A Syrian Democratic Forces member stands guard at a prison where suspected Islamic State affiliates are jailed in Hasakeh (AFP)
A German aid worker and former detainee in Syria has joined the lawsuit cases against the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and the rampant torture conducted within its vast prison network, two years after his release through European intervention.
The move comes at a time when hundreds of Palestinian refugee families continue to appeal for information over the fate of more than 1,700 Palestinian refugees forcibly disappeared in state-run lock-ups across the war-torn country.
Martin Lautwein, a German citizen and aid worker, was arrested in 2018 by Syrian authorities in the north-eastern city of Qamishli while there on an aid mission. He was then taken, along with an Australian friend, to the Syrian Intelligence's Branch 235 near the capital Damascus, one of the many notorious prison facilities used by the regime, according to MEMO news website.
In comments he made to the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) earlier this week, he recalled that over the two days of his detainment he was tortured and made to feel like an "animal".
Due to the fact that he was not blindfolded during his detention, he was able to witness the treatment of numerous other inmates, which included multiple forms of torture, as well as rape and murder. Lautwein said that the Syrian regime's "aim was to break people with all means possible."
The reason he was detained by the authorities was due to allegations of him spying in Qamishli which, he said, was based on his close relationship with the Kurds who make up a majority of that city's population.
After the two days passed, he was released along with his Australian friend due to his German passport and intervention from the Czech Republic, which was the only EU nation to keep its embassy in Damascus following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and the regime's brutal crackdown.
Lautwein said: “I was only able to go home because of my German passport. Thousands of people have disappeared in Syria, minors, mothers and fathers were captured with me. I was probably treated better than any of them while in detention.”
Two years after his detention and brief experience in the Syrian prison system, Lautwein has this week decided to join the lawsuits filed against the Syrian regime in 2017, and which resulted in the famed trial in the German city of Koblenz this year.
That landmark trial, which was the world's first such criminal trial for the Syrian regime's rampant torture, aims to prosecute former regime agents, doctors, soldiers and militiamen who were complicit in the torture and human rights abuses perpetrated in Syria. The lawsuits were formed by other survivors, as well as the self-exiled Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni.
Lautwein told the ECCHR that after his experience, a "warm bed was waiting for me, doctors, a functioning social system" upon his return to Germany, "I want to use my privilege to make people in Germany aware of what happens every day in Syria."
The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), a London-based human rights watchdog, has documented the death of over 600 Palestinian refugees under torture in Syrian government lock-ups, including women, children, and elderly civilians.
Affidavits by ex-detainees provide evidence on the involvement of Syrian government officers in harsh torture tactics, including electric shocks, heavy beating using whips and iron sticks, and sexual abuse against Palestinian detainees, in a flagrant violation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT).
AGPS estimates the real number to be far higher due to the gag orders slapped by the Syrian government on the detainees’ names and fates, along with the families’ reluctance to report such cases over retaliation concerns.
AGPS continues to urge the Syrian government to disclose the fate of scores of Palestinians held in its lock-ups, release the bodies of those tortured to death, to seriously work on halting harsh torture tactics, launch fact-finding probes into crimes of torture, and to bring those involved in such crimes before courts.
As the novel coronavirus COVID-19 continues to grip the Middle East and the world, AGPS has called on the Syrian government to free all Palestinians and Syrians held behind prison bars.
AGPS said it fears the coronavirus could spread quickly in jails and in overcrowded displacement camps, where neither hygiene kit nor medical equipment are accessible.