“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.
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.”
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.
Following the highly controversial FBI raid on the property of Donald Trump, many US conservatives and members of the Republican Party expressed their indignation on social media, reiterating claims that the former president had been unfairly targeted by the agency for political purposes.And while the White House said it had no idea about the raid, and President Joe Biden refused to comment on what happened at all, many noted law enforcement officers have never visited either Biden’s son Hunter or his partners regarding his purportedly rather dubious international business dealings.But here’s the mystery, why did the FBI need to take the unprecedented step of invading the home of the former president? Reports say the agency took documents and boxes in the raid, likely the same ones the National Archives were looking for that Trump’s team allegedly took from Washington last year. Conservatives, on the other hand, recalled another scandal involving the misuse of confidential data and recklessness by a high-ranking official – Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state – and her infamous lost and leaked emails. Back then, Clinton set up her own email server instead of using the government-issued one because it allegedly offered her complete control over her correspondence. And, not surprisingly, her staffers purportedly deleted some emails that, by law, were supposed to go to the archives.A 2016 FBI inquiry found that while Clinton and her staffers handled sensitive information with “extreme carelessness,” no “reasonable prosecutor” would pursue a criminal case against her.Well, while they’re looking into the former president’s boxes at Mar-a-Lago, we can all hope that maybe the FBI will soon be able to find the time to not only recover Hillary’s lost emails, but also determine the coordinates of Jimmy Hoffa’s burial site – that is if they’re not too busy, of course.
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On Monday, the FBI, for the first time in history, conducted a search of the home of a former president, which took place at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. After the raid, Trump issued a statement denouncing the incident and accusing the US court system of using it as a weapon against him.
Following the highly controversial FBI raid on the property of Donald Trump, many US conservatives and members of the Republican Party expressed their indignation on social media, reiterating claims that the former president had been unfairly targeted by the agency for political purposes.
And while the White House said it had no idea about the raid, and President Joe Biden refused to comment on what happened at all, many noted law enforcement officers have never visited either Biden’s son Hunter or his partners regarding his purportedly rather dubious international business dealings.
But here’s the mystery, why did the FBI need to take the unprecedented step of invading the home of the former president? Reports say the agency took documents and boxes in the raid, likely the same ones the National Archives were looking for that Trump’s team allegedly took from Washington last year.
Conservatives, on the other hand, recalled another scandal involving the misuse of confidential data and recklessness by a high-ranking official – Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state – and her infamous lost and leaked emails. Back then, Clinton set up her own email server instead of using the government-issued one because it allegedly offered her complete control over her correspondence. And, not surprisingly, her staffers purportedly deleted some emails that, by law, were supposed to go to the archives.
A 2016 FBI inquiry found that while Clinton and her staffers handled sensitive information with “extreme carelessness,” no “reasonable prosecutor” would pursue a criminal case against her.
Well, while they’re looking into the former president’s boxes at Mar-a-Lago, we can all hope that maybe the FBI will soon be able to find the time to not only recover Hillary’s lost emails, but also determine the coordinates of Jimmy Hoffa’s burial site – that is if they’re not too busy, of course.
Political meddling is just one of the many headaches that Western automakers endure in China. In July, Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares blamed interference by the Chinese government for the cancellation of the Jeep-maker’s joint venture in the world’s largest auto market. But local car manufacturers may pose a bigger threat to foreign companies as they continue to grab a larger share of the Chinese market.
For decades, the world’s large car manufacturers had to establish onerous joint ventures with local companies to establish a foothold in China. Beijing hoped that this strategy would transform inefficient local partners into industry leaders. But the policy failed – the local companies failed to develop export markets, and even the most patriotic Chinese consumers preferred to buy cars made by Nissan, General Motors and Volkswagen. By 2000, the German company had claimed more than 50% of the Chinese market.
Now, as China relaxes its international joint venture requirements, local competitors are stepping on the gas. In 2021, foreign automakers saw their combined share of the Chinese auto market shrink to 45.6%, and Volkswagen’s market share dropped to 15.5% in the first half of 2022.
Two factors are driving the growing competitiveness of Chinese automakers. The growing pool of domestic technical talent has fed the growth of thriving, privately-owned vehicle manufacturers such as BYD, Geely (which owns Volvo) and Great Wall Motor. China now has a competent group of manufacturers of conventional, mid-range passenger vehicles that can lure foreign designers away from the likes of BMW and the Italian design firm, Pininfarina.
The second factor is Beijing’s push to outpace the West in manufacturing electric vehicles. In 2021, 3.3 million hybrid and battery-powered cars were registered in China, accounting for 16% of total sales. Meanwhile, European consumers bought 1.1 million fewer electric vehicles. McKinsey consultants say that the Chinese companies are able to manufacture safe auto bodies that are lighter than those built by their international rivals. The Chinese also have local access to cutting-edge battery expertise from global leaders such as Amperex Technology, valued at $194 billion.
Tesla is currently the only foreign automaker that has succeeded in claiming a spot on the list of China’s top 10 best-selling electric vehicles. Research firm Redburn estimates that Volkswagen now has only 10.8% of China’s electric vehicle market, although the $89 billion company is planning to launch new models and is investing in research and sales centers.
The increasing competitiveness of Chinese automakers has impacts beyond its borders, as they continue to reinvest profits to take on Western giants in other markets. BYD, the Warren Buffett-backed Chinese automaker that is challenging Tesla for the title of the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, shipped its first lot of 1,000 SUVs – the ATTO 3 – to Australia in August. As more Chinese cars start showing up on Western roads, complaints about political meddling by the Chinese government will surely grow louder.
On a stopover in Mali on his way to Libya, Bakary Jammeh abandoned plans to board a boat to Italy. He had a brother there, but Jammeh became convinced he should put their reunion on hold and turn back in search of gold.
Jammeh had met a Senegalese man with a pocket full of cash and 15 grams of gold. The man was from Kédougou in southeastern Senegal, where villages with long traditions of panning for gold are quietly transforming into sprawling mining towns.
The region along the Gambia river is now awash with prospectors from across west Africa, most were subsistence farmers seeking to hit a nugget of gold and transform their lives. Villages like Bantako, where Jammeh has worked, are now untamed settlements of thousands of people, where markets sell pickaxes, helmets and moonshine alongside everyday necessities.
But riches are rarely found, and Jammeh, originally from the Gambia, is still searching for his fortune 15 years after he first climbed down the crude pits bored into Bantako’s cleared bushland. Most miners can go weeks, or even months, between small discoveries, few leave. A crumb of gold that pays for a few weeks of food keeps them there. It rarely provides a permanent escape from poverty.
His own luck once brought him a find of 85g of gold, which he took straight home to his mother.
Jammeh is “chief” of one of the gold pits, spending the day under stretched tarpaulin, supervising the well-practised routine that sees young men venturing 15 metres deep into the dark pits to hack away at the rock below. The shards of rock are placed into repurposed rice sacks that are pulled up by a team of men operating large pulleys.
Each haul is dumped on top of a pile that towers over the pits. Women are assigned to crush them into smaller pieces, and machines grind them down still further, making it easier to hunt for a glint of gold.
No one takes a salary – a share of the rocks is given to the mining site’s founder, his assistants and the pit’s chief, and the rest is split between the workers, who break them up at home in the hope they can find something to sell.
Jammeh says survival depends on how close-knit a team is – how teammates support one another and share out resources.
“You survive from what you find here. If you have a good leader, every worker here will enjoy [life]. It depends on your heart. We can all suffer here, with no food, no water, nobody to come and give us five coins to buy some water, but we can survive [by sharing] from our pockets,” he says.
Artisanal gold mining in Kédougou has grown rapidly since the early 2000s after the arrival of industrial mining companies, encouraged to invest by the government. It was once a way for people merely to supplement their incomes, but rising gold prices encouraged struggling farmers to base their livelihoods around searching for gold – especially those who came from abroad.
The mines operate almost constantly, from morning to past midnight, with workers often taking two shifts a day. They rarely leave Bantako, going home only for a few weeks for religious festivals or when rain makes work impossible.
“There’s no solidarity here, it’s a selfish place,” says Hawa Cisse, who arrived in the village with her husband in 2012. “If you have money here, life can be good but if you don’t, it’s hard. All you can do is take these stones and try to find some gold, even just a small amount to keep you going.
“But life is hard at home as well so I don’t want to go back. There is nothing you can earn there. Only if I get enough money, I’ll return and start a business.”
Bantako’s sole purpose is always evident from the ubiquitous sound of pickaxes chipping at rocks and the whirr of spinning motor belts from grinding machines. The men who run them sit in a permanent dust cloud inside tin-sheet workshops that also house barrels of hazardous chemicals, such as mercury, used to speed up the process of separating the gold.
According to Paulin Maurice Toupane, a Dakar-based researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, 3.9 tonnes of mercury are used for gold mining in Kédougou each year, contributing to miners’ poor health. Mercury can cause muscle weakness and sight and hearing problems.
Toupane says that while gold brings significant income to the region – 4.2 tonnes, worth 86.6bn CFA francs (£111m) in 2018 – it is also leading to deforestation and soil damage, and puts food security at risk.
“The local community has abandoned agriculture and fishing to be involved in artisanal gold mining, and this is a risk to food security,” he says. “There’s also a link to human trafficking and drug trafficking, and sometimes to violence.”
He says gold mining needs to be regulated and subject to greater government investment.
In the meantime, Jammeh believes the mines will continue to grow, with more people arriving than leaving. Few, he says, are ever satisfied with what they have. “To say I have enough? No. I could have left a long time ago, but still I need more. I have 1,000, I need 2,000. I have 2,000, I need 4,000. That’s human nature. That’s in us,” he says.
“There are plenty of people here who have enough but they don’t have a good vision, to take it to their homeland and build a house. They buy a new motorcycle, a bottle, take a woman home and enjoy their money. Then [the money] is finished. Then they sell the motorcycle, and it’s back to the beginning.”