By Andreas Buerger
KOBLENZ, Germany (Reuters) - A German court sentenced a former member of President Bashar al-Assad's security services to 4-1/2 years in prison on Wednesday for abetting the torture of civilians, the first such verdict for crimes against humanity in the 10-year-old Syrian civil war.
The higher regional court in the western city of Koblenz said Eyad A. had arrested at least 30 anti-government protesters at the start of the conflict in 2011 and sent them to an intelligence facility where he knew detainees were tortured.
The verdict gives hope to the 800,000 Syrians in Germany who say they were tortured in government facilities after attempts to establish an international tribunal for Syria failed.
"This is an important step forward in the process of securing accountability for the Syrian government's systematic use of torture against civilians," said Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Foundation's Justice Initiative, which is representing Syrian plaintiffs.
The Assad government denies it tortures prisoners.
Eyad A.'s lawyers had asked for an acquittal, saying he had carried out the arrests in and around Damascus under duress by his superiors. He had asked the court to consider him a witness in broader legal efforts against the Syrian government.
Handcuffed and wearing a burgundy track suit, Eyad A., who arrived in Germany in 2018 and was granted asylum, covered his face with a paper document as policemen walked him to a glass cubicle to await the verdict.
He remained stoic and did not appear surprised as the verdict was read out, said two Syrian lawyers at the court.
The case against him was mainly based on evidence of his work for the intelligence service that he had given to German immigration authorities and police when he applied for asylum.
The same court will continue hearings in the case of a second suspect identified as Anwar R., a former intelligence officer charged with 58 murders in a Damascus prison where prosecutors say at least 4,000 opposition activists were tortured in 2011 and 2012.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Twitter hailed the court decision as an "historic verdict" as it "has high symbolic significance for many people, not just in Syria".
Prosecutors secured the trial under Germany's universal jurisdiction laws, which allow courts to prosecute crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said the unprecedented verdict would speed up efforts to bring charges against former members of the Syrian government suspected of war crimes who have fled to Europe.
"History has been made," said al-Bunni. "The first verdict against a member of the Syrian regime's torture and murder machine is a verdict against the whole regime, not just against one individual. It gives hope that justice is possible."
Russia and China have vetoed at the U.N. Security Council attempts by western powers to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court, leaving survivors of torture and chemical weapons attacks with limited options to seek justice.
"Any sentence is too little compared to the crimes," said Wassim Mukdad, a plaintiff and witness in the Koblenz trials. "This is just the beginning and the day will come when Bashar al-Assad, the army and intelligence generals are put on trial."
(Additional reporting by Riham Alkousaa in Berlin; Writing by Joseph Nasr, Editing by William Maclean)