Swedish court acquits former Syrian army general accused of role in war crimes

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — A Swedish judge on Thursday acquitted a former Syrian army general of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in his home country more than a decade ago, saying prosecutors failed to provide evidence of his involvement in the war crimes.

Brig. Gen. Mohammed Hamo, who now lives in Sweden, was charged in February with aiding and abetting crimes against international law. Prosecutors said that as head of the Ordnance Department of the Syrian Army's 11th Division, he was responsible for providing the weapons that were used to commit war crimes in 2012.

The prosecutor alleged that Hamo, described by Swedish news agency TT as the highest-ranking officer to stand trial in a European court for such crimes in Syria, had participated in the division’s indiscriminate attacks on military and civilian targets in the Syrian cities of Homs and Hama.

The Stockholm District Court said it was clear that the Syrian army’s warfare included “indiscriminate attacks” that violated international law. But Judge Katarina Fabian said prosecutors did not produce sufficient evidence to convict Hamo.

During the trial, the prosecution chiefly relied on video clips, photographs and testimonies to paint a broad picture of the period showing shelling and fighting between Syrian Army and armed groups. The videos included documentaries by the British Broadcasting Corporation to depict the situation in the region around Homs in 2011 and 2012. None of the material implicated directly Hamo.

Little is known about the 65-year-old Hamo. In June 2012, he was transferred to northern Syria, and the following month he decided to leave the army and fled to Turkey. There, he joined a group that was fighting against the Syrian regime.

He traveled to Sweden in 2015, where he sought asylum. He was granted asylum, but Sweden's Migration Board informed the authorities that Hamo was previously "a senior officer within the framework of an army that was systematically considered to have committed violations of human rights,” the court said.

Hamo was living in central Sweden when he was arrested on December 7, 2021. A court at the time released him two days later, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to keep him incarcerated. He has since been free.

The unrest in Syria between Assad’s regime and opposition groups began in March 2011, and later exploded into a civil war that has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.

Chief prosecutor Karolina Wieslander said there was no decision yet on whether to appeal the ruling.

She it had been “a tough case to investigate" because the country was still at war, making it “hard to gather evidence.” She said it was a positive sign that the court ruled that "what the Syrian government did was war crimes.”

A lawyer for the eight plaintiffs who backed the case against Hamo told Swedish broadcaster SVT that they need to read the verdict before deciding whether to appeal.

The plaintiffs included a man whose brother was killed in attacks on Homs, as well as a British and a French journalist — Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy — who were injured in an attack on a media center in Baba Amr in February 2012. Veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin was killed in the same attack.

Aida Samani of the Stockholm-based Civil Rights Defenders, a politically independent human rights organization which had been present during the trial but was not a part of it, said the news was disappointing for the victims and the thousands of others affected by the attacks.

She added that it was believed the first time that a court of law recognized the attacks in the said period as war crimes.

Hamo maintained his innocence throughout the trial at the Stockholm District Court, which took place from April 15 to May 21.

Jan M. Olsen, The Associated Press