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To the Very Last Criminal: French Judiciary Confronts Syrian Regime over Deaths of French-Syrians Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh

By: Naama Al-Alwani, Syrian journalist and activist.

On Tuesday May 21, 2024, the Paris Criminal Court held its first public hearing in the trial against several officials affiliated with the Syrian regime.

The case was brought forward with an indictment against Ali Mamlouk, a close advisor to Bashar al-Assad and former head of the National Security Bureau, Jamil Hassan, the former director of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence, and Abdu Salam Mahmoud, the former head of Investigations at the same agency at Mazzeh Military Airport in Damascus. The charges are based on their direct responsibility for the period from 2012 to 2019, during which the Dabbagh family was informed of Mazen and Patrick's deaths due to torture in security branches. These hearings follow seven years of investigation by the War Crimes Unit of the Paris Judicial Court.

On the night of November 3, 2013, Patrick Abdelkader Dabbagh, a dual Syrian-French national aged 20, was arrested from his home in the Mazzeh neighbourhood of Damascus. Patrick was a second-year student at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Damascus University. Based on his dual nationality, a criminal investigation was launched in France in November 2016. Mazen was arrested around the same time by personnel from the Air Force Intelligence. Mazen and Patrick met in prison at the Mazzeh intelligence branch, where Patrick appeared to his father handcuffed with visible signs of torture.

Following their arrests, the family had no information about their whereabouts until July 2018 when Syrian authorities issued their death certificates, informing the Dabbagh family of Patrick and Mazen's deaths in January 2014 and November 2017, respectively.

On January 1, 2012, a specialised judicial unit for prosecuting perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes was established in Paris, known as the French War Crimes Unit. This unit comprises a team of five prosecutors, three independent investigative judges, and a team of specialised investigators, exclusively handling international crime cases. Currently, the French War Crimes Unit is handling 85 preliminary inquiries and 79 judicial investigations related to international crimes committed outside France, about ten of which concern crimes committed in Syria.

Filing the lawsuit was a challenge for the family. Mazen Dabbagh's wife initially refused to testify for fear of retaliation by the Assad regime. Ultimately, Mazen's brother, Ubaida Dabbagh, alongside the International Federation for Human Rights, the French League for Human Rights, and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, filed a lawsuit in France following the disappearance of Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh, who were arrested and taken to a detention centre at Mazzeh Military Airport in Damascus. 

The family paid nearly $15,000 to get information about their loved ones' fates. A source confirmed that Mazen and Patrick died a year after their arrest. Witnesses affirmed that this is the regime's typical method of financially and emotionally blackmailing victims' families, namely, through demanding exorbitant bribes for information that sometimes proves worthless.

The family received death certificates in 2017 through a lawyer appointed by Ubaida Dabbagh, with no details on the time or cause of death.

The judge noted that the family lost their home due to its seizure by the head of Air Force Intelligence in June 2016. This house was Mazen Dabbagh's inheritance, and his daughter was asked to vacate the premises. Further, the head of the Air Force Intelligence rented the house to other security agencies, damaging its main door and contents.

The four trial sessions will be conducted in absentia, as the defendants are not present on French soil. The court confirmed that the defendants do not have diplomatic immunity and can be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The Criminal Court can issue a judgement in absentia.

This first session was divided into two parts. The first part identified the parties and summoned witnesses and experts, including testimony from a witness in court. It focused on the details of the case and explanation of how the judgement would be rendered in absentia at the end of the four sessions. It also included an analytical description of the situation in Syria by witness Ziad Majed, a Lebanese-French university professor in Paris.

In the second part of the first trial session, François Burgat, a research director at the French National Center and previously in Damascus, testified. Burgat experienced the early stages of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and shared his observations of the regime's crackdown on protesters and dissidents, and the testimonies of people he met.

Burgat described the Syrian regime's method of fostering sectarianism, especially between Sunnis and Alawites, blaming the revolution for isolating minorities and spreading fear among the Syrian population.

The second witness, Garance Le Caisne, author of Operation Caesar, worked with victims' families and analysed and classified photographs based on the security branches they originated from. Le Caisne described the systematic process followed by each branch, with each body revealing how it died under torture. She explained the numbers on the leaked Caesar photos, indicating the branch responsible for the torture, a number given by the forensic doctor on duty when the body was received, the place of death, and the detainee's cell number.

"They wanted to erase memory and create a void and silence with the absence of Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh..." the witness emphasised that Bashar al-Assad's regime does not hesitate to instil fear in Syrians and their families. Le Caisne met individuals residing in Europe who cannot speak out against the Syrian regime, fearing retribution against their relatives back home.

The Place du Châtelet near the courthouse was filled with Syrian revolution flags and pictures of the missing and detained, held by Syrians determined to pursue the Syrian regime to the very end. The Square saw Syrian artists and activists gathering from various regions to participate in this extraordinary day, which they described as a day of triumph for victims over the oppressor.

Several participants wore shirts with slogans such as "Trial of Syrian Criminals" and "Justice is the Path to Peace in Syria". Concurrently, activists in the city of Suwaida also raised the same slogans on the trial date.

By: Naama Al-Alwani, Syrian journalist and activist.



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