Guernica 37
Guernica 37

“Could a Spanish lawsuit against the Assad regime finally deliver justice for Syrians?” – CBC Radio

Image by: Freedom House

Rachel Giese, from the Canadian broadcast CBC Radio, spoke to Almudena Bernabéu about the possibilities to prosecute the Assad regime under International Law. She mentioned the criminal complaint that Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers and G37 Despacho Internacional filed against nine members of the Syrian security and intelligence forces before the Spanish National Court, and discussed about political interests that have undermined accountability in Syria. With regards to the process before the Spanish National Court, Mrs. Bernabeu stated: “it feels like an enormous responsibility, and at the same time, an honour — that we are able to provide at least on behalf of the victims, a little peace, and a little contribution to help expose this use, and to do something for accountability“.  


On Tuesday, more than 80 people, including many children, were killed in the worst chemical weapons attack in Syria in at least four years. Syrian government forces are widely believed to be responsible.

The use of chemical weapons is a war crime under international law. And this attack was swiftly condemned by governments and advocacy groups around the world.

President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people before. But he has yet to face any serious consequences, in large part because the rest of the world can’t seem to find a way to act.

The U.N. Security Council has been blocked from taking action because of vetoes by Russia and China. Russia has also blocked efforts to prosecute Syrian officials at the International Criminal Court.

In the mean time, evidence of regime-sanctioned violence has been piling up. With heads of state locked in a stalemate, legal experts around the world are taking it upon themselves to act by taking the Syrian regime to court.

Last week, a Spanish judge agreed to hear a case against nine high-ranking Syrian officials over the torture and murder of a Syrian truck driver. It’s the first criminal case against the Assad regime to be accepted by a Western court. The lawyers behind the case hope it will mark a turning point in their efforts to hold the Assad regime to account for its actions.

One of those lawyers is Almudena Bernabéu, a partner with the Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers.

“It feels like an enormous responsibility, and at the same time, an honour — that we are able to provide at least on behalf of the victims, a little peace, and a little contribution to help expose this use, and to do something for accountability,” she tells Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese.

Bernabéu’s case is based on the “universal jurisdiction” principle, which was developed during the Nuremburg trials after WWII. The principle applies to crimes against humanity — such as torture or genocide — inflicted by the state.

Spain’s role in enforcing this principle goes back to 1996, when the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested by a Spanish magistrate.

“I thought that was very interesting,” Bernabéu says.

“Many, like myself, became lawyers in the midst of that, because we truly believed that we could find a way of putting the national courts to the service of the victims of human rights abuse.”

The plantiff in this case is a Syrian woman living in Spain whose brother was tortured to death by the Syrian government. While Bernabéu is using her country’s courts for this, the goals of this prosecution may be different from other cases.

“As a lawyer, when you do criminal law, you hope for people to be arrested and to be jailed. But sometimes when you do human rights litigationm that may not necessarily be the key to success,” says Bernabéu.

“To be frank, I would love for this case to contribute to the truth — that between March 2011 and February 2013, there was a campaign from the state to kill anybody that would oppose the government. Everything was set up to be able to do this, in an indiscriminate way of killing the Syrian people, just because.”

“So if we could contribute to that, [and] also to make his life a little bit more difficult as a leader or as a potential negotiator, I will be very pleased.”

While Bernabéu’s case doesn’t deal directly with this week’s chemical attack, she agrees that it adds urgency to the work she is doing.

“I know that the case is not going to fix this, but at least it’s a beginning,” Bernabéu says.

“So I think that if anything, the attack this week shows what we are trying to say  — that this is intolerable, this is indiscriminate, and nobody is stopping this guy from doing whatever he wants.”


This article and the podcast of Rachel Giese’s conversation with Almudena Bernabéu were published on 7th April 2017 at CBC Radio.

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