French court upholds warrant for Syria's Assad over chemical weapons

FILE PHOTO: Arab League Summit, in Jeddah

PARIS (Reuters) -A French appeals court on Wednesday upheld an arrest warrant issued for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians.

The warrant approved by French judges in November 2023 refers to charges of complicity in crimes against humanity and complicity in war crimes. It followed a French investigation into chemical attacks in Douma and the district of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people.

Assad's government has denied using chemical weapons against its opponents in the civil war, which broke out in March 2011. Syrian authorities did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the Court of Appeal ruling.

Prosecutors, who would be responsible for asking the police to carry out the warrant, had challenged its validity, arguing that, as a sitting head of state, Assad was immune from trial and prosecution in France.

The Paris Court of Appeal said in a statement confirming the validity of the arrest warrant: "Prohibiting the use of chemical weapons is part of customary international law as a mandatory rule, and the international crimes that the judges are looking at cannot be considered as being part of the official duties of a head of state. They can thus be separated from the sovereignty naturally attached to these duties."

Mazen Darwish, head of the Syrian Center for Media & Freedom of the Press and one of the lawyers who lodged the initial case, welcomed the court's decision.

"Today is a very special day and this is a historic victory, not only for the Syrian victims, but for all the victims around the world," he said.

"The court’s decision confirms what we have always said – that when the issue concerns crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the use of chemical weapons, immunity should never be relied upon."

Arrest warrants for sitting heads of state are rare because they generally have immunity from prosecution.

However, international law has exceptions to that immunity when a head of state is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity or genocide. France is among the countries that allows the filing of crimes-against-humanity cases in its courts.

"This decision makes clear that international rules on immunity cannot be synonymous with impunity, particularly for the most serious international crimes," Steve Kostas, senior legal officer at Open Society Justice initiative, said in reaction to the verdict.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily in Beirut and Dominique Vidalon in Paris; editing by Alison Williams and Mark Heinrich)