapons. These microprocessors are essential for AI and the advancement of other state-of-the-art technologies like smart electric vehicles. Taiwan plays a significant role in this standoff as it produces 60% of global microchips and 90% of the most advanced variants. The country’s capability to produce three-nanometer chips surpasses China’s, making it a crucial factor in this landscape. In March, Xi directly accused the U.S. of leading a Western strategy of “containment, encirclement, and suppression” against China to hinder its development.

Despite the geopolitical tensions, the atmosphere at the ZGC Forum was marked by confidence in the future. Huo Jiaqi, a 23-year-old postgraduate student from the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, expressed optimism, stating that China has overcome similar challenges in its history. The forum showcased a wide range of technological advancements, including smart humanoid robots, police robots, drones, and metaverse avatars parading on LED screens.

In summary, China is determined not to be left behind in the global race for technological superiority in AI and semiconductors. The country recognizes the significance of these fields for its economic and military progress. With substantial investments and a focus on fostering collaboration and development, China aims to bridge the gap with developed countries. The ZGC Forum serves as a platform for discussing and showcasing advancements in various technological areas. Despite the ongoing tensions with the U.S., there are indications of a potential thaw in relations, as recent meetings between Chinese and U.S. officials demonstrate. The forum reflects China’s commitment to achieving self-sufficiency and becoming a key player in the global technology landscape.

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South African president appoints judge to oversee weapons-for-Russia inquiry | International

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed a judge to oversee an inquiry into allegations that the country supplied arms to Russia on a ship that docked secretly at a naval base in December.

The allegations were made this month by the United States’ ambassador to South Africa, who said he was sure that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto the Russian-flagged cargo ship Lady R when it docked at the Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town late last year.

Ambassador Reuben Brigety indicated that the U.S. had intelligence to sustain the allegation and he said he would bet his life on the accuracy of his claim that weapons were loaded onto the ship.

The Lady R container-carrying ship is under U.S. sanctions for being tied to a company that has transported weapons to aid the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

South Africa has denied there was any government-sanctioned deal to provide weapons to Russia, although it hasn’t categorically ruled out that an unofficial transaction took place involving another entity.

Judge P.M.D. Mojapelo, a former Supreme Court of Appeal judge, was appointed chairman of a three-member panel to investigate the incident, Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement on Sunday. A lawyer and a former minister of justice were also appointed.

The panel has six weeks to complete its investigations and another two weeks from then to provide a report to Ramaphosa, the president’s office said.

“The panel has been tasked to establish persons who were aware of the cargo ship’s arrival, and, if any, the contents to be off-loaded or loaded, the departure and destination of the cargo,” Ramaphosa’s office said.

Ramaphosa ordered the inquiry because of the seriousness of the allegations and “the impact of this matter on South Africa’s international relations,” his office said.

South Africa could be in breach of international law and its own laws regarding weapons sales if it is found to have supplied arms to Moscow for the war in Ukraine.

The incident has strained relations between the U.S. and South Africa, which is Africa’s most developed economy and a key Western partner on the continent.

South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise has said the Lady R was visiting to deliver an ammunition shipment from Russia that was ordered by South Africa in 2018 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Modise has refused to release cargo documents related to the visit by the Lady R after requests by opposition parties, saying they are classified. She said she will release them to the inquiry, though.

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Sweden to Implement Permanent Residency Tests Commencing in 2027

A recent study conducted by the Swedish National Agency for Education has revealed significant disparities in the quality of teaching among different providers of Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) courses. Out of the 30 providers investigated, only six were found to offer good quality teaching, while the remaining 24 exhibited various issues, with three of them displaying serious deficiencies.

The report examined both distance learning and on-site classes, highlighting a particular concern regarding the lack of opportunities for students in distance classes to practice speaking Swedish. Helén Ängmo, the director-general of the agency, emphasized that insufficient opportunities for students to speak Swedish raise barriers for their integration into society and the labor market. Participation in dialogue, whether with healthcare providers, government agencies, or educational institutions, is crucial, and it is troubling to observe persistent quality issues in SFI, especially in relation to distance classes and their level of individual adaptation.

Although online classes offer greater flexibility for teachers to tailor course materials to students’ abilities, they generally provide fewer opportunities for varied interaction, as students are often required to work independently at home with limited chances for practicing spoken and written skills with their peers.

Another prevalent issue identified was the lack of opportunities for students to practice Swedish in everyday situations. Many students expressed their desire to learn conversational skills for interacting with people and engaging with government agencies and authorities.

Some students even reported being unable to communicate with supermarket staff despite having studied SFI for a considerable period of time. Others mentioned having learned how to communicate with staff at their children’s schools or preschools from their own children, as these topics were neglected in their SFI studies.

Furthermore, students with a higher proficiency in Swedish often faced a lack of challenge in class, and their influence on teaching methods was limited. However, providers that more frequently tailored classes to students’ interests, experiences, and goals were more successful in incorporating examples from their daily lives.

For instance, healthcare workers were given the opportunity to practice language used in the healthcare sector, while others received assistance in language skills necessary for picking up their children from school or completing various forms.

Teachers’ expectations and the support they received played a significant role in determining the quality of teaching. In classes where teachers felt there was insufficient assistance from school leadership, limited collaboration with their peers, or inadequate time for teacher-student contact in online courses, the quality of teaching tended to be poorer.

To address these issues, the agency emphasized the need for better support for teachers in developing and adapting their teaching methods to suit individual students. Only 55% of SFI teachers in the 2022/23 academic year possessed the necessary qualifications to teach SFI at the adult level, a figure deemed insufficient by the agency.

While acknowledging the potential benefits of online classes, the agency emphasized the importance of their further development to ensure that students in such programs have an equal opportunity to develop their Swedish communication skills compared to students attending in-person classes.

Online classes provide flexibility for individuals to combine their studies with work or parental responsibilities, but equal access to language development should be ensured.

The agency underscored the significance of SFI for Sweden as a country, emphasizing its role in providing individuals who do not have Swedish as their native language with the opportunity to learn Swedish and effectively communicate in everyday life, the community, the workplace, and further studies. Municipal-run Swedish for Immigrants classes for adults were highlighted as playing a vital role in this regard.

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