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

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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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‘We’re next’: Prisoner’s secret filming appears to show torture in Cairo police station | Global development

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A video obtained by the Guardian appearing to show Egyptian police torturing detainees in a Cairo police station confirms the extent to which officers appear able to inflict violence on civilians with near total impunity, according to human rights groups.

The video, covertly recorded by a detainee through a cell door, appears to show two inmates hung in stress positions. The detainees are naked from the waist up and suspended from a metal grate by their arms, which are fastened behind their backs.

“Watch how they are torturing us and our colleagues. They came and told us we’re next,” one detainee says. Addressing the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi he says: “Mister president, we want to ask why the police in el-Salam First police station are doing this to us.”

The video is one of two believed to have been recorded in November last year inside a police station in the working-class el-Salam neighbourhood of northern Cairo.

In the second, which the Guardian is not showing to protect detainees’ identities, inmates in an overcrowded cell line up to display injuries they say were inflicted by police officials and investigators, including open wounds on their heads and bruises across their chests and backs. “They are hitting us with sticks,” they say.

Humans rights groups said the videos are visual evidence of widespread abuses that they have been documenting in police stations and detention centres across Egypt for the past decade.

The Guardian has taken steps to verify the videos where possible, including requesting an assessment of the videos by a trusted expert. Detainees shown in the video also name multiple police officers who are listed in news reports as serving at el-Salam First police station.

The videos surfaced nearly 12 years after the death of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old civilian, in police custody in Alexandria in June 2010. Said’s death proved to be a watershed, inciting public anger at the impunity of security forces and their treatment of Egyptian citizens, and sparking the protests that began on 25 January 2011, a national day traditionally honouring the police force. The 18 days of nationwide protests that followed ended the decades-long reign of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, where abuses by security bodies were widespread.

Yet 11 years after the uprising, testimonies and evidence collected by rights groups allege that abuses by Egypt’s security services are once again out of control. Since coming to power after a military coup in 2013, Sisi has presided over a renewed era of impunity for security forces, down to the lowest ranks of the police.

Despite a clear prohibition on all forms of torture in Egypt’s 2014 constitution, trials and convictions of security officials for torture or deaths in custody remain extremely rare, while abuses are regularly documented. Domestic organisations monitoring torture and abuse in detention now struggle to continue their work, amid a prolonged crackdown on civil society activity.

“Police stations are even worse than prisons,” said Aly Hussin Mahdy, a former detainee and now exiled activist, describing his experience in detention. “The revolution happened because of this, and 11 years later we see it happening again.”

Screengrab from the prisoner-shot video showing injuries to his fellow detainees.
Screengrab from the prisoner-shot video in an Egyptian police station showing injuries to his fellow detainees.

Amr Magdi, an expert on Egypt at Human Rights Watch who reviewed the videos for the Guardian, said that the detainees’ injuries and the use of stress positions are consistent with documented examples of torture in detention centres. “They all show signs of severe beatings, and they mention batons and wooden sticks which are routine torture tools,” he said. “These videos show the sad and horrifying reality of Egypt’s detention system as the police enjoy near-absolute impunity.”

Magdi said that abuse was common in police stations, where mistreatment can occur away from public view. “We know that most physical torture happens in police stations and secret NSA [National Security Agency] detention centres during the initial days or weeks after arrest, and before detainees are taken to larger prisons,” he said.

Human Rights Watch detailed the use of stress positions and the systemic use of torture in police stations in a report in 2017, describing the issue as a potential crime against humanity. The report cites 19 individual cases where detainees “were tortured in police stations and national security offices across the country, including Alexandria, Aswan, and cities in the Nile delta”. For some, torture occurred in multiple places of detention.

“The basic tools of torture were electrocution and stress positions, accompanied by beatings with fists, wooden sticks or metal bars,” they said.

Police and NSA officers “handcuffed suspects’ arms behind their back, pulled up their arms, placed their handcuffs over the top edge of a door, and hung them above the floor, an unnatural position that caused excruciating pain in the back and shoulders, sometimes dislocating them. Some officers pulled suspects’ legs downward to increase the pain,” they said. They added that detainees were often left in stress positions for long periods.

Rights groups have also documented frequent deaths among those detained. In 2015, Amnesty International provided evidence of at least nine deaths in custody in the Mattareya police station in Cairo. Three years later, it demanded an investigation after the suspicious death of 43-year-old Gamal Aweida in custody in the Mansheyet Nasir district of the city.

In rare cases of accountability, a small number of police officers have been sentenced for shooting civilians in public over the past decade. In 2016, Sisi publicly instructed the interior ministry to prevent abuses by police following an outcry after an officer shot dead a taxi driver. Last year, a police officer from the el-Salam Second police station was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour for shooting a civilian in the chest and wounding another.

Yet convictions for deaths in custody are rare, even for low-ranking police officers. Four noncommissioned officers were imprisoned by prosecutors in 2020 for torturing a man to death at a police station in Giza. In December 2020, nine police officers were sentenced to three years in prison for beating a street vendor to death in custody in Cairo in 2016.

The Egypt State Information Service, interior ministry, and current and former officials at the interior ministry either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by the Guardian to discuss video evidence of abuses and the issue of torture in police custody.

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EU not evacuating staff from Kyiv

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The EU will not evacuate its staff from Kyiv, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said on Monday before the meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers, who will have a video conference with US secretary of state Anthony Blinken. “Blinken will explain the reasons for this announcement, we are not going to do the same thing, […], we don’t have to dramatise, the negotiations are going on,” Borrell said.

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‘I’ve already sold my daughters; now, my kidney’: winter in Afghanistan’s slums | Global development

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The temperature is dropping to below zero in western Afghanistan and Delaram Rahmati is struggling to find food for her eight children.

Since leaving the family home in the country’s Badghis province four years ago, the Rahmatis have been living in a mud hut with a plastic roof in one of Herat city’s slums. Drought made their village unliveable and the land unworkable. Like an estimated 3.5 million Afghans who have been forced to leave their homes, the Rahmatis now live in a neighbourhood for internally displaced people (IDP).

There are no jobs. But the 50-year-old has hospital fees to pay for two of her sons, one of whom is paralysed and the other who has mental illness, as well as medicine for her husband.

“I was forced to sell two of my daughters, an eight- and six-year-old,” she says. Rahmati says she sold her daughters a few months ago for 100,000 afghani each (roughly £700), to families she doesn’t know. Her daughters will stay with her until they reach puberty and then be handed over to strangers.

It is not uncommon in Afghanistan to arrange the sale of a daughter into a future marriage but raise her at home until it is time for her to leave. However, as the country’s economic crisis deepens, families are reporting that they are handing children over at an increasingly young age because they cannot afford to feed them.

Delaram Rahmati
Delaram Rahmati, who sold a kidney to support her family. Photograph: Rukhshana Media

Yet, selling her daughters’ future was not the only agonising decision Rahmati was forced to make. “Because of debt and hunger I was forced to sell my kidney,” she tells Rukhshana Media from outside her home in the Herat slum.

Afghanistan is on the brink of “a humanitarian crisis and economic collapse”, according to the UN. The agency’s ambassador to Afghanistan has said it is “experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis of its contemporary history”. Drought, Covid-19 and the economic sanctions imposed after the Taliban seized power in August 2021 have had catastrophic consequences on the economy. Dramatic rises in inflation have resulted in soaring food prices.

The kidney trade has been growing in Afghanistan for some time. But since the Taliban took power, the price and conditions under which the illegal organ trade takes place has changed. The price of a kidney, which once ranged from $3,500 to $4,000 (£2,600 to £3,000), has dropped to less than $1,500 (£1,100). But the number of volunteers keeps rising.

Rahmati sold her right kidney for 150,000 afghani (£1,000). But her recovery from the operation has not been good and now, like her husband, she is also sick, with no money left to visit a doctor.

More than half of the country’s estimated 40 million population face “extreme levels of hunger, and nearly 9 million of them are at risk of famine”, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. For a growing number of Afghans, selling a kidney is their only way to get money to eat.

Herat city’s slums
Since leaving the family home in Badghis province four years ago, the Rahmatis have been living in a mud hut with a plastic roof in a camp in Herat city. Photograph: Rukhshana Media

“It has been months since we last ate rice. We hardly find bread and tea. Three nights a week, we can’t afford to eat dinner,” says Salahuddin Taheri, who lives in the same slum as the Rahmati family.

Taheri, a 27-year-old father of four, who scrapes together enough money for five loaves of bread each day by collecting and selling recycled rubbish, is looking for a buyer for his kidney. “I have been asking private hospitals in Herat for many days if they need any kidney. I even told them if they need it urgently, I can sell it below the market price, but I haven’t heard back,” Taheri says. “I need to feed my children, I have no other choice.”

In the past five years about 250 official kidney transplants have taken place in the hospitals in Herat province, with a very limited number being a family member donating their organ, says Asif Kabir, a public health official in the province. The cost of a kidney transplant is 400,000 afghani, plus the price of the kidney, according to Kabir.

But the true number of kidney operations may be far higher. A doctor working in one of the hospitals where most of the transplants take place, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says: “Recently the number of people who want to sell their kidney has increased in Herat and most of them live in the displaced camps, in Herat’s slums. The customers also go to the displaced camps to find a cheap kidney.”

Sayed Ashraf Sadat, a civil society activist in Herat, was a member of a delegation assigned by president Ashraf Ghani to investigate the illegal kidney trade in May 2021.

Chinar’s scar from kidney surgery.  Her husband is sick and she had to sell her kidney to feed their children
A nurse looks at Chinar’s scar from kidney removal surgery. Chinar, who lives in the Herat camp, said her husband is sick and she had to sell the organ to feed their four children. Photograph: Mstyslav Chernov/AP

“We found that the hospitals were not working according to the law. People are working inside and outside the country to encourage people to sell their kidneys. These people get them visas and send them to the other side of the border. There is more demand for kidney transplants outside Afghanistan. Countries like Iran need kidneys, and poor Afghans are forced to sell them.”

Sadat says the investigation he was part of identified two hospitals in Herat where kidney transplant operations take place; one of them said it had completed 194 operations and the other said 32, but more than 500 people were claiming to have sold their kidney, 100 from a single village in Herat. “This shows the kidneys were taken outside Afghanistan,” says Sadat.

“For example, a kidney is purchased for 300,000 afghani (£2,100) inside Afghanistan, and it is sold for more than £7,500 to £11,000 outside the country,” says Sadat.

“We found evidence that some are encouraged to sell their kidneys, taken outside the borders, and their kidneys are sold for 200,000 to 400,000 afghanis ,” says Sadat. “It seems that the doctors are involved in the illegal trade. But unfortunately, our investigation was stopped due to a worsening security situation.”

Sardar Muhammad, who sold his kidney, shows the scar
Another Herat camp resident, Sardar Muhammad, who sold his kidney, shows the scar from the surgery. Photograph: Mstyslav Chernov/AP

Two months have passed since Rahmati’s kidney operation, and the money has already gone to pay off medical debt. Her recovery from the operation continues to go badly.

“I am so sick. I couldn’t even walk because the wound has been infected. It is very painful,” she says, adding that the recipient of her kidney only paid for the operation fee, two nights in hospital and her first medicine bill.

On the day of the transplant, Rahmati was sick and the doctors refused to operate. “I couldn’t breathe properly, so the doctors took me down from the hospital bed, but I returned. I told them ‘I am happy with my own death, but I can’t tolerate seeing my children hungry and ill’,” she says.

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