Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a press conference with Iraq’s prime minister in Damascus on July 16, 2023 (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)
France has issued an arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the alleged use of banned chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, a judicial source told CNN on Wednesday.
According to the source, two investigative judges on Tuesday issued four warrants against Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad and two other senior officials for complicity in crimes against humanity and complicity in war crimes.
Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights lawyer and founder of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, told CNN the decision was “unprecedented.” It is believed to be the first time a nation has issued an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity for a sitting head of state of another country.
An Interpol ‘Red Notice’ is expected to follow, according to Michael Chammas, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, who spoke to CNN from Germany.
A red notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and temporarily arrest someone awaiting extradition, surrender or similar legal action, according to Interpol.
“All Interpol member states should then comply with the arrest warrant,” Chammas told CNN.
The legal case was filed by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and the Syrian Archive in March 2021 “over the use of prohibited chemical weapons against civilians in the city of Douma and the district of the eastern Ghouta in August 2013, in attacks that killed more than 1,000 people,” the plaintiffs said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Syrian government was accused of using poison gas in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, then a rebel stronghold that the regime had been desperately trying to retake for more than a year. It, in turn, accused opposition forces of carrying out the attacks themselves.
An investigation was opened “in response to a criminal complaint based on the testimony of survivors of the August 2013 attacks,” the plaintiffs’ statement read.
Lawyer Mazen Darwish, founder and director general of the Syrian Center for Freedom of Media and Expression (SCM), said in a statement Wednesday that the ruling “constitutes a historic legal precedent.”
“It is a new victory for the victims, their families and the survivors and a step on the road to justice and sustainable peace in Syria,” Darwish said.
Hadi al Khatib, the founder of the Syrian Archive, said: “With these arrest warrants, France takes a firm position that the terrible crimes that happened ten years ago cannot and will not be left unregarded. We see soon that France and hopefully other countries will take the strong evidence that we have gathered over the years and finally demand criminal responsibility from officials at the highest level.”
CNN is reaching out to the Syrian government for comment.
The Syrian government has long been accused of war crimes, but it has repeatedly insisted that its strikes are targeting “terrorists”. It has denied using chemical weapons.
“We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history,” Assad said in 2017. He added that “morally” the Syrian government would never do this “because it is not acceptable.”