The first trial of suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's security services for crimes against humanity, including torturing and killing opposition activists, will start next month, a German court said on Tuesday.
In a move welcomed by campaigners as sending a signal to those affected by oppression in Syria, German prosecutors have used universal jurisdiction laws that allow them to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
The court in the western city of Koblenz said it had given the green light to a trial starting on April 23.
The first suspect, identified under Germany's privacy rules only as Anwar R., 57, is charged with 58 murders, at least one rape and multiple sexual assaults in a Damascus prison where at least 4,000 opposition activists were tortured in 2011 and 2012.
Victims were believed to have been beaten, kicked and given electric shocks by interrogators trying to extract information about the opposition movement, the court said in a statement.
In addition, prisoners were believed to have been refused medical treatment, underfed and confined to overfull cells where there was no room to sit down.
Prosecutors say Anwar R. oversaw interrogations before leaving Syria in 2012. He arrived in Germany in 2014.
The second suspect, Eyad A., 43, is charged with facilitating the torture of at least 30 opposition activists arrested after an anti-Assad demonstration in 2011. He arrived in Germany in April 2018.
Efforts to prosecute members of Assad's government have failed because Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Russia and China have also vetoed attempts to set up a Syria special tribunal.
However, lawyers in Europe have collected testimony from survivors among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have sought refuge to prosecute members of Assad's government.
The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which is supporting 16 Syrians in the proceedings, welcomed the trial.
"The trial in Koblenz is an important step, if only a beginning on the long road to justice," said Patrick Kroker, head of the ECCHR's Syria project.
"Our goal is to bring to justice high-ranking members of Assad's security apparatus who are responsible for torture, sexual violence, executions and the disappearance of tens of thousands of people in Syria," he added.
The suspects, in detention, were arrested in Feb. 2019. The court set trial dates through to Aug. 13, but said there may be more beyond that.