BERLIN—Among the Syrians living here in the German capital, Anwar Raslan had long been notorious. Soon he may be known farther afield—not just as the first senior Syrian official to be held accountable for acts carried out during that country’s conflict, but perhaps more importantly as the defendant in a case that changed the way the world prosecutes war crimes.
In Damascus, Raslan had been a colonel in Syria’s military-intelligence agency, overseeing investigations at an outpost known as Branch 251. In the same building, some 600 people were crammed into cells built for a third as many. Those who were held there were starved, tortured, sexually assaulted, and offered no medical care, rights groups say; most days, six or seven people died as a result.
Then Raslan defected from Bashar al-Assad’s regime, joining an early wave of Syrian migrants in 2012 who were fleeing what would turn into an all-out civil war. He eventually made his way to Germany—alone at first, but joined later by his family—and applied for asylum. Here, he lived in some measure of freedom, alongside others who had themselves been held in Branch 251.
That all changed this year.
Raslan was arrested in February—German prosecutors said at the time he was “strongly suspected” of complicity in crimes against humanity—and is currently being held in prison. When he eventually takes the stand, most likely early next year, he will be the first high-ranking Syrian official to be tried over the Syrian war.