Syria’s sprawling prisons and its vicious torture routines have long been documented and condemned, only to be met with impunity and sneers from the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
But on Tuesday, the International Court of Justice in The Hague — the world’s highest legal body — held a hearing on Syrian torture and other abuses. It is the first time that an international court has addressed the often-deadly routines said to have been carried out by Mr. al-Assad’s henchmen as they quashed opponents during 12 years of civil war.
Canada and the Netherlands filed a complaint in June with the International Court of Justice claiming that Syria repeatedly and on a “massive scale” violated the Convention Against Torture, which all three countries had ratified. Canada and the Netherlands have said that they have the right to bring their case to the court because they are parties to the convention.
Among Syria’s violations, the case cites “abhorrent treatment” of thousands of people held in detention centers, including the use of torture, enforced disappearances, inhumane conditions, sexual assaults and violence, including against children, that often resulted in death.
Unexpectedly, the complaint also cited Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons as a means of torture, to “intimidate and punish the civilian population, resulting in numerous deaths, injuries and severe physical and mental suffering.”
René Lefeber, the lead lawyer for the Netherlands, said in his opening statement that “Torture is recognized as one of the greatest evils human beings can inflict upon each other. The effects are pervasive, long-lasting and often irreversible.”
He added, “Torturers should never be allowed to get away with their crimes.”
Syria did not send a representative to the hearing on Tuesday, even though the judges had postponed the session by three months at the request of the government.
A lawyer for Canada told the judges that it was not a surprise that officials from Syria had not appeared in court. For almost three years, as talks were held between the opposing sides in hopes of avoiding a court case, “Syria delayed and obfuscated its position at every turn,” the lawyer said.
“The court regrets the nonappearance of the Syrian Arab Republic,” the court’s president, Joan E. Donoghue, said.
The hearing on Tuesday focused on a request by Canada and the Netherlands for the court to issue an emergency ruling demanding that Syria immediately stop a long list of abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture and forcing detainees to confess to fake crimes, especially those that lead to the death penalty.
The court’s mandate is to settle legal disputes between nations, but, unlike the International Criminal Court, it does not prosecute individuals. The court is expected to grant the request by Canada and the Netherlands, though Mr. al-Assad is not likely to change his policies in response to the court’s findings.
Even if Syria ignores any injunction, it may have a wider effect as Arab and other countries move to normalize relations with the Assad government. Such a judicial statement showing that Syria remained dangerous, lawyers said, could also help to slow a push from several countries that want to send back their share of the five million Syrians who have fled to Europe and the Middle East.
And an injunction, some lawyers say, could affect international financing as discussions about reconstruction and investment in Syria grow.
“Syria may defy the court’s rulings, but they can make it more difficult for companies and banks to do business with Assad,” said Stephen Rapp, a former international prosecutor and former U.S. ambassador at large for global justice. “It’s a warning that they may risk future prosecution for complicity in international crimes.”
For years, human rights groups and investigators have documented widespread killings of civilians. Some 14,000 people are believed to have died from torture or to have been killed in the prison system run by Syria’s military intelligence or security forces and dumped in secret mass graves. Some 130,000 people are still missing, according to some estimates.
Both sides fighting in Syria’s civil war, as well as the Islamic State, have committed war crimes, investigators say, but they insist that the Syrian government is responsible for more than 90 percent of the bloodshed.
Experts have also documented more than 300 chemical weapons attacks in Syria in the past decade. But Mr. al-Assad has long denied human rights abuses and the use of chemical weapons. He blames “terrorists” for the violence, a blanket term he uses for any suspected critics or opponents and for the groups that took up arms against his government after it fired on peaceful demonstrators in 2011.
In future proceedings, former detainees and defectors who live abroad are expected to testify about prison routines that involved hanging people by one limb, like cattle, serial sexual assaults and the beating of prisoners who had been crammed inside car tires.
Outside the seat of the International Court of Justice, known as the Peace Palace, demonstrators, including Syrian refugees living in Europe, gathered on Tuesday. Some held photos of missing victims and signs that said, “End torture now” and “Where are they?”
Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights lawyer exiled in France, said that, most urgently, the court should force Syria “to halt the executions going on now.”
Mr. Darwish, who survived almost four years of torture in six facilities, continued, “We demand that the regime gives the names of all the people who died in detention and all the people now in custody.”