GENEVA — German authorities announced the arrest on Wednesday of a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two subordinates suspected of crimes against humanity by torturing thousands of victims in detention centers run by President Bashar al-Assad’s security services.
The arrests were a result of a joint investigation by German and French prosecutors, the office of Germany’s federal prosecutor said in a statement on Wednesday. The German police had arrested two suspects, identified as Anwar R., 56, and Eyad A., 42, and placed them in pretrial detention, the statement said. Officials decline as policy to give the full names of suspects pending the outcome of legal proceedings against them.
They said the French police, “as part of a joint investigation team,” had detained a third suspect who was linked to Anwar, but gave no other details.
The man identified as Anwar R. “is the most serious regime perpetrator detained so far by some distance,” said William Wiley, a former war crimes prosecutor who leads the Center for International Justice and Accountability, a group collecting evidence of Syrian atrocities. “It’s a big day for everyone working on these issues since 2011, really big.”
The prosecutor’s office alleged that Anwar R. was involved in the torture and the physical ill-treatment of detainees between the end of April 2011 and the beginning of September 2012, when he served as a high-ranking employee of the Syrian General Intelligence Service.
“As head of the investigative department, Anwar R. determined and directed the operations in the prison, including the use of systematic and brutal torture,” the office said.
The second suspect, Eyad A., was alleged to have operated at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian capital, which typically arrested around 100 people a day. Those people were “taken to Anwar R.’s prison and tortured there,” the German prosecutors said.
Investigators have identified Anwar R. as a colonel in the intelligence service linked to two detention centers in Damascus where prisoners suffered extreme torture. In 2012 he is believed to have defected from the regime and fled to Jordan before making his way to Europe.
The case, if it comes to trial, would represent a milestone in international efforts to achieve accountability for the horrors inflicted by Mr. al-Assad’s regime. The prosecution is “putting war criminals on notice that they will have to pay for their crimes,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior counsel in Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. “I think it’s just the beginning.”
The United Nations and other bodies have stepped up efforts to assemble evidence that could support criminal prosecutions of those responsible for atrocities in Syria’s seven-year civil war, but most trials to date have involved low-ranking members of opposition groups who had fled to Europe.
The center led by Mr. Wiley, a nonprofit organization that has amassed an archive of hundreds of thousands of documents detailing the activities of the Syrian government to support prosecutions, provided the German-French investigation with both witness testimony and documentary evidence.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, based in Berlin, said it had assisted the investigation with testimony from six survivors of torture in Al Khatib detention center in Damascus, known by the code number 251 and run by Mr. al-Assad’s General Intelligence Directorate.
The witnesses had been severely tortured at the center and could identify Anwar R. because they had seen him there, said Patrick Kroker, a lawyer with the rights group.
Despite the significance of the case, Mr. Kroker said the team felt “we are not triumphant.” A trial would provide an opportunity to expose the brutal workings of Mr. al-Assad’s security apparatus, he said, but the charges focused only on events up to 2012.
Moreover, he added, “There are much bigger fish in the pond to be caught” than Anwar R.