BERLIN (AP) — Human rights groups on Wednesday hailed the arrests in Europe of three suspects in bloody secret police crackdowns on Syrian opposition activists, including a senior figure in the Syrian security service alleged to have run a facility where detainees were systematically tortured.
The Tuesday arrests in Germany and France were the first major breakthroughs of international investigators who are trying to track down individuals they think are responsible for atrocities committed on behalf of the Syrian government during the country's eight-year civil war.
Police in Berlin arrested 56-year-old Anwar R., a high-ranking member of Syria's General Intelligence Directorate, Officers in Germany's southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate arrested 42-year-old Eyad A., who was part of a unit that operated a checkpoint in the region around Damascus.
Federal prosecutors said both are accused of carrying out or aiding crimes against humanity. The men's surnames weren't published in line with German privacy rules.
A third man, alleged to have been a subordinate of Anwar R., was arrested in France, German prosecutors said. French authorities confirmed a Syrian citizen whose name they did not release was picked up in the Paris area and placed in custody Tuesday.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, or ECCHR, a Berlin-based non-governmental organization that works to assist survivors of torture in Syria, said the arrests eventually could mark a milestone.
The center said the detention of suspects could lead to the world's first criminal trial examining the responsibility of senior members of the Syrian intelligence agencies of President Bashar al-Assad for crimes of torture."
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a European nonprofit that claims to have collected and smuggled out of Syria hundreds of thousands of government documents detailing the word of the security services and smuggled out of the country, also hailed the police actions.
"These arrests are the most important and promising developments with regard to accountability in Syria to date," Deputy Director Nerma Jelacic, told The Associated Press.
Evidence provided to German prosecutors by the group included witness statements from insiders and victims at the two branches of the GID secret police headed by Anwar R., as well as documents bearing his signature, Jelacic said.
German prosecutors accuse Anwar R. of participating in the abuse of detainees at a prison he oversaw in the Damascus area between April 2011 and September 2012. As lead investigator, he allegedly ordered the use of systematic and brutal torture during the interrogation of anti-government activists at the GID's al-Khatib facility, also known as "Branch 251."
The second man, Eyad A., is accused of "assisting in the killing of two people as well as the torture and physical abuse of at least 2,000 people" between July 2011 and January 2012, prosecutors said.
Eyad A.'s task was to conduct identity checks in order to find "deserters, demonstrators or people who were otherwise suspicious," prosecutors said. This involved operating a checkpoint where about 100 people were arrested each day and taken to the prison overseen by Anwar R., where they were tortured.
Eyad A.is alleged to have later participated in the searching of homes and the violent crackdown on a demonstration in the fall of 2011. Protesters who weren't able to flee were arrested and taken into detention, prosecutors said.
Both men left Syria in 2012. It wasn't immediately clear how and when they came to Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have claimed asylum in Germany since 2012, many of them alleging persecution in their home country.
The scale of the Syrian government's brutal crackdown was graphically exposed by a Syrian forensic photographer — codenamed "Caesar" — who smuggled thousands of images of torture victims taken between 2011 and 2013 out of Damascus.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, said German prosecutors interviewed six torture survivors for their investigation.
"Should the suspect (Anwar R.) go on trial, the survivors of torture will join the case as private parties," the center's general secretary, Wolfgang Kaleck, said in a statement.
Kaleck praised Germany for pursuing the cases.
"It sends a very important message to survivors of Assad's system of torture," he said. "Without justice, there will be no lasting peace in Syria."
Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report.