French court sentences 3 Syrian officials to life in prison in absentia for war crimes

Activists hold Syrian flags next to portraits of alleged victims of the Syrian regime, during a demonstration Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at a courtroom in Paris. A Paris court will this week seek to determine whether Syrian intelligence officials — the most senior to go on trial in a European court over crimes allegedly committed during the country's civil war — were responsible for the 2013 disappearance and deaths of Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh. The four-day hearings, starting Tuesday, are expected to air chilling allegations that President Bashar Assad's government has widely used torture and arbitrary detentions to hold on to power during the conflict, now in its 14th year. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS (AP) — A Paris court sentenced three high-ranking Syrian officials in absentia to life in prison Friday for complicity in war crimes in a landmark case against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the first such case in Europe.

The trial focused on the officials’ role in the alleged 2013 arrest in Damascus of Mazen Dabbagh, a Franco-Syrian father, and his son Patrick, and their subsequent torture and killing. The four-day trial featured harrowing testimonies from survivors and searing accounts from Mazen’s brother.

Though the verdict was cathartic for plaintiffs, France and Syria do not have an extradition treaty, making the outcome largely symbolic. International arrest warrants for the three former Syrian intelligence officials — Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud — have been issued since 2018 to no avail.

They are the most senior Syrian officials to go on trial in a European court over crimes allegedly committed during the country’s civil war.

The court proceedings came as Assad has started to shed his longtime status as a pariah that stemmed from the violence unleashed on his opponents. Human rights groups involved in the case hoped it would refocus attention on alleged atrocities.

Clémence Bectarte, the Dabbagh family lawyer from the International Federation for Human Rights, said the verdict was the “first recognition in France of the crimes against humanity of the Syrian regime.”

“It is a message of hope for all Syrian victims who are waiting for justice. It is a message that must be addressed to states so that they do not normalize their relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” she said.

The trial began Tuesday over the alleged torture and killing of the French-Syrian father and son who were arrested at the height of Arab Spring-inspired anti-government protests. The two were arrested in Damascus following a crackdown on demonstrations that later turned into a brutal civil war, now in its 14th year.

The probe into their disappearance started in 2015 when Obeida Dabbagh, Mazen’s brother, testified to investigators already examining war crimes in Syria.

Obeida Dabbagh and his wife, Hanane, are parties to the trial along with non-governmental organizations. They testified in court on Thursday, the third day of the trial.

Obeida Dabbagh said he hoped the trial would set a precedent for holding Assad accountable. “Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died. Even today, some live in fear and terror,” he said.

Despite the defendants’ absence, the trial’s significance was underscored by Brigitte Herremans, a senior researcher at the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University. “It’s very important that perpetrators from the regime side are held accountable, even if it’s mainly symbolic. It means a lot for the fight against impunity,” she said.


Masha Macpherson and Oleg Cetinic contributed from Paris