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'State terrorism' complaint filed against Syrian officials in Spanish court

Sister of man allegedly tortured to death in 2013 files criminal complaint in first case ever brought against Syrian officials in western court
A Syrian army soldier stands guard as a poster depicting Bashar al-Assad is seen in the background in the Old City of Aleppo (Reuters)

Lawyers representing the sister of a Syrian man alleged to have been tortured to death in a detention centre in Damascus in 2013 have launched a criminal complaint against members of the Syrian security forces in Spain's national court.

Nine members of the Syrian government's security and intelligence forces were accused of crimes of state terrorism in the 95-page complaint which was filed on Wednesday in Madrid.

The case is the first in a western court brought against members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, with the nine accused understood to include senior officials.

The full names of the nine officials and the name of the victim and his sister have not been made public.

The sister, who is only identified in the complaint as Mrs AH, claims she is a victim of Syrian state terrorism because her brother was arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured and executed in 2013.

Under Spanish law, Spanish prosecutors can investigate the complaint because Mrs AH is a Spanish national, a precedent that has previously been used to investigate crimes committed by state actors in Latin America during the Cold War.

Her lawyers, Guernica 37, said in a statement: "The evidence submitted clearly demonstrates that the Syrian State led by President Bashar al-Assad committed the Crime of Terrorism against its civil population using its security forces and intelligence apparatus."

It added: "Thousands of detainees have been executed or have died as a result of torture, mass starvation and illness."

The case was brought to light after a defector known by the codename Ceasar, who had worked as a forensic officer, escaped from Syria in September 2013 with more than 50,000 photos documenting the deaths of more than 6,000 people.

Mrs AH and her family were able to identify her brother based on images of victims posted on online by the Syrian Association For Missing And Conscience Detainees.

Almudena Bernabeu, the lawyer representing Mrs AH, said: "This complaint materialises the efforts of extraordinary professionals from Syria and other parts of the world, who have tirelessly fought for justice during the last five years.

"The Caesar photographs demonstrate the degree of perversion of a state when it decides to attack its people through its institutions. Our desire is that this first step would allow for criminal justice efforts in other jurisdictions, and consequently, bring hope to the thousands of Syrian civilians that continue suffering the consequences of this barbarity."

The Syrian government has faced international condemnation over its conduct during the country's more than five-year civil war in which it is accused of killing the great majority of the hundreds of thousands of people who have died.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented the deaths of 14,638 detainees including 111 children from the start of the uprising until December 2016. Some 6,000 people were disappeared or abducted by Islamic State and militant rebel factions in Syria.

Civilian deaths until 13 December documented by SOHR, excluding those who died in custody, were 90,506, including 15,948 children and 10,540 women. 

More than 102,000 government troops and militia members have died and more than 53,000 rebel fighters, including Kurdish fighters, have been killed, according to the Observatory. In addition, nearly 55,000 foreign anti-government militants and Islamic State fighters have been killed in Syria, as well as 7,000 pro-Assad foreign militia. 

In October then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that Assad's government was responsible for 300,000 deaths.

Efforts to prosecute Syrian leaders have been obstructed by the presence and vetoing powers of Russia, Assad's main ally, on the UN Security Council, which normally refers potential war crimes and crimes against humanity cases to the International Criminal Court for investigation.

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