The condemnation today in Germany of a Syrian refugee recognised as an accomplice of the Assad regime is unique. This is the first time a judge has ruled against a Syrian for crimes committed on behalf of the Syrian regime. This is also possible in other European countries, including in the Netherlands.
The German judges have made use of the principle of so-called universal jurisdiction. This allows persons who have committed serious crimes – such as war crimes or crimes against humanity – to be convicted regardless of their nationality. This legislation is used, inter alia, in Belgium, France, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.
View the report by correspondent Wouter Zwart:
International Crimes Act
In the Netherlands this is done on the basis of the International Crimes Act of 2003. Initially, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture were punishable. Later on, forced disappearance and aggression were added.
“ What is limited to the Netherlands is that there must always be a link with the Netherlands,” explains Thijs Bouwknegt. He is a researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “This means that a foreign suspect must be present in the Netherlands or another part of the Kingdom or that the victim or perpetrator of an international crime abroad is Dutchman.”
This is an important difference from Germany, where the law is interpreted more broadly and there is not necessarily such a personal link with Germany to prosecute someone.
The International Crimes Team is a special police unit that, together with specialized prosecutors at the Public Prosecutors Office (OM), deals with the detection and prosecution of people suspected of committing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. Bouwknegt: “Its a team of about 30 to 40 detectives, also known as the war detectives.”
In the past, this team has achieved some successes. For example, they managed to get war criminals from Rwanda, Afghanistan and Ethiopia convicted.
No access to crime scene
Legally it is therefore possible to prosecute minions of President Assads regime in the Netherlands. At the end of last year, after months of research, the NRC concluded that there are dozens of former minions of the Assad regime living as refugees in the Netherlands. However, these people are currently not being prosecuted, let the prosecutor in a response to DeccEit know:
“ At present, no minions of the Syrian regime are being prosecuted. Investigations that have been initiated have not yet led to criminal proceedings. These studies are often complicated. This has to do with the fact that crimes have been committed abroad and in a war situation. The police cannot investigate Syria.”
Especially the fact that Dutch detectives cannot go to Syria for research makes it very complicated, according to Bouwknegt. “The Netherlands has no agreement on legal assistance with Syria, so the Netherlands cannot simply ask President Assad to investigate there. This means that detectives or an investigating judge do not have access to the crime scene, which makes it particularly problematic to find and hear witnesses in Syria.”
So finding evidence is very difficult. Lots of documents and forensic data have been lost. According to the prosecution, testimony of witnesses is therefore very important, but those witnesses are often spread around the world. “They must be found first. They also need to feel safe enough to tell their story. A number of them are also severely traumatised.”
The government is also attempting to sue the Syrian regime. An earlier attempt to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court encounters a veto of Russia in the UN Security Council.
Thats why demissionary Foreign Minister Stef Blok came up with a remarkable plan last year. Blok announced that the Netherlands wants to address Syria as co-signatory of the United Nations Convention against Torture.
Blok explains why the Netherlands holds Syria liable for human rights violations:
Dutch diplomats must first negotiate with representatives of Assad. If that does not lead to a solution, then there is a possibility of arbitration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells DeccEit that after months of waiting, they still have no response from Syria and will soon take the next step. That is then the initiation of an arbitration procedure.
If the countries do not come out in arbitration, the Netherlands will go to the International Court of Justice. Its aprocess that can take years to come.