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Will a landmark case involving torture in Syria lead to future prosecutions?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The civil war in Syria has gone on so long that I feel obliged to begin this next story by reminding people of the basics. It's been almost a decade. It's killed an estimated half-a-million people. It's forced millions of Syrians to flee. And many Syrians who have been imprisoned by their government accused the government of torture. On Thursday, a German court sentenced a former Syrian colonel to life in prison for committing crimes against humanity. So what happens now? Eric Witte is with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which supported several witnesses in the case. Welcome.

ERIC WITTE: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: What was it that the Syrian colonel had done, according to the court?

WITTE: This colonel was an intelligence officer in one of the detention facilities and oversaw a regime of torture within that facility. Some 4,000 cases of torture were testified to at the trial, along with murders, sexual violence, rape and other crimes.

INSKEEP: I'm shocked by many things there, and one of them is the sheer numbers. You didn't say four people, 40 people, 400 - you said 4,000 people abused in this way.

WITTE: That's right. And yet, you know, some victims of his crimes were able to see a measure of justice for their suffering, but 4,000 still pales in comparison with the overall scale and with the brutality of these crimes in Syria over a decade. So much more needs to be done.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Let's talk about that measure of justice. The German court sentenced the colonel to life in prison. How did he come before the court, and how significant is this ruling?

WITTE: So this case was really quite remarkable. It was built by survivors of the torture and really validates those efforts to painstakingly document what happened to them, to work with organizations, including the Open Society Justice Initiative, to assemble a case, bring it to prosecutors, and prosecutors were really able to bear out those facts at trial. And there have been a handful of other cases in Germany and other countries, and there may be a few more, but it's really a narrow pathway to justice. And so we think much more needs to be done so that accountability is really much more commensurate to the scale and the brutality of these crimes.

INSKEEP: Some people will wonder, was the colonel in custody? Is he actually available to be put in prison?

WITTE: Yes. He was a free man, and then he was recognized, actually, by one of his victims, and that's when the case really got underway. He had come to Germany along with a number of other Syrians, hundreds of thousands of Syrians, in 2015, and one of his former victims recognized him.

INSKEEP: So what do activists do now?

WITTE: Well, there are cases underway in other countries. We're working, for example, with the prosecutor in Vienna to bring a case against another senior former official involved in torture and detention. We and partners have been involved in building cases for chemical weapons use in Syria and have filed criminal complaints in Germany, France and Sweden. But, you know, we think also that states should consider creating a court, specifically for Syria, by treaty.

INSKEEP: A special war crimes tribunal is what you're talking about. I've got to stop the discussion there. But Eric Witte of the Open Society Justice Initiative, thanks so much.

WITTE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "HELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.