France begins its first war crimes trial of Syrian officials

Conflict has left killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria´s economy and infrastructure

May 22, 2024
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seen in this undated photo. — AFP/file

PARIS: The first trial in France of officials from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad opened on Tuesday, with three top security officers tried in absentia for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.


The Paris Criminal Court is hearing cases against the officials for their role in the deaths of two French Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, arrested in Damascus in 2013.

Ali Mamlouk, former head of the National Security Bureau, Jamil Hassan, former director of the Air Force intelligence service, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations for the service in Damascus, are subject to international arrest warrants and will be tried in absentia.

“For the first time, French courts will address the crimes of the Syrian authorities, and will try the most senior members of the authorities to ever be prosecuted since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011,” said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

War between the Assad regime and armed opposition groups, including Islamic State, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

The conflict has left killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria´s economy and infrastructure.

Trials into abuses in Syria have taken place elsewhere in Europe, notably in Germany. In those cases, the people prosecuted held lower ranks and were present at the hearings. The trial began after seven years of investigation carried out by a French judicial war crimes unit.

Speaking before the hearing, lawyer Clemence Bectarte, who represents the Dabbagh family and the FIDH, hailed “the culmination of a long legal battle.”

At the time of his arrest, Patrick Dabbagh was a 20-year-old arts and humanities student at the University of Damascus. His father Mazzen was a senior education adviser at the French school in Damascus. The two were arrested in November 2013 by men who claimed to belong to the Syrian Air Force intelligence service.

“Witness testimony confirms that Mazzen and Patrick were both taken to a detention centre at Mezzeh military airport, which is run by Syrian Air Force Intelligence and notorious for the use of brutal torture,” FIDH said, stressing that the pair were not involved in protests against Assad.

They were declared dead in 2018. The family was formally notified that Patrick died on 21 January 2014 and his father Mazzen on 25 November 2017.

In 2016, Mazzen Dabbagh´s wife and daughter were evicted from their house in Damascus, which had been requisitioned. According to the prosecution, those acts were “likely to constitute war crimes, extortion and concealment of extortion”.

The investigating judges said it was “sufficiently established” that the two men “like thousands of detainees of the Air Force intelligence suffered torture of such intensity that they died.”

French investigators and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a non-governmental organisation, collected accounts from dozens of witnesses of torture and mistreatment at the Mezzeh prison, including the use of electric shocks and sexual violence.