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The Man Who Wants to Take Down Bashar Al Assad

Wolfgang Kaleck is using the justice system to do what nation-states will not or cannot.

Goetz Schleser/laif/Redux

Wolfgang Kaleck, a 60-year-old human rights lawyer with large blue eyes and a wave of sandy brown hair, smiles a lot for someone who has spent his life litigating some of the world’s worst atrocities. “The stories you hear you won’t forget,” he says, sitting at a long table in his office in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. “But at the same time you learn about these cruel facts of the world, you learn about the light side, which is that there’s resistance basically everywhere.” He should know: For the better part of three decades, he has pursued cases across borders on behalf of victims who have been disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina and spied upon by the East German Stasi. He has filed criminal complaints against former U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, and current Director Gina Haspel. And now he’s taking on one of the biggest bad guys of them all: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Under charges brought by the German Federal Prosecutor, members of the Assad regime are being tried at a courthouse in Koblenz, a small city on the Rhine between Cologne and Frankfurt, for crimes against humanity. It is the first trial to target high-ranking officials involved in a war that Assad has been waging against his own people with impunity since an uprising against his regime exploded in 2011; his crackdown has claimed an estimated 400,000 Syrian lives. For victims of the regime and their family members, this courthouse is a world away from the conflict they left behind in Syria—but it’s also perhaps the best way to bring justice back to their homeland, which continues to be ground into dust by a conflict that has served as a proxy battle for a slew of outside forces.

The trial, which began in April, has been long in the making. Far beyond the courthouse, through years’ worth of gathered documents and victim interviews and cross-cultural legal exchange, Wolfgang Kaleck has worked to make this attempt at justice. A German human rights lawyer with uncommon dedication and persistence, he is the main reason such a trial is even possible.

Over the past eight years, Kaleck has led his nonprofit organization, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, or ECCHR, on a painstaking legal mission to hold the Assad regime responsible for its crimes. The international community has been unable to successfully condemn, let alone prosecute, these offenses. An effort in the United Nations Security Council to refer the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to the International Criminal Court was blocked by Russia and China, leaving few options on the table for Assad’s opponents.

Armed with a German law allowing crimes committed in one country to be prosecuted in another—an example of a relatively novel legal concept known as universal jurisdiction—Kaleck and a team of collaborating nongovernmental organizations, witnesses, and victims are stepping in where others won’t. Thanks largely to Kaleck’s strength of purpose, two of Assad’s cronies are being tried for their role in the death, abuse, and torture of thousands of Syrians. One of the accused is Anwar Raslan, the former head of the regime’s secret police who oversaw these abuses in the notorious Al Khateeb prison located in a facility called Branch 251. Kaleck is not just representing his clients but making their outrage his own. “I think I crossed the line and there is no way back,” he says, smiling.

No one believes that a verdict will be handed down soon, or that Assad himself will be brought to Koblenz in handcuffs. Rather, the deliberate pace of developing the case so far, already nearly a decade in the works, is the point: to gradually build pressure. For Kaleck, the slow march is the only way to engage in these kinds of delicate cases that, hinging as they do on the courage of traumatized survivors and the zeal of national-level prosecutors, could disintegrate if rushed. Through ECCHR, Kaleck has transformed a career-long capacity for such deliberateness into an international cadre of lawyers and partner organizations working to force forward litigation on crimes not easily held to account.

Kaleck pushes, using strategically selected cases, to accelerate political action. He thinks of it as a kind of activism—involving reams of documents, interviews with hundreds of survivors, and cross-cultural legal exchanges—that is a departure from what human rights organizations have done in the past. He contrasted his approach to the “Amnesty International model of human rights: writing letters and pleading for amnesty.”

He added, “I’m not judging. That might have been the right approach over the years. Amnesty was and is successful. But for many decades it was the model for human rights work, and I think that’s wrong.”

The Amnesty model might also be increasingly out of step with an international order that has changed decisively in the last four years, as autocrats in Russia and China have consolidated their gains, the United States has partially receded from the stage of global affairs, and the entire world has been brought low by the coronavirus pandemic. If monsters like Assad are to be curbed, it just might be through the actions of people like Kaleck.

Kaleck was raised in West Germany, in a small town near the Dutch border. After getting his law degree in Bonn, he bucked the corporate track and moved to Berlin. It was the late 1980s, a politically turbulent time as the Cold War entered its final throes, and Kaleck’s interests quickly bent toward activism. He joined those calling for the Berlin Wall to come down, protested against the G7, and agitated against U.S.-backed military regimes in Latin America. During his legal traineeship, he followed a girlfriend across the Atlantic and ended up in Mexico City, working for an exiled human rights group representing victims of the military dictatorship in Guatemala.

It was a formative experience. In his 2015 memoir, Law Versus Power, Kaleck writes about meeting people who had seen their villages razed and their neighbors murdered. With no viable court system under the dictatorship and no international criminal court then in existence, the victims had little recourse but to share their stories with legal aid groups hoping to gather enough international support for an intervention. He learned how slow this process could be, how small the hope that anything could change, and how the very evidence they accumulated could be used by foreign actors, like the U.S., for their own narrow geopolitical interests. And as a German, he knew there was only so much he could do outside his home country. He returned to Berlin in late 1990, just as Germany was beginning the awkward reunification of West and East.

There, he opened a law firm with Dieter Hummel, another young lawyer interested in human rights. Berlin offered plenty of work for left-leaning lawyers throughout the 1990s, and they loaded up with cases of the downtrodden, persecuted, and oppressed in Berlin and the surrounding former East. They represented punks, squatters, immigrants, people who were beaten badly or killed by neo-Nazis. Kaleck worked with many East Berliners to access the files kept on them by the Stasi—a rare window into the workings of one of the most notorious arms of the East German Communist government. “There were few offices that did what we did,” says Hummel, who still runs the firm, now known as DKA, today.

Kaleck developed a reputation for punching up, pursuing human rights cases with long odds and targets seemingly out of reach. Though cases in Germany kept him busy, he was by now an avowed internationalist looking to use his skills on more intractable legal challenges around the world.

It was a burgeoning field for human rights lawyers. Ad hoc tribunals had been established over war crimes and atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Lawyers and prosecutors in Spain, France, and Italy began opening cases against military dictatorships in Latin America on behalf of exiles. In the mold of the Nuremberg trials, these proceedings brought international standards of justice to bear on people who had used their power to escape repercussions back home. The watershed moment came in the fall of 1998, when prosecutors in Spain issued an international arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was then arrested in London. Suddenly, the prospect of pursuing seemingly untouchable strongmen became more realistic. “The feeling was, something is possible,” Kaleck says.

Around this time, a German group known as the Coalition Against Impunity began pushing for similar prosecutions against the military dictatorship in Argentina, which disappeared an estimated 30,000 people in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Representing about 100 known victims of the dictatorship with German citizenship or roots, the group began filing criminal complaints for several victims. Given his experience in Latin America, Kaleck was asked by the group to travel to Argentina in 1999 to gather more evidence and testimonies.

It was there he met Ellen Marx. Born in Berlin in 1921 to a Jewish family, she came to Argentina alone in 1939 to escape the Nazis. In 1976, her daughter was kidnapped by the Argentine military and never seen again. Marx became one of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared who had been staging weekly silent protests in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires since 1977. When Kaleck met her, more than 20 years after the disappearance of her daughter, she warned Kaleck that this sort of activism was slow-going; that he would need, above all, “patience and persistence,” she told him.

With evidence Kaleck helped gather in Argentina, more than 40 victims’ cases were opened by German prosecutors against the dictatorship. Though these inquiries were eventually dropped in Germany, they helped pressure the Argentine government in the early 2000s to reopen cases domestically. By the time Marx died, in 2008, several hundred cases were being prosecuted and tried in Argentina. Her decades-long struggle had a lasting impact on Kaleck. “Ellen Marx was probably one of the most important people in my life,” he says.

Anwar Raslan came to Germany in 2014 with his family. He had defected from the Syrian regime in 2012, and was granted asylum. But he was not the average defector. A former colonel of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, Raslan was essentially the head of Syria’s secret police. He led Damascus’s notorious Branch 251 site, which included a prison that held and tortured critics of the regime. In cells the size of a parking space, dozens of people were packed in so tightly they could only sleep standing up. The torture was sadistic: beatings, burnings, and sexual mutilation often turned deadly. Now the main defendant in the trial in Koblenz, Raslan is facing life in prison for crimes including direct involvement in the deaths of 58 people, rape, and sexual assault, as well as the torture of at least 4,000 others between 2011 and 2012. Another lower-level official, Eyad Al Gharib, is also being tried for aiding and abetting the torture of at least 30 people at Branch 251.

Back in 2014, Raslan was just another Syrian in Berlin, part of a wave of refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria that would number in the hundreds of thousands across Germany by 2015. Raslan had attended U.N.–sponsored talks in Geneva as an adviser to the opposition, which helped his case for asylum in Germany but also put him at some risk. In Berlin, he began to worry that Syrian intelligence agents were roaming the city looking for traitors. Fearing for his life, he went to the police. Under questioning, he told the police about his concerns and about his position and responsibilities in Syria. Three years later, all this information would be used to help justify Raslan’s arrest.

The case against Raslan has been orchestrated by Kaleck and ECCHR. The organization has been working since 2012 to develop cases against the Assad regime, based on evidence provided by collaborators and testimonies collected from victims. Key evidence against Raslan came from the Caesar Files Group, an organization of activists and lawyers representing a former Syrian military police photographer who defected and smuggled out tens of thousands of photos of tortured and murdered victims. Despite Raslan’s defection, which some see as more opportunistic than authentic, there is strong evidence implicating him in these crimes.

Kaleck and ECCHR have also been working closely with Anwar Al Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, and Mazen Darwish, another Syrian lawyer who leads the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, to collect the stories of torture survivors. Alongside other Syrian and international NGOs, including the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Kaleck and his team have meticulously gathered the pieces of this puzzle, which helps them assess which perpetrators to target.

In March 2017, ECCHR, Al Bunni, and Darwish submitted their first criminal complaint against high-level officials of the Syrian Military Intelligence Service, based on the testimony of seven people who witnessed or experienced torture in Syrian prisons. The German Federal Prosecutor quickly took up the case. It was a milestone in the international effort to hold the regime accountable and led to a series of additional criminal complaints being filed over the following months, including one against Jamil Hassan, former head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate and one of the top members of the Assad regime. After five years of work, Kaleck had opened the door for Germany to act.

“He has a sense that I haven’t seen anywhere else, to that degree, about possibilities. When to bring a case, when to make it big. Of course, he’s not always right, but with Syria he was so right,” says Patrick Kroker, the ECCHR lawyer who is now representing seven joint plaintiffs in the case against Raslan and Al Gharib, who were both arrested in 2019. “Since then, it’s become the biggest topic in international justice.” Similar criminal complaints have since been filed in Austria, Sweden, and Norway, and more international arrest warrants have been issued in France.

This approach is often referred to as strategic litigation, the gradual accumulation of evidence and the filing of cases even when they’re unlikely to result in prosecutions anytime soon. But Kaleck says the term strategic litigation is too broad, signifying some grand design, when so much of what makes or breaks these cases is chance. “Strategic and opportunistic have to go together,” Kaleck says, “You develop certain strategies over years, you lay the basis, and then you have to seize opportunities.”

Kaleck says Raslan is probably the lowest-ranking member of the regime that he and ECCHR will focus on. They are already on the lookout for more powerful quarry. In June 2018, the German Federal Court of Justice issued an international arrest warrant for Hassan, the former Air Force leader.

Ibrahim Alkasem, a Syrian lawyer and executive director of the Caesar Files Group who helped coordinate the use of the smuggled photographs as evidence, says the news of the arrest warrant was so surprising, he didn’t at first believe it. “I was frozen in place for two or three minutes because I couldn’t understand what was going on and how we could get this arrest warrant,” says Alkasem.

Given Hassan’s stature, he won’t be easy to capture. Still, Alkasem says it was a symbolic victory. “It was a strange feeling at that time, because you did something, but in the end, you didn’t do anything,” Alkasem says. “We are talking about all these crimes, all these numbers of victims, all these numbers of suspects and all these criminals, but then we have one arrest warrant against one of these criminals.”

“It’s a great step, but it’s not enough,” he adds.

Kaleck is well aware that his approach practically invites setbacks, frustrations, and seeming half-measures. In April 2004, barely a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, CBS News published a series of shocking photographs depicting the torture of prisoners held by American troops in the occupied Abu Ghraib prison. In one, a U.S. military officer holds the end of a dog’s leash that’s tied around the neck of a prisoner lying naked on the ground. In another, a hooded prisoner stands on a box, arms spread as if being crucified, with electric wires tied to his fingers. There were thousands more.

In 2002, Germany had passed the Code of Crimes Against International Law, which grants German law enforcement agencies and prosecutors worldwide jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The main intent of the law was for it to be used against perpetrators of these crimes who attempt to use Germany as a safe haven from prosecution in their own countries. But under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national authorities to investigate and prosecute international crimes even when committed beyond their borders, the German law would also serve as an avenue for justice for people in places where the judicial system is unable or unwilling to pursue cases.

In the months after the Abu Ghraib revelations, the U.S. government had made a show of calling for investigations into the individual military members involved in the photographs, but it exhibited no willingness to look into the chain of command that had allowed such torture—infamously referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—to occur. With Germany newly able to investigate these kinds of crimes against humanity, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, a well-regarded human rights legal organization based in New York that had filed criminal complaints in U.S. courts on behalf of prisoners, contacted Kaleck.

“I already had a full agenda for the whole year in 2004 when we decided in the summer to bring the cases,” he says. “But obviously it was worth it. It was the right thing, in the right moment, with the right people.”

Kaleck and a German legal group, the Republican Attorneys’ Association, joined with CCR and filed a criminal complaint for four Iraqi prisoners against Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and several other high-ranking U.S. officials, calling for investigations into the leadership’s liability in the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.

The case made international news, and boosted Kaleck’s reputation. A few months later, in early 2005, German prosecutors dropped the proceedings, citing ongoing investigations in the U.S. and saying they would only prosecute if the U.S. refused to; in the U.S., low-level members of the military were being court-martialed and sentenced to prison terms that would later end in early parole. But Kaleck and CCR weren’t dissuaded. In November 2006, days after Rumsfeld resigned as secretary of defense, they filed a new criminal complaint against Rumsfeld and Tenet, this time adding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone; and David Addington, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney. The case drew even more press, partly for the lawyers’ gall in coming back for another round against the behemoth of the U.S. government.

Kaleck and his collaborators weren’t particularly surprised when the case was again dropped. However, their effort was not for nothing. Similar charges were filed in Spain and France, bolstering the argument and building an international legal infrastructure to someday address those responsible for torture. The U.S. cases became a major focus of ECCHR after it was founded in 2007. This is the slow-game case-building of strategic litigation. For a law office, it’s hardly a sustainable business model. In 2007, Kaleck branched out from his more steady paying work to create his nongovernmental organization, focused specifically on these kinds of strategic cases. With support from donors and foundations, ECCHR got its footing after a few lean years and has since led various long campaigns, filing cases against European companies for liability in bombings in Yemen, the Sri Lankan military for civilian deaths in the final stages of its decades-long civil war, the German textile company Kik for a factory fire in Pakistan, and U.S. officials for torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

ECCHR would target high-ranking U.S. officials who had left office and lost their shields of immunity. The organization worked with various partners to call for the arrest of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for his complicity in a military coup in Chile, the Vietnam War, and other alleged war crimes. Kaleck grins at the memory of a complaint filed in Switzerland in 2011 against former President George W. Bush for torture. Bush had a trip to Geneva planned, but after the complaint was filed, the trip was canceled, which Kaleck believes was no coincidence. “We didn’t know if it would have come to a case,” Kaleck says, “but he didn’t know either.”

These kinds of big swings against the upper echelons of power quickly made ECCHR a go-to partner organization for complicated cases with international implications. This reputation is what led American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Ben Wizner to approach Kaleck in 2013 about building a European legal team for a new and suddenly high-profile client named Edward Snowden.

Snowden’s leaking of classified information on the mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency made him an instant pariah in the eyes of the U.S. government. At the time, it was unclear whether Snowden would be extradited, end up in Russia, or be granted asylum somewhere. Kaleck’s role was to prepare for any option in Europe and, above all, to have the patience to keep up the defense as long as needed. “He’s not the kind of lawyer who would push a client to take the best deal he could get on that day,” Wizner says. “With Snowden, the question was not ever what can we do immediately to achieve the best outcome. We could have that conversation, but only if we started with, ‘What are the actions that will advance the goals of surveillance and transparency reform?’”

Kaleck first met with Snowden in 2014 in Moscow. It was winter, and his phone mysteriously died on the trip. Though Snowden was world-famous by this point, Kaleck saw similarities with his other clients in Argentina and Syria. “When you hear him talking about the necessary changes, you will hear at least moments of disappointment and frustration that not much more happened,” Kaleck says. Over the years representing him, Kaleck says Snowden’s perseverance has only made his case stronger. But with his status in Russia still precarious, Snowden’s long exile has also been tragic. “Others must come to the plate,” Kaleck says.

Legal interventions can only go so far. Kaleck has come to invest less faith in the power of righteous lawsuits to make lasting change. The work, for him, has to be overtly political, applying pressure on governments and the international community to hold people responsible and intervene on behalf of the oppressed. “I’m not healing the world, and I’m not dedicating my time and my money to help the poor of the world, that’s not my approach. It’s about organizing global resistance, participating in global struggles for a just world,” he says. “I don’t want to appear as neutral or apolitical.”

“What makes Wolfgang successful is that he is able to understand both the power and the limitation of law,” says Camille Massey, executive director of the Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice at the City University of New York. Earlier this year, she invited Kaleck to her center as a scholar in residence, before the pandemic forced most of his lectures to be conducted virtually. Massey says she chose Kaleck because she wanted the young lawyers in her program to see that there are models for human rights work that can take different forms. It can’t just be theoretical, she says, and Kaleck’s work shows that there’s room for activism within human rights law.

And this approach is of particular importance now, she says, as authoritarianism flourishes across the globe and Western powers like the U.S. have largely abandoned their traditional (if often compromised and hypocritical) role as human rights champions. “If you have this vision, as Wolfgang does, of a rights-respecting world, not just to hold bad actors accountable, that means engaging with the political struggle and doing it in a very honest and authentic way,” Massey says. “If we don’t engage with the political, if we are pursuing this in isolation, it’s not going to be effective, it’s not going to generate the kind of popular pressure that we need to have changes in law and policy.”

Now 60, Kaleck has grown ECCHR to more than 30 lawyers and researchers working with partner organizations on cases around the world. His role has shifted from relentless agitator to senior adviser, guiding the cases under development and strategizing new opportunities. He’s working on a new book, on what he calls the concrete utopia of human rights. Before the pandemic, he spent much of his time traveling around the world to meet with lawyers and partner organizations, from groups fighting against companies producing hazardous pesticides in India to refugee-focused NGOs operating search-and-rescue boats in the Mediterranean, learning how their work can benefit from the network Kaleck has created.

The personal connections with clients are important to Kaleck, who still visits Argentina every year. Wizner says the pandemic has been especially challenging for Kaleck, whose efforts are not some grim drive to continuously unearth the most terrible acts committed by humankind, but a way to make connections and understand the world. It is what brings him joy. “This really is a seriously happy person,” Wizner says, “someone who really experiences life’s richness through this work.”

Hummel, who’s worked with Kaleck for 30 years, says it’s the only way he knows how to be. “That is Wolfgang’s life. It is not Wolfgang’s job. He lives for it.”

The trial of Anwar Raslan and Eyad Al Gharib is expected to last at least a year, maybe two. Court is in session in Koblenz a few days a week usually, and the pace will continue on a very slow and deliberate trajectory. So far, the judge has heard from German investigators and immigration officials, defectors who worked at Syrian prison sites, and the torture victims themselves. One, the Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, told the court how he was viciously tortured and sexually assaulted at Branch 251 in 2011, his captors forcing a stick in his anus. Fayyad, who fled to Turkey and returned to Syria surreptitiously to film parts of his Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary, Last Men in Aleppo, said in his testimony that he would be willing to forgive Raslan if he admitted that torture occurred there.

The first days of the trial drew press from around the world, but the attention has since died down as the trial plods along. On the podcast Branch 251, which has been covering the trial, one courtroom observer said Raslan has been mostly disinterested in the proceedings, jotting notes and conferring with his lawyers only periodically.

Kaleck resisted attending the trial for months, worrying it would be difficult to sit in the audience, unable to argue the case, to ask questions, to push the truth onto the public record. But he’s confident in Kroker, ECCHR’s lead attorney running the prosecution. And if Kaleck has learned anything in his long career, it’s that cases of this magnitude are much bigger than the lawyer standing before the judge.

He calls it part of a mosaic, one piece of a picture that’s only been made visible by evidence collected from people around the world. Using universal jurisdiction to bring this case has been its own victory, in a way, showing that these disparate parts can tell a clear narrative of wrongdoing. But if it’s to mean anything, Kaleck says, it will need to be a foundation that others build upon.

“It’s a test case. Evidence can be confirmed, chains of command can be described and confirmed. It’s a body of knowledge and evidence which is established and then can be used by other Europeans or German prosecutors, but also by international or even Syrian prosecutors in time,” he says. “More to come, please.”