Laws to catch human-rights abusers are growing teeth

Laws to catch human-rights abusers are growing teeth

Despite the best efforts of China, Russia and other illiberal powers to de-fang them

The balding figure looks frail and harmless, sitting in the dock behind a Perspex screen in the German town of Koblenz, where the rivers Rhine and Moselle unite. But appearances can deceive. Anwar Raslan, 57, once a Syrian policeman, has been charged with torturing more than 4,000 people and murdering at least 58 between 2011 and 2012, when Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, set about crushing the initially peaceful demonstrations that shook his regime as the Arab spring took off.

Mr Raslan is on trial because, by his own lights, he made a mistake. Having fallen out with the regime, in 2012 he joined the exodus of Syrians who ended up in Germany, where he seemed to be settling down nicely with his family in a Berlin suburb, until one of his alleged victims, by a fluke, spotted his presence—and told a human-rights group. With the encouragement of ngos, in particular the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ecchr), Germany’s judicial authorities applied the principle of universal jurisdiction, whereby human-rights violators of any nationality can be charged in any country, no matter where the crimes were committed. Mr Raslan was arrested in 2019. His trial began in Koblenz in April 2020 and may last for more than a year.

Scores of witnesses will be called before five German judges. Thousands of photographs collected by a Syrian military photographer may be shown. A gravedigger has described the condition of hundreds of bodies, often mutilated in the dungeons of the building where Mr Raslan is said to have worked, which were thrown into mass graves.