A German-Ghanaian Islamic State defector who claimed in news interviews to have refused to commit violence for the group has been charged by German authorities with murder and war crimes for his role in a mass execution in Syria in 2015.
Harry Sarfo, a 28-year-old German citizen, appeared in front-page articles and television broadcasts last year in which he offered a sanitized version of his involvement with the Islamic State and condemned the group’s tactics.
But his account began to unravel after The Washington Post obtained and published a video that showed Sarfo helping to move prisoners into position for a public execution in the ancient city of Palmyra, and apparently firing his own weapon as the men fell in a barrage of machine-gun fire.
Sarfo’s case highlighted the challenge facing European security services as they evaluate hundreds of returning fighters, many of whom have sought to obscure their ties to the Islamic State and involvement in violence.
Harry Sarfo is serving a three-year prison term in Germany on terrorism charges. He was once a soldier for the Islamic State but says he avoided participating in the group’s violence. Video provided to The Washington Post by a source inside the Islamic State casts doubt on Sarfo’s claims. (Souad Mekhennet, Greg Miller, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
The German federal prosecutors office in Karlsruhe issued a statement announcing the new charges against Sarfo, who appeared before a federal judge in Germany on Tuesday.
“The accused, who was armed with a pistol, personally took one of the detainees to the execution spot and prevented the others from escaping,” the statement from German officials said, according to a report by Reuters.
Sarfo, who is of Ghanaian descent, had been serving a three-year sentence at a prison in Bremen after being convicted on lesser charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and violating German weapons laws.
But German authorities opened a new investigation after the release of the video, which was captured by Islamic State propaganda teams and provided to The Post by an individual with ties to the group.
Sarfo had repeatedly denounced the Islamic State in interviews from prison that were approved by German authorities. He told German investigators that he had “said no to the killings” in Palmyra and made more categorical claims to news organizations.
“I refused. I did not raise my hand,” Sarfo told the German broadcaster ZDF last year. ZDF worked with The Post on follow-up reporting about Sarfo’s account after the new video surfaced.