IIT WAS JUSTICE on a microscopic scale. On January 13, Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian intelligence officer, was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. The verdict follows more than 100 hearings in which witnesses testified to beatings, electrocutions and rapes in Branch 251, the prison Mr Raslan ruled for two years. At least 27 inmates were killed and 4,000 tortured during his tenure.
Horrifying as it is, the testimony only covered a small corner of a sprawling security apparatus. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is responsible for many atrocities in a war that has killed perhaps 500,000 people and displaced more than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million. Yet Mr. Raslan is the first official convicted of participating (a junior employee was imprisoned last year). The wheels of justice turn slowly.
They turned around only because Mr. Raslan was prosecuted in Germany. Courts in the Middle East tend to offer a travesty of justice. Mr. Assad will not hold his own torturers accountable. International efforts don’t give much hope either. The court that investigated the assassination of Rafic Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, worked for 11 years to secure an average conviction. A growing number of high-profile cases in the Middle East are being heard in foreign courts instead, a trend that raises legal and diplomatic questions.
An obvious problem is catching the suspected attackers. Mr. Raslan spent his day in court because he left Syria and was granted asylum in Germany. On January 19, a court in Frankfurt began hearing a similar case, that of a Syrian doctor accused of torturing injured detainees. He moved to Germany in 2015. But Mr. Assad and his entourage tend to avoid any jurisdiction that might hold them to account.
Even trying people in absentia can require the cooperation of uncooperative governments. Take the case of Giulio Regeni, a student whose mutilated body was found in a ditch outside Cairo in 2016. He had been detained by Egyptian police, who are accused of subjecting him to days of torture. . Authorities are believed to have staged a hasty cover-up, saying Mr Regeni was in fact abducted by a gang preying on foreigners. The mobsters were conveniently killed by the police and are therefore unavailable for questioning.
Unlike most victims of the Egyptian dictatorship, Mr. Regeni was an Italian citizen. Prompted by his family, Italian prosecutors charged four Egyptian officials with his murder. But a judge halted the trial in October, saying she had no evidence the defendants knew of the charges, and sent it back to preliminary hearings.
Politics is another complication. A Turkish court is trying 26 Saudis in absentia for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had his throat cut at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, was once enthusiastic about the deal. But his enthusiasm has faded in recent months as he pursues a rapprochement with the Gulf countries. He is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia next month and meet Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince, who is widely accused of ordering Khashoggi’s murder (the prince denies this). The trial has now stalled and is not expected to resume until the summer.
Prince Muhammad himself faces two lawsuits in America, one brought by Khashoggi’s widow, the other by Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence official who accuses the prince of plotting his murder. Both cited a 1991 law that allows US courts to hear civil suits against alleged foreign torturers.
Heads of state can claim sovereign immunity. This does not help Prince Muhammad, however: he is the de facto ruler but does not yet hold the highest position. His lawyers have sought to protect him on other grounds, including “conduct-based immunity”, which protects officials acting in their official capacity. It sets up a curious paradox. Prince Muhammad said he did not order Khashoggi’s murder. To claim immunity, he must argue that if he ordered what he denies ordering, he did so on behalf of the state.
Not all cases are so grim. Depositors in Lebanon have found themselves largely locked out of their foreign currency accounts since October 2019, when the country descended into financial crisis. They started suing Lebanese banks abroad for compensation. The banks insist that they have no jurisdiction. In at least two cases, however, judges have ruled that European consumer protection laws grant the right to sue (although none of the plaintiffs have yet recovered any money).
There is hypocrisy in all of this, of course. Western courts tend to be less diligent when it comes to prosecuting their own citizens for crimes they commit in the Middle East and Africa. There were no serious convictions during CIAtorture program. Former President Donald Trump has pardoned soldiers and contractors accused of wartime atrocities.
UN Investigators say Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, a security firm, repeatedly violated the arms embargo on Libya, sending weapons and mercenaries to a warlord there. He has not been charged with anything and denies the allegations. There is no total impunity in America, however. On January 13, the Department of Justice announced that two Florida men who worked at a dive shop had been sentenced to prison for attempting to export rebreathers (a banned item) to Libya. The wheels of justice turn slowly indeed. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Torturers on trial”