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Ex-Syrian government agents accused of torture and murder arrested in Germany

In first case of its kind, two intelligence officials face prosecution for aiding and abetting human rights abuses
Members of the Syrian Organisation for the Victims of War display pictures documenting the torture of detainees inside the Assad government’s prisons, on 17 March 2016 in Geneva (AFP)

Two men suspected of involvement in torture and murder on behalf of the Syrian government have been arrested in Germany, in an unprecedented move.

The two men, said to be former members of the Syrian intelligence services, were arrested in Zweibrucken and Berlin on Tuesday, according to the federal prosecutor's office in Karlsruhe.

Anwar R is accused of complicity in four cases of torture, while Eyad A is accused of aiding and abetting torture in 2,000 cases and aiding and abetting murder in four cases.

The prosecutor's office said a third man was also arrested in France in the context of the investigation.

The crimes the men are accused of are said to have taken place between 2011 and 2012, at the outset of the Syrian uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, which later spiralled into an ongoing civil war.

The two men later fled from Syria and applied for asylum in Germany.

The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights welcomed the arrests.

'The arrest shows once again that Germany is taking the fight against impunity for torture in Syria seriously'

- Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR

“Should the suspect go on trial, the survivors of torture will join the case as private parties,” said secretary-general Wolfgang Kaleck in a statement.

“The arrest shows once again that Germany is taking the fight against impunity for torture in Syria seriously. It sends a very important message to survivors of Assad’s system of torture. Without justice, there will be no lasting peace in Syria.”

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Assad's government has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses, including torture, rape and summary executions.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have died under torture or due to mistreatment in prisons.

In 2014, a former Syrian military police photographer who fled in 2013, using the pseudonym "Caesar", released photographic evidence of the torture that took place in the government's prisons between 2011 and 2013.

Prosecuting representatives of the Syrian government, as well as other actors in the war, over abuses has proved difficult as Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court.

However, particular cases can be tried in courts of third countries, most often if the alleged victim has citizenship of that country.

Most prominent is the case of Marie Colvin, the American Sunday Times journalist who was killed by an artillery attack in the central Syrian city of Homs in 2012.

Last month, a US court found the Syrian government responsible for her death and ordered Damascus to pay $300m in punitive damages.