French court finds three Syrian officials guilty of war crimes

France AP - Michel Euler
AP - Michel Euler

A Paris court has sentenced three members of Syria's Assad regime to life imprisonment for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes in a landmark trial.

It is the first time that France has held a trial on abuses committed during Syria's civil war since 2011.

The accused – Ali Mamlouk, former head of the Syrian secret services and current security adviser to Bashar al-Assad; Jamil Hassan, former head of the Syrian air force intelligence unit; and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations at the notorious Mezzeh detention centre – were all tried in absentia.

The three men are believed to be in Syria. There are international warrants for their arrest and the judges ordered they should remain in force.

Many in the court galleries stood up to applaud after the ruling was announced on Friday evening. 

"It is a verdict that will resonate for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are still waiting for justice," said Clemence Bectarte, a lawyer for some of the victims in the case.

Widespread abuses

The three officials were charged with complicity in the deaths of two French-Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, who were arrested in Damascus in 2013 and never seen again. They were declared dead in 2018.

At the time of his arrest, Patrick Dabbagh was a 20-year-old arts and humanities student at the University of Damascus. His father was a senior education adviser at the French school in Damascus.

Ahead of the trial, judges from France's special war crimes tribunal said it was "sufficiently established" that the two men "like thousands of detainees of the air force intelligence, suffered torture of such intensity that they died".

Prosecutors noted during the four-day trial that there had been systematic and widespread abuses in Syria since 2011, saying tens of thousands of Syrians may have suffered the fate of the Dabbaghs.

'Historic' first step 

Several experts and witnesses who have spent time in Syrian prisons gave evidence at the trial.

"Impunity is something very difficult to live with," said Obeida Dabbagh, Mazzen Dabbagh's brother.

"Justice has to be seen. This is a very important first step, it is historic," he said.

The case was brought to the special war crimes tribunal by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). One of its lawyers Patrick Baudouin, said the trial and the sentence were a "signal to our leaders, to European leaders, that they must not at any price normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad". 

Syria's conflict since 2011 has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions and ravaged Syria's economy and infrastructure. 

Trials into abuses in Syria have taken place elsewhere in Europe, notably in Germany. In those cases, the people prosecuted held lower ranks and were present at the hearings.

In November last year, France issued an international arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad over the use of chemical weapons against civilians, carried out in the summer of 2013.

(with AFP)