The Abou Nabout Case: French judges issue arrest warrants against four senior Syrian officials (Questions and Answers)

What are the facts and the characteristics of the case?

On 7 June 2017, the city of Deraa, and more specifically the neighbourhood of Tareq Al-Sad, underwent intensive bombing by the Syrian government. During this attack, which was part of a wider policy of intensive bombing by the Syrian government of the southern part of the city of Deraa between 3 and 17 June 2017, more than 2,000 air and ground raids destroyed the city. The home of Mr Salah Abou Nabout, a French-Syrian national, was targeted by barrel bombs launched from helicopters. Mr Salah Abou Nabout was killed in the attack. The house of Mr Abou Nabout was located above an informal school operated by the NGO Auranitis to allow children to continue receiving an education despite the closing and destruction of many schools by the Syrian government since the beginning of the war.

The 7 June 2017 attack, carried out with barrel bombs (i.e. explosive bombs filled with metal fragments that cause extremely high levels of damage) is characteristic of the Syrian government’s attacks on the civilian population under the pretence of fighting armed groups.

This case is emblematic, as it is the first time French judicial authorities indict Syrian high-level army officials for war crimes arising from a military operation.

Why was the case filed in France and not in Syria or before the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

Despite the gravity and scale of crimes perpetrated in Syria since the brutal repression of the March 2011 uprising that led to more than 12 years of conflict, there are limited avenues for victims and their families to obtain justice and redress. As for the ICC option, Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute and, despite attempts to obtain a resolution from the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC, Russia and China’s repeated vetoes have prevented the ICC from opening an investigation on Syria. 

With the path to the ICC blocked, and no real prospect of independent justice and accountability inside Syria, victims have turned towards other countries – such as Germany, Sweden, and France – to investigate cases based on what is known as extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction. Hence, Syrian lawyers, individuals and organisations as well as international human rights organisations have launched cases in these countries to obtain investigations on torture, crimes against humanity and/or war crimes charges.

What criteria apply in France for initiating investigations into crimes perpetrated in Syria? 

Salah Abou Nabout was a French-Syrian national. French courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed against French nationals or those with dual nationality, as well as crimes perpetrated by French nationals or those with dual nationality. Thus, it is on the basis of Salah Abou Nabout’s dual Syrian-French nationality that a criminal judicial investigation (i.e. led by an independent investigative judge from the French war crimes unit) was initiated in France in January 2018.

However, many victims of international crimes seeking justice, including many Syrians, do not have French nationality. In order to allow them to still have access to justice, the French legislator has adopted several pieces of legislation. 

For instance, since the United Nations Convention against Torture was transposed into French law in 1986, any suspect found on French territory can be prosecuted and tried in France on torture charges. 

The same condition applies since August 2013 for suspects of enforced disappearance, following the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance into French law. 

Irrespective of their nationality and country of residence, victims of torture and enforced disappearance can file a criminal complaint with the French prosecutor and participate in the proceedings as civil parties. This status gives victims extensive rights throughout the investigation, such as the ability to request that specific acts of investigation be undertaken, or that certain witnesses be called to testify. 

Regarding crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes committed abroad, on August 9, 2010, the French Parliament adopted a law incorporating the Rome Statute into French law. This law grants French courts jurisdiction to judge the perpetrators of these crimes if the following conditions are met:

  • the suspect resides in France, 
  • there is incriminating legislation of such acts in the State in which they were committed, or either the State in which the crimes were committed or the State of which the suspect is a national is a party to the Rome Statute, and
  • prosecutions can only be initiated at the request of the French prosecutor.
  • the suspect is not subjected to any extradition request or prosecution from an international or national court

These provisions were timidly modified by the 23 March 2019 law which excluded the double criminality requirement for the crime of genocide and removed the express declination of jurisdiction by the ICC.

These provisions were then further amended by deputies of the French National Assembly on 6 July, 2023 when they voted in favour of abolishing the double criminality requirement for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and formally adopted by the French Parliament on 11 October, 2023. 

On 1 January 2012, a specialised unit for the prosecution of crimes against humanity and war crimes was created in Paris. This unit now consists of a team of five prosecutors, three independent investigating judges and a team of specialised investigators, working exclusively on international crimes cases. At present, the French unit is conducting 85 preliminary investigations and 79 judicial investigations relating to international crimes committed outside French territory, of which approximately 10 concern crimes committed in Syria.

How was the Abou Nabout case initiated and how did it reach the point of international arrest warrants? 

On 7 June 2017, Salah Abou Nabout was killed when the Syrian Air Force targeted his house with barrel bombs. His wife informed the French authorities of this on 12 June, 2017.

On 29 January 2018, the War Crimes Unit of the Paris Tribunal opened an investigation based on the complaint submitted by the victim’s son, Omar Abou Nabout into the killing of his father, Salah Abou Nabout. Two judges were appointed to investigate, and the victim’s son, Omar Abou Nabout, was admitted as a civil party.

The case reached a turning point when SCM became a civil party to the lawsuit in 2020 and began preparing an integrated file on the case that included a set of evidence, testimonies, photos, and videos from the crime scene. Former Syrian officers who had defected also provided important information that enabled SCM’s team to establish the chain of command in the Syrian Air Force and to reconstruct the attack, identifying the type of helicopters that carried out the bombing, and the airport from which these helicopters took off, the Bley airport. In addition, SCM also provided the mechanism for issuing and executing combat orders within the Syrian Air Force.

Who are the 4 high-level Syrian officials targeted by the international arrest warrants and what are they charged with? 

  • Major General Fahed Jassem al-Fraij (al-Freige) – Deputy Commander in Chief of the Army – Minister of Defence

Mr Al-Fraij was born on 1 January 1950 in Rahjan, Syria and joined the Syrian Army in 1969. He was appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in 2011 before being promoted to the position of Minister of Defence in 2012, a position he held until 1 January 2018 when he retired and was replaced by Ali Ayoub.

In 2017, Mr Al-Fraij was under the direct command of the Commander in Chief of the army (Bashar al-Assad) for the direction of the army and of all classes of forces within it. He was actively involved in military decision-making and the development of combat strategies with the Commander-in-Chief of the army. 

  • Major General Ali Abdallah Ayoub – Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces

Mr Ayoub was born on 28 April 1952 in Latakia, Syria. He was appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in 2012, following the promotion of Mr Al-Fraij to the post of Minister of Defence.

In 2017, at the time of the attack, Mr Ayoub was the third highest-ranking Syrian military officer, after the Commander in Chief of the army and the Minister of Defence.

He was the effective head of all Syrian armed forces, which he supervised and coordinated.

He was directly involved in the coordination and implementation of military operations and in the development of defence and attack plans. 

In January 2018, Mr Ayoub became Minister of Defence. He was dismissed from his position on 28 April 2022 and has retired.

  • Brigadier General Ahmad Balloul – Commander of the Air Force and Air Defence

Mr Ahmad Balloul was born on 10 October 1954.

In 2017, Mr Balloul was the Commander of the Air Force and Air Defence.

In this capacity, he was directly in charge of all matters relating to the Syrian Air Force and was responsible for all air raids taking place in Syria, particularly in the Deraa region between 7 and 23 June 2017.

The orders he received were directly emitted by the Commander in Chief, the Minister of Defence, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, or their representative.

He then passed his orders to the executing authority, either through the chain of command to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force or through the division or brigade commander in charge of the execution.

When he was assigned a mission, Ahmad Balloul specified the target, the combat ammunition to be used, the time frame for carrying out the mission and the route to be followed. 

Mr Balloul retired from his position on 23 October 2020.

  • Brigadier Ali Safetli – Commander of the 64th Helicopter Brigade and Commander of the Bley airport

In 2017, Mr Ali Safetli was the highest-ranking commander of the 64th Helicopter Brigade. He was responsible for the execution of combat operations and for all the equipment of his brigade.

He received his combat orders from the Air Force Commander himself and then, together with his Chief of Staff, assigned their missions to the squadron leaders and line pilots. The combat orders included: the type of mission and its location, the type of target, the ammunition and the aircraft used to carry out the mission.

Mr Ali Safetli was also the commander of Bley airport. As such, he was responsible for all the equipment at the airport (aircraft, pilots, technical officers, combat equipment and airport rotations). 

Mr Safetli is currently the commander of a control center (the Southern Unified Center) at the rank of major general.

They are the subject of international arrest warrants for complicity in war crimes (intentionally

directing attacks against the civilian population and murder of a person protected by

international humanitarian law).

Why is this development important? 

These international arrest warrants constitute a key milestone towards breaking the impunity for crimes committed by the Syrian regime. Indeed, it is the first time high Syrian army officials are indicted for war crimes arising from a military operation directed against civilians. Moreover, this case is emblematic of the use of barrel bombs and other “dirty weapons” by the Syrian regime, causing devastating damages to the population. 

By targeting senior regime figures, and more particularly the very top of the regime hierarchy, it is made clear that perpetrators – whatever their level of seniority – cannot escape justice. 

The French justice system has drawn attention to the responsibility of these four individuals and their role in war crimes perpetrated against the Syrian people. Without access to the ICC, transitional justice or a hybrid court, as things stand, this decision sends a strong signal that extraterritorial justice has an essential role to play in pursuing those responsible for the gravest crimes perpetrated against civilians in Syria since March 2011.

 It also demonstrates that these investigations are possible and can lead to concrete results, thanks to the extensive documentation work undertaken by Syrian activists since 2011 and the immense courage of victims and witnesses who share their testimonies.

What are the implications of the international arrest warrants and what happens next?

All four suspects should no longer enjoy impunity for the crimes they have committed and their place in Syria’s future should be called into question.

The international arrest warrants will prevent the four suspects from travelling abroad freely. If they do, they could be arrested and extradited to French territory. 

In terms of the criminal case in France, even if the international arrest warrants are not executed, the investigative judges could nevertheless consider closing the investigation and sending the case to trial. The suspects would have the right to be represented by a lawyer for the duration of the trial, even if they themselves are not physically present in court.