First Syrian asylum-seeker convicted for terrorism and war crime in the Netherlands

On 21 April 2021, the District Court of The Hague convicted a 31-year-old Syrian man, Ahmed al-Y., who had applied for asylum in the Netherlands, to a six-year prison sentence on charges of membership of a terrorist organisation and the war crime of outrage upon personal dignity.

Ahmed al-Y. lived in Syria in 2015 and fought for Ahrar al-Sham. He had himself and others filmed while they celebrated victory in the fight for Al-Ghab, with the dead bodies of four enemies at their feet. The deceased’s bodies were spat on and kicked, and Al-Y. called them “dogs” and “carcasses of Assad”. The video was published on YouTube.

It is the second Dutch case against a Syrian asylum seeker charged with crimes committed in Syria to reach a verdict, but the first to result in a conviction. Like the first case that was decided on 11 March, this case was also based on social media evidence. The case came to the attention of the Dutch police because the man was sought by the German authorities. The man was arrested when he applied for asylum in the reception center in Ter Apel in 2019.

This case fits in the trend that convictions can be reached if based on membership of a terrorist organisation and/or if there is clear visual evidence of war crimes (such as the war crime of outrage upon personal dignity).

Interestingly, the height of the sentence was mitigated by two factors, relating to both the terrorism and the war crime charge. With respect to the charge of membership of a terrorist organisation, the court considered that a lower sentence was justified because the man was already in Syria when he joined Ahrar al-Sham and so he was not a ‘foreign fighter’. Besides, Ahrar al-Sham is seen by the court as a terrorist organisation, but as one that is active on a much more limited scale than an organisation like Islamic State. With respect to the war crime, the sentence was lower because the victims were not recognisable on the photos. The sentence was therefore lower than the sentence handed to a Dutch national for similar crimes by the same District Court in 2019 (see the appeal here).