When detainees arrived at the security office in Syria, it “welcomed” them with an hour of whipping or beating, they told a German court.
They were held in packed, sweltering cells and fed potatoes that tasted like diesel. They drank from toilets. One recalled passing dead bodies in a hallway. A woman said interrogators inflicted electric shocks on her hands, legs and chest during questioning.
In the world’s first trial prosecuting state-sponsored torture in Syria, the German court, in Koblenz, on Thursday convicted the former intelligence official in charge of that security office, the notorious al-Khatib unit in Damascus, of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison.
The ruling said the former officer, Anwar Raslan, 58, oversaw the torture of prisoners and the killing of at least 27 people, in addition to sexual abuse and “particularly grave rape” of detainees.
Human rights lawyers and Syrian survivors hailed the verdict as a landmark in the international quest to hold accountable those who committed war crimes during nearly 11 years of war in Syria. It also set a precedent reaching far beyond Syria: It was the first to target atrocities by a government that is still in power, said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany.
“This was a very important verdict,” Ms. Bock said. “The signal is: There is no safe haven for war criminals. It’s a clear sign that the world will not stand by and do nothing.”
But the conviction also highlighted the stark limitations of international efforts to bring war criminals from countries like Syria to justice. Mr. Raslan, who served as a colonel in a Syrian intelligence service, was ultimately just a cog in the extensive machinery of repression in Syria.
Many Syrians far more powerful than Mr. Raslan — accused not only of committing more extensive crimes, but of crafting policies that resulted in mass civilian deaths — are still living freely in Syria, including its autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad.
“My question is: Is this the type of justice we’re looking for?” said Lina Mouhmade, who testified about being detained in Mr. Raslan’s center in 2012. “Honestly, the justice I am looking for is prosecuting Bashar himself and his collaborators, who are still committing horrifying crimes.”
Mr. Raslan left Syria in 2012, in the war’s second year, and joined the political opposition, which helped him secure a visa to Germany in 2014. The war continued to rage for several more years, with Syrian forces using poison gas, imposing starvation sieges on rebellious communities and reducing residential neighborhoods to rubble through bombing campaigns.
Both the rebels who tried and failed to oust Mr. al-Assad, and jihadists from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State who took advantage of the conflict’s chaos, also committed war crimes.
But only a few perpetrators on all sides have been prosecuted.
One reason, experts say, is that unlike leading Nazis after World War II or Rwandan officials who were convicted of the atrocities they committed, the Syrian government, whose military and security services are responsible for the bulk of the violence in the country, remains in power, preventing the apprehension of its leaders and officers.
Mr. al-Assad and his senior advisers and military commanders rarely travel abroad. When they do, they go only to countries they can count on not to arrest them, like Russia, a staunch supporter of Mr. al-Assad.
Other potential avenues for justice have also been blocked. Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and Russia and China have used their vetoes on the United Nations Security Council to prevent Syria from being referred to the court.
As a result, victims of the Syrian government and human rights lawyers have focused their efforts in countries that accept “universal jurisdiction,” a principle stipulating that in the case of crimes against humanity and genocide, normal territorial restraints on prosecution do not apply.
Owing partly to its own Nazi-era history, Germany has become a go-to venue for such prosecutions. It has also become home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, putting it at the center of efforts to prosecute Syrian officials.
Most of the Syrian refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016 fled Mr. al-Assad’s forces. But some, like Mr. Raslan, had served in the president’s military and security services.
German prosecutors built their case against Mr. Raslan with the help of scores of Syrian witnesses in Germany and beyond. They also drew on a separate investigation that has been collecting evidence for over a decade to illuminate the Syrian state’s inner workings and command structure.
The concept of universal jurisdiction goes back to the Nuremberg trials, organized by the Allies after World War II to prosecute surviving members of the Nazi regime. Israel used it in the 1961 trial of the former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, as did Spain in 1998 when demanding that Britain arrest Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator.
Previous universal jurisdiction cases in Germany have dealt with crimes committed in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and, more recently, with the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq by members of the Islamic State.
When it comes to Syria, Thursday’s verdict is only one small puzzle piece in the hope for justice, Ms. Bock said.
“In time, there needs to be a truth commission and alternative mechanisms to deal with all the injustices,” she said. “You need to think very long term.”
The Nuremberg trials went after the leading surviving members of the Nazi regime, but also after a range of individuals who played important roles in Nazi repression, including doctors, business leaders, bureaucrats and propagandists, said Wolfgang Kaleck, a founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which represented victims in Mr. Raslan’s trial.
“That’s what made it possible to get a picture of the whole apparatus that led to the Holocaust,” Mr. Kaleck said. Mr. Raslan’s trial, he added, “is a first step in trying to get a picture of the crimes committed by al-Assad’s regime.”
Other prosecutions are already being prepared. A Syrian doctor accused of torturing detainees in a secret military prison and killing at least one of them will soon stand trial in Germany on charges of crimes against humanity and causing grievous bodily harm.
Human rights lawyers concede that so far, the cases have targeted low- and middle-ranking Syrian officials or soldiers. But lower-level prosecutions could facilitate future prosecutions of more senior officials by introducing documents, witness statements and knowledge about the Syrian state’s operations into the court record, Mr. Kaleck said.
“If you don’t start now, then in 10 years, you cannot get al-Assad or his chief of intelligence because you have no evidence,” Mr. Kaleck said.
The verdict stirred complicated feelings among Syrians who were abused in Syrian prisons — some at the hands of Mr. Raslan himself.
Many rejoiced at knowing that a man who had overseen interrogations at a security office in Damascus was in the dock himself.
“This guy who once considered himself the tyrant, the powerful head of the station, I see him standing in court, weak and humiliated,” said Mahran Aoiun, who was detained twice in the early years of the war. “And the people he tortured are stronger.”
Others hoped that Mr. Raslan’s conviction would draw attention to the many more crimes committed during the Syrian war that have not been prosecuted, and to the officials who committed them but are still free.
“It is the beginning of a path,” said Wassim Mukdad, who was jailed four times early in the uprising and said he was interrogated by Mr. Raslan himself. “It will be a long one toward justice.”
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Katrin Bennhold from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Christopher F. Schuetze in Berlin and Hwaida Saad in Beirut.
A Ban on 19 Singers in Egypt Tests the Old Guard’s Power
CAIRO — The song starts out like standard fare for Egyptian pop music: A secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirtatious glances at each other and commit their hearts in a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.
But then the lyrics take a radical turn.
“If you leave me,” blasts the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”
The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has become a giant hit, garnering more than a half- billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally prohibited substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject matter for popular music and who gets to decide.
The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has heated up recently after the organization that licenses musicians barred at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.
The organization, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate, accused Mr. Shakosh and other singers of the genre, known as mahraganat, of normalizing, and thus encouraging, decadent behavior, of misrepresenting Egypt and of spoiling public taste.
“They are creating a chaotic movement in the country,” said Tarek Mortada, the spokesman for the syndicate, a professional union that issues permits for artists to perform onstage and that while technically not an arm of the state, is governed by state law and its budget is supervised by the state. “What we’re confronting right now is the face of depravity and regression.”
The barred singers have been iced out of clubs, concerts and weddings. Some have continued to perform abroad or at private parties, but they have had to say no to advertising deals and other income opportunities. The syndicate’s stance has also cast a pall over Egypt’s cultural scene, sending a strong message that artists are not free agents and must still toe restrictive lines set by civil and state institutions. The musicians see the syndicate as an outmoded entity desperately clinging to a strictly curated vision and image of Egyptian culture that is smashing against an inevitable wave of youth-driven change.
“They can’t get themselves to be convinced that we’re here to stay,” said Ibrahim Soliman, 33, Mr. Shakosh’s manager and childhood friend. “How can you say someone like Shakosh misrepresents Egypt when his songs are being heard and shared by the entire country?”
Fans were incensed. One meme depicted the leader of the syndicate, a pop singer of love classics from the 1970s, ordering people to stop singing in the bathroom.
The battle mirrors cultural conflicts across the region where autocratic governments in socially conservative countries have tried to censor any expression that challenges traditional mores. For example, Iran has arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar called off a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.
But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like television and record companies, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant content.
Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have produced a flourishing underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste — the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have been streaming and downloading mahraganat.
Mahraganat first rose out of the dense, rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.
The raw, straight-talking genre — with blunt lyrics about love, sex, power and poverty — mirrors the experience and culture of a broad section of the disenfranchised youth who live in those districts set to a danceable, throbbing beat.
But its catchy rhymes and electronic rhythms quickly went mainstream and now echo from the glamorous wedding ballrooms of Egypt’s French-speaking elite to exclusive nightclubs in Mediterranean resorts to concert halls in oil-rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“Mahraganat is a true representation of this moment in time, of globalization and information technology, and of social media in directing our tastes,” said Sayed Mahmoud, a culture writer and former editor of a weekly newspaper called “Alkahera” issued by the Ministry of Culture. “If you remove the reference to drugs and alcohol, does it mean they don’t exist? The songs represent real life and real culture.”
They are certainly more direct, avoiding the sanitized euphemisms and poetic hints of sexuality that characterize traditional lyrics.
“We use the words that are close to our tongue, without embellishing or beautifying, and it reaches people,” said Islam Ramadan, who goes by the name DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.
Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, insisting that Egypt’s Constitution explicitly protects creative liberty. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled freedom of speech, tightened control on the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize so-called immoral behavior on the internet.
The syndicate’s executive members have adamantly defended their move, arguing that a key part of their job is to safeguard the profession against inferior work that they say is made by uncultured impostors who tarnish the image of the country.
And government authorities have reinforced the message.
In 2017, a special division of the police that targets moral crimes arrested the makers of a mahraganat song, and promised to continue searching for work that “presents offensive content for the Egyptian viewer or contains sexual insinuations.”
In 2020, after a video circulated showing dozens of students at an all-girls high school singing along to “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” the Ministry of Education warned schools against the “noticeable” spread of songs that incite “bad behavior.”
A short time later, the minister of youth and sports vowed to “combat depravity” by banning mahraganat music from being played in athletic arenas and sports facilities.
The head of the syndicate, Hany Shaker, defended the ban on a late-night television show, saying, “We can’t be in the era of Sisi and allow this to be the leading art.”
So far, the syndicate claims to be winning the fight.
“We have in fact stopped them because they can’t get onstage in Egypt,” said Mr. Mortada, the organization’s spokesman, adding that it went so far as to ask YouTube to remove videos of the banned singers. It has not received a response from YouTube, he said.
But who will win in the long run remains to be seen.
The syndicate’s very structure smacks of a bygone era. To be admitted and allowed to sing and perform onstage, an artist must pass a test that includes a classical singing audition. The test is anathema to a genre that relies on autotune and prioritizes rhythm and flow over melody.
While the syndicate’s efforts may be keeping mahraganat out of clubs and concert halls, the music has never stopped.
Mr. Shakosh’s popularity continues to rise. He has more than six million followers on Facebook and over four million on Instagram and TikTok, and his music videos have exceeded two billion views on YouTube.
He is one of the Arab world’s leading performers. Since he was barred, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arabic hits to date.
“It’s not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”
Mr. Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than to appear to publicly challenge the authorities. The ban has been harder on other artists, many of whom do not have the wherewithal or the international profile to tour abroad.
They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear could ruffle more feathers.
Despite the squeeze, however, many are confident that their music falls beyond the grip of any single authority or government.
Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a twin mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.
“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”
In the Trenches of Ukraine’s Forever War
“He did say something about the wedding,” Volodymyr said. “But we didn’t talk about finishing our service.”
“Well, he spoke of it just with us,” Yaroslav’s father said. “He didn’t talk about it with the guys yet. He’d bought a house, renovated it. All with his own hands, all how they wanted it. He said, ‘My contract will finish, and we’ll live like humans.’ If anyone would have told us. …”
He didn’t finish the sentence.
By that point, Yaroslav had been buried, in his hometown, Pidlypne, three hours northwest of Kyiv. In the morning, mourners began gathering outside Yaroslav’s house, its wood siding freshly painted a vibrant green. Family, friends, neighbors, classmates, fellow soldiers and local veterans carried flowers, many of them in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, all of them held upside down, a local custom. Some, like Yaroslav’s commander, had traveled from across the country to attend. By midday there was a crowd of several hundred.
At noon, a police car, siren flashing, pulled in front of the house, and the crowd parted to let it through. Behind it was a Humvee with an open rear. A coffin was draped in blue-and-yellow wreaths. An honor guard of cadets carried the coffin into the garden. A quartet of priests and army chaplains in olive drab surplices sang hymns. Yaroslav’s fiancée fainted and was carried into the house. As the coffin was carried back out to the Humvee, a cadet yelled, “Heroes never die!” The other cadets echoed, “Heroes never die!” A brass band struck up a dirge and started toward the church, the Humvee and crowd following behind.
I fell in with a man in his 60s walking with a single crutch. He was wearing an old telnyashka, the traditional striped undershirt of the Russian military, beneath a great coat. The medals hanging from it clattered.
He had been a Soviet paratrooper in Afghanistan, he told me, and was proud of it. But he was also a Ukrainian, from Donetsk, and when the war in Donbas started, he helped organize the volunteers from Pidlypne. He had been going to funerals like this one ever since. If this had been a few years ago, he said, the whole city would have turned out. There would have been thousands of mourners, not hundreds.
“Now everyone is tired of the war,” he said.
Though Ukrainian, he, too, longed for the days of the Soviet Union, he confided. Life was dependable then. The leaders might have been cruel, but they were honest. Now it was a mess. He didn’t know what to expect.
Netanyahu’s Lawyers Discuss a Plea Bargain to End His Graft Trial
JERUSALEM — The lawyers of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli former prime minister, are in negotiations with state prosecutors to reach a plea bargain in his long-running corruption case, according to a spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry and two people involved in the negotiations.
The talks are expected to finish by the end of the month and, if successful, would help conclude a legal process that contributed to years of political instability in Israel and, ultimately, to the end last June of Mr. Netanyahu’s record tenure as prime minister.
The proposed bargain includes Mr. Netanyahu’s admitting to some of the charges, all of which he still formally denies in court, in exchange for the prosecution’s downgrading the seriousness of one charge, dropping another entirely and allowing Mr. Netanyahu to avoid serving a jail sentence by instead performing community service, the two negotiators said.
The talks are currently stuck, however, because Mr. Netanyahu does not want to accept the charge of “moral turpitude,” a designation that would bar Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s biggest right-wing party, from public office for seven years, the negotiators said.
The details, first reported in Maariv, a centrist Israeli newspaper, were confirmed to The New York Times by one of the main mediators, Aharon Barak, a former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, and a second person involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations openly. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry confirmed that talks were taking place, but declined to confirm any further details. The office of Boaz Ben Tzur, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s lead lawyers, declined to comment.
The talks are the latest twist in a legal process that began in 2016 with a police inquiry into claims that Mr. Netanyahu had accepted gifts from benefactors in exchange for political favors.
The investigation expanded after Mr. Netanyahu was accused of offering the owners of two media companies inducements in exchange for positive news coverage. The charges quickly divided Israelis between those who believed that Mr. Netanyahu should step down to avoid tainting the office of the prime minister, and those who thought that he was the victim of a judicial conspiracy.
The argument deepened a longstanding national debate about the power of the judiciary, and drew comparisons with the furor surrounding American efforts to impeach President Donald J. Trump.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu framed himself as the victim of a biased justice system, describing the process as a “witch hunt” and an “attempted administrative coup” when his trial began in 2020.
Both Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to engage in negotiations and his engagement with Mr. Barak, a former judge considered a doyen of the Israeli legal establishment, have therefore surprised some Israelis.
Mr. Barak said that he had agreed to play a role because Mr. Netanyahu, in cases that did not affect him personally, had historically helped to protect judicial independence and because a partial confession by Mr. Netanyahu might help heal social divisions and restore trust in the judiciary.
“It’s of national importance that this thing should result in the accused himself saying, ‘I admit that I have done it,’” Mr. Barak said in a phone interview.
The case caused two years of political stagnation, largely because it splintered Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base as well as his right-wing allies in the Israeli Parliament — a fissure that led to four inconclusive elections from 2019 to 2021. After the first three votes, Mr. Netanyahu’s remaining allies won enough seats to stay in power, but not enough to form a stable coalition government or pass key legislation like a national budget.
The impasse ended after a fourth election last year, when three small right-wing parties agreed to form a grand coalition with ideological opponents from leftist, centrist and Islamist parties to create a parliamentary majority large enough to force Mr. Netanyahu to leave office.
If Mr. Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, does agree to the deal and leave politics, analysts said that the decision would destabilize, though not necessarily completely collapse, the fragile current coalition government. The logic that glues the alliance together would weaken if he were forced to abandon representative politics because it might tempt right-wing members of the current government to form a different coalition with the new leader of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud.
But Likud will take time to elect a chairman. And once elected, the new leader might still be too closely tied to Mr. Netanyahu to be a viable partner for his right-wing opponents, said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli political columnist and biographer of Mr. Netanyahu.
“Likud will remain Bibi’s tribute band until they have a strong new leader, and I can’t see any candidate for that job,” Mr. Pfeffer said, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu.
The office of the current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads a right-wing faction, declined to comment. But in a speech to the cabinet on Sunday morning, Mr. Bennett said that the government was continuing to work as normal.
“All of the various political analysts, with their graphs and scenarios, can rest assured,” Mr. Bennett said. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel.”
Most analysts believe that if a plea bargain is to happen, it will need to be agreed to by the end of January. The state official overseeing the case, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, is retiring in early February and his successor is unlikely to focus on such a divisive issue early on.
Opponents of Mr. Netanyahu protested outside Mr. Mandelblit’s home on Saturday evening, urging him to allow the case to be decided in court.