A Spanish National Court judge on Monday ordered an investigation into the alleged role of nine Syrian intelligence and security officials in the disappearance and execution of a man in 2013, in what is the first criminal case accepted by a foreign court against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Investigative magistrate Eloy Velasco said the nine could be charged with terrorism and forced disappearance under Spain's universal jurisdiction laws, although he sees evidence of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The case is the first criminal procedure against key Syrian political and security figures, including long-time Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, intelligence chief Ali Mamluc and air force intelligence chief Jamil Hassan.
About 400,000 people have died in more than six years of conflict in Syria. With Russia blocking the referral of the country to the International Criminal Court, activists and victims or their relatives see in European domestic courts their best shot at justice for war crimes.
Stephen Rapp, former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, said Monday's decision could help put justice on the agenda of international efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis.
"It is the dawn of justice for Syria, it will only get stronger after this point," he said.
The case is built around the arbitrary detention of truck driver Abdulmuemen Alhaj Hamdo, who then disappeared, was allegedly tortured and executed in Damascus.
The complaint was filed last month by a group of international lawyers on behalf of the man's sister, Amal Hag Hamdo Anfalis, a Spanish national.
The sister learned of her brother's death by looking at the macabre trove of photographs smuggled out of Damascus by a sympathetic forensic photographer, codenamed Caesar.
Velasco has called on the sister and the forensic photographer to testify April 10. He also called on the European Union's agency for judicial cooperation to provide information that could lead to setting up an international commission to investigate similar cases.
Velasco is investigating it under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which in Spain allows prosecution of serious crimes in other countries if there is a Spanish victim.
In this case, Velasco says the sister can be considered as the victim.
"It's an important day for the victims of Syria and the world," said Almudena Bernabeu, one of the lawyers from Guernica 37 spearheading the case, who thinks it could pave the way for others to invoke the principle of universal jurisdiction.
"We are sending them a message that they are not alone," she said. The lawyers argue the Syrian state terrorized the civilian population using its security and intelligence branches.
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability said Monday the decision had "significant symbolic importance" for victims in Syria but recognized that the chances of the nine being brought to trial were slim.
Spain has previously taken up universal justice cases against foreign nationals although almost none has concluded in trial.
In the most notable case, the court ordered the arrest of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, while visiting London. He was kept under house arrest for 18 months before being released for health reasons.