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Switzerland Moves to Prosecute Rifaat al-Assad for 1982 War Crimes

Published March 12, 2024
2 months ago

In a significant step toward accountability for historical war crimes, Switzerland is poised to put Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on trial. The Swiss Attorney General's Office announced the referral, shining a spotlight on allegations that have persisted for over four decades.

Rifaat al-Assad, 86, is charged with playing a commanding role in the 1982 massacre in the Syrian city of Hama, where thousands of civilians are believed to have perished during an assault to quell a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Prosecutors accuse the former vice president of ordering homicides, tortures, cruel treatments, and illegal detentions.

The indictment outlines a harrowing picture of the conflict in Hama, with death toll estimates ranging widely from 3,000 to 60,000. The prosecution claims these acts were part of a "widespread and systematic attack launched against the population of the city" that qualifies as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The historic case is a testament to the long arm of international jurisdiction which empowers nations to prosecute egregious crimes irrespective of where they transpired. Swiss law has held war crimes as criminal offenses under its former Military Criminal Code since 1968, a statute that disregards both the perpetrators' and victims' nationalities.

Distancing itself from principles of territoriality, Switzerland asserts its place within the global legal landscape, reinforcing the notion that justice knows no borders. The presence of Rifaat al-Assad in Switzerland at the time the investigation was initiated provided the necessary link for Swiss authorities to proceed with their jurisdiction.

While the announcement did not include a trial date, the gravity of the charges will be unpacked before the federal criminal court in Bellinzona. This decision underlines Switzerland's robust stance against impunity and its dedication to upholding human rights.

Notwithstanding the potential outcome, Rifaat al-Assad may escape incarceration in Switzerland due to complexities in international relations and enforcement. His return to Syria following a conviction in France for other crimes suggests he might evade serving any sentence imposed by the Swiss court. Nonetheless, the trial itself holds symbolic and legal significance, as it demonstrates a commitment to seeking justice even years after the alleged crimes occurred.

The case against Rifaat al-Assad was propelled by TRIAL International, a Geneva-based rights organization that advocates for victims and urges the prosecution of international criminals. The group's persistent efforts since their complaint filing in 2013 illustrate the critical role of civil society in advancing accountability for human rights violations.

Switzerland's move to prosecute these historical allegations manifests a clear message that time does not erase the crimes nor the quest for justice owed to the victims. It is a story of perseverance—a beacon for international human rights law, and an affirmation that the pursuit for accountability continues, unwavering and relentless.


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