In the second of a two-part series, PATRIK PAULOV examines how two court cases highlight the role of Sweden and Britain in supporting extremist groups in Syria
In the autumn of 2015, a trial in the Swedish city of Gothenburg received a lot of attention.
Two men from Gothenburg were charged with terrorist crimes committed in Syria two years prior to the trial.
On December 14, they were sentenced by the district court to lifetime imprisonment.
One of the most important pieces of evidence was a film clip from 2013. It shows how the two men, present in an industrial area north of city of Aleppo, participated in torturing and cutting the throats of two Syrian civilians.
In the film, the murderers were saying that “this is the way we treat the unfaithful.”
The purpose of the execution was considered by the prosecutor and the court to be to instil a sense of fear into people and to seriously harm Syria.
In Swedish daily Aftonbladet on December 14 2015, the sentence was described as “the first Swedish trial against people suspected of having participated in Isis-terrorism in Syria.”
This is an incorrect description. In the prosecutor’s material, it is mentioned that these men had been connected with an armed group named Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (previously called Kataib al-Muhajireen), in English the Army of the Migrants and Its Sympathisers.
Al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, is also mentioned in the material.
During its existence, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) was a well-known Sunni extremist organisation in the same tradition as al-Qaida and Isis.
It was led by Chechen extremists and was said to consist only of non-Syrians. In September 2015, the group merged with Jabhat al-Nusra.
There are two details with great importance that were never noticed in the trial in Gothenburg.
The first was the fact that JMA and the Swedish Mujahedeen Fi Ash Sham were clearly connected.
The latter was the group that produced the video in November 2012 (mentioned in the first part of this series).
Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet’s Per Gudmundson has published screenshots from Facebook that show the co-operation between the groups.
The second detail was that JMA had only half a year prior to the two men’s trial fought side by side with Swedish-supported Syrian opposition groups.
In the spring of 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra carried out an offensive in Idlib province in north-western Syria, together with various more or less extremist groups.
It was reported in the media that al-Qaida jihadists participated, as well as groups armed by the US.
Among these groups was JMA, according to The Long War Journal, a US news site that carefully monitors terrorist groups.
In an article published on May 28 2015, The Long War Journal reported that JMA played a key role in conquering cities such as Jisr al-Shughur and Idlib, and that the organisation was using the same suicide bombing tactics as al-Qaida.
At that time Khaled Khoja was the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s president and the legitimate representative of Syria, according to more than 100 countries.
In the Idlib offensive, the opposition coalition’s Free Syrian Army participated alongside the extreme jihadists.
Khoja said in a speech on April 28 that the fighters who had liberated the cities of Jisr al-Shughur and Idlib were “our heroes.”
This connection between the two Swedes who were sentenced for terrorism and the opposition, which Sweden had supported with millions of euros, was something which the prosecutor as well as media and leading politicians chose not to talk about.
A similar terrorist trial took place in London in 2015. The defence, however, handled the case differently.
The accused in the Old Bailey Court of Justice was also a Swedish citizen, Bherlin Gildo.
He was arrested by the British police at Heathrow in September 2014.
It is no secret that Gildo had participated in disgusting crimes in Syria. There are many photos that show Gildo posing with weapons and beside dead bodies.
Gildo is also caught in a picture with the logo of Kataib al-Muhajireen, later renamed Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA).
Accordingly he belonged to the same group as the two men from Gothenburg.
The trial in London took a different turn to the one in Gothenburg. While the prosecutor emphasised the severe crimes which Gildo had been involved in, the defence looked at Britain’s role in the Syrian uprising.
The defence emphasised that Britain had given weapons and other kinds of support to armed groups that fought on the same side as Gildo, JMA and other extremists.
Justice would, therefore, be “insulted” if the trial was allowed to continue.
The trial was interrupted on June 1 2015, when the prosecutor decided to drop the charges and release Gildo after eight months of imprisonment.
Seumas Milne commented on the trial in The Guardian, on June 3: “On Monday the trial in London of a Swedish man, Bherlin Gildo, accused of terrorism in Syria, collapsed after it became clear British intelligence had been arming the same rebel groups the defendant was charged with supporting.
“The prosecution abandoned the case, apparently to avoid embarrassing the intelligence services. […] Clearly, the absurdity of sending someone to prison for doing what ministers and their security officials were up to themselves became too much.”
There is yet another important detail in this case. During the trial against Gildo, it was revealed that he had personally contacted the Swedish Intelligence Service (Sapo) during the spring of 2013 to get help to leave Syria via Turkey. According to The Daily Mail, on June 1 2015, Gildo received help from Sapo.
Is this correct? Does the security service help Swedish terrorists to return home without any legal action against them?
I have requested public documents from the Swedish Foreign Ministry concerning this case, and I have read a total of 18 pages.
These pages concern the period from Gildo’s arrest on September 27 2014, until being deported from Britain on September 16 2015.
It is evident that the Foreign Ministry considered the Gildo case to be a consular case.
The ministry made sure he got a lawyer and Gildo got a visit from the Swedish embassy in London.
There was no discussion concerning the serious crime which he was being charged with.
When it was confirmed that the Brits had put him on a plane out of the country, the case was closed.
When I asked the Swedish Foreign Ministry about Sapo being involved in Gildo’s trip out of Syria, the answer was that they do not have any information about this at the Foreign Ministry. The Ministry of Justice gave the same answer.
I sent a request to the National Police Board and to Sapo to read all public documents concerning Gildo.
A couple of months later came a registered letter from Sapo: “You have made a request to receive any information concerning Bherlin Gildo which might be found at the Security Service […] Confidentiality applies as a principal rule for information concerning whether people are or are not found within the intelligence activity of the Security Service […] The Security Service estimates that information concerning whether a certain named person is or is not among the documents of the Security Service cannot be handed out, as it is not clear that this information can be revealed without the purpose of the decided or anticipated measures being counteracted or future activity being damaged. Your request is, therefore, denied.”
This answer buried any chance of knowing via official sources what happened when Gildo left Syria.
However, we do know that after being deported from Britain he moved back to Sweden. He has changed his name and lives as a free man, like most other Swedes who fought with terrorist groups in Syria.
Patrik Paulov is a freelance writer based in Gothenburg, Sweden. He is the author of the book Syria’s Silenced Voices.