For peace to prevail

JOURNALISM / How a German trial of two Syrian refugees put the crimes of Bashar al-Assad's regime under the international spotlight

A journalist covers Arab Spring protests in Damascus in 2011. She is headstrong, positive and beautiful. Initially cautious, she soon joins the demonstrations and feels a powerful surge of emotion course through her body as she chants «freedom» with thousands of others.

Her journalism develops apace with the protests against Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime; she develops broad contacts in the opposition as Syria descends into civil war. One day, while waiting in a café to meet a contact, she is approached by a plainclothes security officer. He asks for her ID card. Under Syrian law, she must hand it over. She does. He asks her to come with her. Don’t make a fuss. They walk into the street, and she is put into a car. People watch, but no one does anything. Fear is already pervasive in Syrian society.

The Journalist and Her Jailers Adithya Sambamurthy
The Journalist and Her Jailers, a film by Adithya Sambamurthy

A refugee story

Luna Watfa is taken to Al-Khatib, a notorious detention and torture centre in the central region of Muhajreen in Damascus. After months of being incarcerated in a tiny, dark, dirty cell with 20 other women – who are forbidden on pain of further punishment from talking – she is released after her family pay a large bribe to win her freedom.

Traumatised and terrified, Luna flees Syria, risking her life in a small boat to cross the Mediterranean to Greece. She leaves her children behind but vows that she will be reunited with them. Her difficult and dangerous journey on foot to Germany is made easier when she meets fellow Syrian refugee Basel Watfa; they fall in love and marry. Reunited with her children, the couple build a life in Germany, where Luna continues to work as a freelance journalist for Arab language outlets.

Luna Wafta’s story is a remarkable refugee story. But in 2020, as Adithya Sambamurthy’s solid documentary The Journalist and Her Jailers shows, the distance she had put between herself and the trauma of being imprisoned in Al-Khatib suddenly shrunk to nothing when Anwar Raslan was put on trial in Koblenz, Germany. Coincidentally, she had settled in Koblenz and immediately knew that this was a trial she must cover.

she had settled in Koblenz and immediately knew that this was a trial she must cover.

Living in Germany

Raslan, and another lower-ranking former prison officer had been discovered living in Germany. Both had been accepted as genuine asylum seekers. Raslan had even flown to Germany on an EU visa before he applied for asylum. Identified by a Syrian lawyer who had also sought refuge in Germany, Raslan was eventually arrested, and a case built on the testimony of witnesses who had passed through Al-Khatib and, like him, found asylum in Germany was built around Germany’s principle of universal jurisdiction for cases of human rights abuses.

Accused of the murder of at least 27 people, rape, and the torture of more than 4,000, Raslan only ever spoke one word in court – to answer «yes» to a judge’s question whether a statement his lawyer read out after the two-year trial was his own words.

Luna, a striking and charismatic woman with dark, expressive eyes, took her seat in court each day. Looking into Raslan’s eyes, she felt the same fear as a decade before – until she realised she was not looking at a uniformed man holding the power of life or death over her, but an old and sick man in the dock of a German court.

Sambamurthy weaves Luna’s back story into the rhythm of the court case, its delays and procedures. Using animation where filming is impossible (during court sessions, for example, or to show Luna’s experience in prison in Syria) and archive footage from Syria’s Arab Spring and Luna’s own escape across Europe, shot on her mobile phone, a vivid picture of her courage and resilience is constructed.

We meet members of the Syrian refugee community and opposition figures. There is even one opposition figure willing to speak in Raslan’s defence – on the grounds that the former security officer did eventually defect, and if all such defectors were criminalised in Germany, the incentive to flee would be removed.

Luna, and most other Syrian refugees, simply hope for justice, closure and a sense of taking back some agency in their own lives. Moving on from helplessness, as one of them puts it.

The Journalist and Her Jailers Adithya Sambamurthy
The Journalist and Her Jailers, a film by Adithya Sambamurthy

Eternal vigilance

A terrier of a journalist, Luna pursues Raslan’s son to get some idea of what those close to him think of the trial. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is reluctant to talk but eventually states that he feels his father is being treated unfairly and is innocent of the charges brought against him.

Although the case cannot put the al-Assad regime on trial, as the first international attempt to bring to justice those that have implemented some of Syria’s most murderous policies (one former gravedigger estimates that he processed at least 1.2 million bodies over a decade of working for the regime), it did serve to put Syria’s horrific repression more firmly on the agenda.

In January 2022, Raslan was found guilty of 27 out of 58 charges brought against him and sentenced to life imprisonment. His co-defendant, Eyad Al-Gharib, who cooperated with authorities, received a four-year prison sentence. It was big news at the time since overtaken by the war in Ukraine. But the German process continues, and other trials are underway – a reminder that eternal vigilance is necessary for peace to prevail.

Luna Watfa’s story is also a reminder that refugees are human beings who have value to offer to the countries that accept them. Perhaps Britain’s Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who has just introduced cruel and almost certainly illegal legislation to stop refugees fleeing across the Channel to seek asylum, might benefit from watching The Journalist and Her Jailers. But then again, as Britain’s jailer and Deporter-in-Chief, the vile Ms Braverman would probably not understand a second of this film of courage and hope.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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