War crimes round-up: Switzerland weighs in on elusive quest for justice over Syria Hama massacre

Geneva Solutions’s monthly “war criminal hunt” in collaboration with the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.

Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court (FCC) revealed this month that an international arrest warrant was launched last year against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s uncle in connection with war crimes committed in the city of Hama in 1982.

The wanted notice for Rifaat al-Assad, issued in July 2022 by the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) on the FCC’s orders, has only just been made public after being kept confidential to increase its chances of success.

Between 10,000 and 40,000 people are estimated to have died during a massive crackdown on the west-central city to quash an uprising that challenged the rule of then-President Hafez al-Assad. Witnesses and victims have recounted how Rifaat al-Assad – the commander of government special forces at the time – was present during the brutal crackdown and ordered his troops to “clean the town of the thugs”.

Al-Assad, dubbed “the butcher of Hama”, was staying in a five-star hotel in Geneva when Geneva-based NGO Trial International filed a complaint against him in 2013. His presence in Switzerland, however brief, was enough to trigger the exercise of universal jurisdiction.

However, it was only after a slow and lengthy investigation by the Swiss Office of the Attorney General that the federal prosecutor ordered the FOJ to issue the warrant in November 2021. The following month, the FOJ refused to do so, arguing that it couldn’t issue the warrant since al-Assad was no longer on Swiss territory. The case rose to the FCC, which ordered the FOJ to issue the warrant the following year regardless.

In the course of this procedural back and forth, Rifaat al-Assad had been investigated for, charged, and convicted of financial offences in France, where he had been residing. He was also under investigation in Spain for other financial charges.

By the time the Swiss authorities managed to act definitively on the case and issue the international warrant, Rifaat al-Assad had already left France, avoiding a four-year prison sentence, and returned to Syria.

Whether he will ever stand trial in Switzerland for his alleged crimes remains to be seen. This whole process also begs the question of why France and Switzerland could not have collaborated to prevent al-Assad from fleeing France right under the nose of the authorities. Nevertheless, for his victims, this warrant, thanks to the tenacity of a Geneva NGO, remains a significant step forward in obtaining accountability for these crimes.

Here’s what else happened this month

  • Former Algerian defence minister to stand trial in Switzerland. In 2011, while Khaled Nezzar was visiting Geneva, he was arrested after Trial International filed a complaint against him for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. In the indictment released on Monday, the Swiss prosecutors stated that Nezzar “knowingly and willingly condoned, coordinated and encouraged” acts of torture, arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions and other atrocities against members of Islamist groups. He is set to be the highest-ranking military official ever to be tried for war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
  • Suriname mass murder trial drawing to a close. In 2019, former President Dési Bouterse was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a military court for ordering the executions of 15 men who had opposed the military dictatorship in 1982 in what became known as the December murders. His appeal is in its final stages, and a decision is expected later this year.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) adopts law on civilian victims of war. The government of BiH’s new law recognises special statuses for certain victims of war, such as children born of wartime rape and victims of conflict-related sexual violence. It facilitates, for example, access to education, medical care, and other social benefits.
  • Norway police probe TikTok murder claims. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression has filed a criminal complaint before Norwegian authorities to investigate a series of videos live-streamed TikTok. In the videos, Iraqi citizen Hussein Al-Hujaimi appears to confess to murder, rape and other crimes he claims to have committed when he was part of a paramilitary group in Syria. Al-Hujaimi has been living in Norway for the past six years.
  • UK officially recognises Yazidi genocide. The British government has formally acknowledged the atrocities committed by Islamic State against the Yazidi people in Iraq in 2014 as “acts of genocide”. This comes after a German court found a former IS fighter guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity earlier this year. It is the fifth genocide the UK officially recognised after the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Cambodia.
  • US to assist the International Criminal Court in Ukraine investigations. The United States has passed legislation allowing it to cooperate with the ICC in its investigations into crimes committed during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This is despite the US not being a party to the Court.
  • UN judges reject alternative procedure for Rwanda genocide suspect. Appeals judges have rejected a decision by a United Nations court to set up a procedure for hearing evidence against Félicien Kabuga, a Rwandan genocide suspect with Alzheimer’s who was declared unfit to stand trial. The decision came as a Brussels court has maintained that Pierre Bababosé, a Rwandan businessman and former soldier with limited mental capacity due to his age, should still face trial for genocide charges.

Picture: Landscape of the city of Hama, Syria, where the allege crimes were committed by Rifaat Al-Assad. COMMONS WIKIMEDIA