Paris court upholds validity of France’s arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar Assad

PARIS (AP) — The Paris appeals court ruled on Wednesday that an international arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar Assad issued by France for alleged complicity in war crimes during Syria’s civil war is valid and remains in place, lawyers said.

Jeanne Sulzer and Clemence Witt, lawyers who represented the plaintiffs and non-governmental organizations who filed the complaint against the Syrian president in France, hailed the decision as a historic judgment and “a giant step forward in the fight against impunity.”

In May, French anti-terrorism prosecutors asked the Paris appeals court to rule on lifting the arrest warrant for Assad, saying he has absolute immunity as a serving head of state.

“It’s the first time that a national court has recognized that the personal immunity of a serving head of state is not absolute,” the lawyers told The Associated Press.

French judicial authorities issued international arrest warrants last November for Assad; his brother Maher Assad, the commander of the 4th Armored Division; and two Syrian generals, Ghassan Abbas and Bassam al-Hassan, for alleged complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity. They include a 2013 chemical attack on then opposition-held Damascus suburbs.

Victims of the attack welcomed France’s decision to issue arrest warrants as a reminder of the horrors of Syria’s civil war.

The four individuals named in the arrest warrants can be arrested and brought to France for questioning while the investigation into the 2013 attacks in Eastern Ghouta and Douma continues, the lawyers said. While President Assad is unlikely to face trial in France, international warrants for a serving world leader are very rare and send a strong message about Assad’s leadership at a time when some countries have welcomed him back into the diplomatic fold.

More than 1,000 people were killed and thousands were injured in the August 2013 attacks on Douma and Eastern Ghouta.

The investigation into the attacks has been conducted under universal jurisdiction in France by a special unit of the Paris Judicial Court. It was opened in 2021 in response to a criminal complaint by the survivors filed by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

The director of the center, Syrian lawyer Mazen Darwish, said “the landmark decision is not only a victory for Syrian victims, but for victims everywhere.”

“This is a historical opportunity to correct the legal and moral wrong,” Darwish said in an interview. “It shows that there is no immunity when we are talking about crimes against humanity and using chemical weapons against civilians.”

Assad’s government was widely deemed by the international community to be responsible for the sarin gas attack in the then-opposition-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta. The Syrian government and its allies have denied responsibility and said the attack was carried out by opposition forces trying to push for foreign military intervention.

The United States threatened military retaliation in the aftermath of the attack, with then-President Barack Obama saying use of chemical weapons by Assad would be Washington’s “red line.” However, the U.S. public and Congress were wary of a new war, as invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq had turned into quagmires.

Washington settled for a deal with Moscow for Syria to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.

Syria says it eliminated its chemical arsenal under the 2013 agreement. However, watchdog groups have continued to allege chemical attacks by Syrian government forces since then.

Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, meaning the court does not have jurisdiction there. However, human rights lawyers in the past have urged prosecutors to open an investigation into crimes during the country’s civil war, arguing that the court could exercise jurisdiction over Syrian civilians forced into Jordan, which is a member of the court.

So far, the court has not opened an investigation.

In addition to France, complaints relating to the chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Shaykhun in 2017 were submitted to authorities in Germany in 2020 and in Sweden in 2021, based on witness testimonies, visual evidence and information about the chain of command of the entities suspected of carrying out the attacks.

An investigative team at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has repeatedly found that Syrian forces used chemical weapons, including in the April 2018 attack on Douma. However, the OPCW does not have any means of prosecuting perpetrators.

In a separate case, a Paris court last month sentenced three high-ranking Syrian officials in absentia to life in prison for complicity in war crimes in a landmark case against Assad’s government and the first such case in Europe.


Surk reported from Nice. Associated Press journalists Diane Jeantet in Paris and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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