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Historic trial of Syrian regime top brass in Paris

For the first time, three officials will be tried for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes for their role in the deaths of two French-Syrians.

Historic trial of Syrian regime top brass in Paris

Clemence Bectarte (L), the lawyer for Mazen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, walking with Obeida Dabbagh, Oct. 24, 2016 in Paris. (Credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

From May 21 to 24, three high-ranking Syrian government officials will be tried in absentia before the Paris Assize Court for the deaths of two French-Syrian nationals, Mazen Dabbagh and his son, Patrick Dabbagh.

A look back at the stakes involved in this extraordinary trial.

The facts

- In October 2016, Obeida Dabbagh – the victims' brother and uncle respectively – the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH) brought a case before the French courts following the disappearance of Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh in Syria. They are actively supported in their action by SCM, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

- Mazen Dabbagh, born in 1956, worked as a principal education advisor at the French School in Damascus. His son Patrick, born in 1993, was a student at the Faculty of Letters and Humanities in Damascus. Both men were incarcerated by the Syrian authorities in November 2013 at the Mazzeh military airport detention center in the capital. The facility is infamous for its ferocious torture sessions and appalling detention conditions.

- Neither Mazen nor Patrick Dabbagh took part in the popular Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime in 2011.

- For several years, their families had no news of their fate. It was not until July 2018 that death certificates were issued by the Syrian authorities. According to these documents, Patrick Dabbagh died in January 2014 and his father Mazen in November 2017.

- Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh were both French-Syrian. French justice is competent to judge crimes committed against its nationals. The French citizenship of the victims led to the opening of a judicial investigation in France.

- On March 29, 2023, after several years of investigation, the examining magistrates of the Crimes against Humanity Unit of the Paris Judicial Court ordered the indictment of three high-ranking Syrian regime officials: Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud. The three men are charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Why is the trial historic?

- Not only is it the first trial in France of Syrian officials for crimes against humanity and war crimes, it is also the first trial on an international scale of such high-ranking individuals within the Syrian administration.

- Ali Mamlouk is the former head of the National Security Bureau, Syria's highest intelligence authority. Jamil Hassan is the ex-director of the formidable Air Force Intelligence Service. As for Abdel Salam Mahmoud, he is the former director of the investigation branch of these services.

- Trials concerning the Syrian regime's abuses have already taken place elsewhere in Europe. However, the persons prosecuted were of lesser rank and attended the hearings.

- Former Syrian colonel Anouar Raslan, for example, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2022 in a landmark judgment handed down in Koblenz, Germany. “But he was ‘just’ the head of a branch of State Security. But this time, we're talking about people who played an absolutely key role in the repression in Syria,” explained Clemence Bectarte, lawyer for Obeida Dabbagh and his wife Hanan Dabbagh, coordinator of the FIDH's judicial action group and co-chair of the French coalition for the ICC.

- The trial, which opens this Tuesday, will last just four days since the defendants are being tried in absentia. “If the defendants were present or if they were represented by a lawyer, the trial would last several weeks,” points out Clémence Bectarte. Under French law, they had the right to appoint lawyers to defend them, even when they were absent. They did not make use of this right, and this is perfectly in line with the Syrian regime's attitude based on the absolute denial of any attempt at justice.”

- On Nov. 16, 2023, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), backed by Canada and the Netherlands, ordered Syria to put an end to torture and cruel and degrading treatment. But the regime sent no delegation to represent it.

What's at stake in the trial?

- First and foremost, the trial marks the culmination of a long and painful struggle led by Obeida and Hanan Dabbagh – who are also French-Syrians and have lived in France since the 1970s – to see justice done for Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh. “We've been working on this case since 2013, and the work with Clemence began eight years ago,” Hanane Dabbagh told L'Orient-Le Jour. For the victims' relatives, the entire procedure has been marked by uncertainty, moments of hope and despair: Are Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh still alive? Are they dead? Can they be released? And when the death certificate is issued in 2018, it's impossible for the families to recover their bodies and give them a proper burial. Our family home in Syria has even been requisitioned,” reports Hanane Dabbagh. At the same time, we feel relieved. We worked very hard, we made a film for which we were mobilized for five years. There was anguish, sadness, a sense of injustice ... and then, in the end, it wasn't all in vain.” In 2023, a documentary by director Stephane Malterre and journalist Garance Le Caisne – Les âmes perdues – follows two families of the disappeared (including the Dabbagh family) who have no news of loved ones in Syria, and traces their struggle – in Spain and France – for justice.

- For Bectarte, “we must remember that this is a crime of enforced disappearance, used on a massive scale by the Syrian regime against the population.” From a legal and political point of view, if the trial results in a conviction, it will represent a new judicial recognition of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian regime. “There is currently a fear among the Syrian population of a political normalization between Western countries, including the European Union, and the Assad regime, and of its crimes being forgotten,” emphasized Bectarte. “We want to combat this through these trials, and remind people thirteen years after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising of what the victims suffered, and that these were indeed crimes against humanity,” she asserted.

This article originally appeared in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.

From May 21 to 24, three high-ranking Syrian government officials will be tried in absentia before the Paris Assize Court for the deaths of two French-Syrian nationals, Mazen Dabbagh and his son, Patrick Dabbagh. A look back at the stakes involved in this extraordinary trial.The facts- In October 2016, Obeida Dabbagh – the victims' brother and uncle respectively – the International Federation...