The landmark case – the first criminal complaint accepted against President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces by a European court – has been brought on behalf of the victim’s sister, a Spanish citizen who lives in Madrid.
Lawyers acting for the woman, known as Mrs AH, argue that she is the victim of her brother’s forced disappearance, torture and execution – and that the Spanish courts have the jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the case.
On Monday, Judge Eloy Velasco of Spain’s national court accepted their arguments and ordered an investigation to be opened.
Details of the driver’s fate emerged after a Syrian forensic officer defected in September 2013, fleeing the country with more than 50,000 photographs. The pictures taken by Caesar – the pseudonym by which he is known – contain images of the bodies of more than 6,000 victims.
Among them were images of the tortured and dead body of Mrs AH’s brother, who was illegally detained by security forces in February 2013. His family learned of his torture and murder in a Damascus detention centre through the photos.
Lawyers for Mrs AH filed their complaint with the Spanish courts at the end of January this year.
Almudena Bernabéu, a partner at the Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, which is acting for Mrs AH, described the judge’s decision as significant for all those who had suffered in Syria.
“Judge Velasco’s decision is a massively important step in the effort that some European jurisdictions are making to create an investigative commission that brings together their efforts and allows justice to be done in this terrible humanitarian crisis.”
Moves to bring Assad and his regime to justice have been thwarted because Syria is not a signatory to the ICC, and China and Russia have vetoed a resolution referring Syria to the court.
Another of Mrs AH’s lawyers – Maite Parejo of Guernica 37’s Madrid partners, G37 Despacho Internacional – said the judge’s decision represented an “extraordinary step in fighting against impunity in Syria and demonstrates the importance of the principal of universal jurisdiction when investigating international crimes”.
Mrs AH’s legal team says the Spanish courts now have the opportunity to investigate the facts, determine responsibility and “bring justice to the thousands of victims of the international crimes committed by the Syrian regime” over the past six years.
It says that the evidence submitted clearly shows that the Assad regime has been committing acts of terrorism by using its security forces and intelligence agencies to punish the civilian population.
The lawyers argue that a national security plan designed to silence dissent and suppress protests has given rise to “a policy of mass arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, torture and systematic execution”.
“As a consequence, tens of thousands of civilians have been deprived of their liberty and transferred to detention centres where they have been subject to brutal methods of torture and held in acutely overcrowded cells under conditions that cannot be said to be anything other than inhumane,” they said.