A man living in Sweden has been found guilty of a war crime, becoming the first member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to be convicted since the war began in 2011.
The defendant, Mohammad Abdullah, fled to Sweden under the guise of being a refugee, although he had fought as a low-level soldier in the Syrian Arab Army. He was found guilty of violating human dignity after he posed for a photo with his foot on a corpse and sentenced to eight months in prison.
Although prosecutor Henrik Attorps initially tried to prosecute Abdullah for murder, the court ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove he was the killer. He then successfully prosecuted him on charges of violating human dignity.
“There is an international duty to act on these crimes,” Attorps told the New York Times. “Sweden should not be a safe haven for war criminals.”
Despite being a crime that pales in comparison to the wider bombing campaign and use of torture and chemical weapons reportedly carried about by Assad’s forces, the ruling is significant as it could pave the way for further war crime convictions from a conflict that has claimed the lives of nearly half a million people. According to Article 147 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, any of the following constitute a war crime:
Wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including … wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial … taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.
International legal norms like the Geneva Convention allow for prosecution in international courts, like the International Criminal Court (ICC), but domestic courts in signatory nations may also use these norms to corroborate arguments for the prosecution of those accused of crimes that also exist in their legal codes.
The case was also significant for its use of social media documentation after Swedish authorities were alerted to Abdullah’s crime from postings he made on social media, where he was seen smiling over a pile of corpses. Given that much evidence from the civil war still exists on social media, the successful use of it is as evidence could allow thousands of other war crime cases to go forward to trial in international courts.
A similar prosecution was attempted in Spain this year against senior Syrian officials who allegedly tortured the brother of a Spanish citizen, although the case was thrown out after Spanish courts failed to assert jurisdiction.
According to a report from Human Rights Watch, Swedish investigators are currently pursuing prosecutions against an additional 13 people accused of war crimes in Syria, while 17 people are under investigation in Germany on suspicion of crimes in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, attempts to refer the conflict’s crimes to the ICC have been repeatedly blocked by both Russia and China, the Syrian Army’s most powerful allies, using their United Nations Security Council veto to prevent any trial from moving forward.