Human rights lawyers have today filed the first ever case against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his government at The Hague, after making a “breakthrough” in attempts to hold the regime to account.
The lawsuit, which was submitted to the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Thursday, is on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees in Jordan who were forcibly displaced.
Each of the 28 has testified about being bombed, shot at, detained, tortured, and having witnessed mass killings since the war began in 2011, which forced them to flee.
The ICC can investigate international crimes in any country if the United Nations Security Council requests it do so, as has happened in Sudan and Libya. However, Russia and China, both allies of the Assad regime, blocked a request by the US to bring Syria before the court in 2014.
A modest number of prosecutions have been brought against Syria in Germany and Sweden using universal jurisdiction, whereby perpetrators of international crimes can be prosecuted in these states irrespective of their citizenship, but they have been largely symbolic.
British lawyers are now attempting to use a legal precedent set by a landmark ICC decision made in September on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The court found that while Burma, also known as Myanmar, is not a member, Bangladesh is, and that because part of the alleged crime of deportation happened on Bangladeshi territory the chief prosecutor had jurisdiction.
The lawyers are trying to use the same principle in the case of the two-dozen Syrian refugees in Jordan, whom they say represent thousands of other victims of alleged crimes against humanity.
“All the crimes the Syrian government has committed over the years – the bombing, the chemical attacks, haven’t been able to be considered as they happened inside Syria and Syria isn’t a member of the ICC,” Rodney Dixon QC, an international human rights lawyer working with a team from London-based solicitors Stoke White, told the Telegraph.
“There had been a stalemate for years, but the recent Rohingya case has been a breakthrough, a gateway if you like.
“We are asking the prosecutor to investigate mass deportations, so they could issue arrest warrants for those responsible. This goes all the way up the chain to Assad, the commander-in-chief,” he said. “If found responsible, these people could face arrest if they travel to ICC member countries.
“We just hope it will act as a deterrent, particularly with the fate of Idlib in the balance,” said Mr Dixon, referring to the densely populated last opposition-held province in Syria which is currently under attack by the government.
Since 2011, more than 600,000 have been killed and half the country’s 21 million population has been either internally or externally displaced.
The Assad government, which is led by the Muslim Alawite minority, has faced accusations of repopulation along sectarian lines.
In strategic areas across the country, Sunnis, who have largely supported the uprising against the regime, have been forced out.
One of the 28 included in the lawsuit told how they were forced to flee to Jordan, which is hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
One woman, who requested anonymity because of a fear of reprisal, described how government forces targeted her family after her brother decided to leave the military. She testified about repeated raids on her family’s home in the middle of the night, threatening her family with death when they did not find him.
They fled from Syria to Jordan in late 2011.
Another, from the central Syrian city of Homs, said she became a target because of her work treating protesters in the early days of the conflict.
She said the army tried to recruit her eldest son, but he refused. “He was taken away and brought back to our house a few days later, he was bruised all over and didn’t recognise me,” she said. “We knew we had to leave.
“I left with my four other children and we made our way to Jordan,” said the woman, who is now living in Zaatari refugee camp. “It was a very difficult journey. I haven’t heard from my son in all these years, I don’t know if he is alive or dead.”