Groups ask France to probe 2013 Syria chemical attacks

PARIS (AP) — A group of Syrian chemical attack survivors and Syrian rights groups said Tuesday they have filed a criminal complaint in France over two August 2013 attacks outside Damascus, pointing to the alleged responsibility of the Syrian government in what would constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“We have compiled extensive evidence establishing exactly who is responsible for these attacks ... whose horrific effects continue to impact survivors,” said Hadi al Khatib, founder and director of Syrian Archive, which is supporting the initiative by the survivors and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

The suit concerns 2013 attacks in Douma and the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.

It is the second such effort in Europe in recent months seeking accountability in chemical attacks.

In October, human rights groups filed a criminal complaint in Germany asking prosecutors to act over the 2013 sarin attack in Eastern Ghouta and a 2017 attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun. They stand out as among the worst in the Syrian conflict.

Germany has the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows its courts to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity even if they were committed by foreign nationals on foreign territory.

The French action is based on extraterritorial competence because the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression — among the civil parties in the case — is based in France along with some of the survivors, the center’s advocacy officer, Manar Darwish said in an email. She did not specify how many survivors of the attacks live in France.

Where legally possible, “we seek to file as many complaints as possible before ... European jurisdictions,” Darwish said.

The center suffered first-hand experience of the attacks with some team members of its Violation Documentation Center in Douma injured or suffering side effects from the attack, Darwish said. Some colleagues were abducted and forcibly disappeared later in 2013, she said.

“We urge the French judges to jointly investigate the attacks on Eastern Ghouta with the German prosecutor. By pooling resources and efforts, countries can more easily compile strong evidence against the Syrian officials most responsible,” Steve Kostas, a lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, said in the statement announcing Tuesday’s move.

“This would allow judicial authorities in different countries to have criminal cases ready to prosecute these Syrian officials (once they) can be arrested.”

The New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative has joined with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, or SCM, and Syrian Archive to file their suits in both France and Germany.

The complaint, which contains testimony from survivors, includes hundreds of photos and video and an analysis of the Syrian military chain of command, said the statement.

“The Syrian government still has not come clean about its chemical weapons production, use and storage, which means it still poses a threat to its own civilians, as well as to international peace and security,” said al Khatib, of Syrian Archive. “It must be held accountable.”