First Published: 2017-12-10

Syria’s justice system: ‘working without a written law'
Syria’s legal system is essentially a patchwork of conflicting ideolo­gies and, by extension, legal frame­works.
Middle East Online

By Suddaf Chaudry - LONDON

Syrian soldiers standing outside a building that was used by ISIS members as an Islamic court

The Syrian war is the defin­ing conflict of our time. Six years in, there is no single strategy to help the coun­try towards peace and no single template from which it could subsequently be administered.

Regarding Syria’s legal infra­structure, there is only a vacuum. In its report “Surrender or Starve,” Amnesty International detailed the plight of approximately 6 million refugees with no record of birth, death or marriage.

With judges and lawyers in Syria subject to intimidation by the re­gime and jihadist groups and no clear consensus among the coun­try’s foreign interventionists, agree­ment on a legal framework for an emergent Syrian state seems as elu­sive as ever.

“The current Assad regime is an authoritarian one that does not view an independent legal and judicial system in its favour,” Noha Abouel­dahab of the Brookings Institution said via e-mail. “So, until a new, or transitional, government is in place, we will not be seeing much progress — if at all — in rebuilding Syria’s legal system.”

“If Syria does not receive an ac­countable justice system, the costs will be devastating,” Aboueldahab said. “Without accountability, with­out legal redress, without access to an independent legal and judicial system, social grievances and viola­tions of civil and political rights will continue to be perpetrated without any consequences.”

A report by the International Le­gal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) delivered a clear assessment of how justice is being administered throughout Syria. Using interviews with more than 100 Syrian lawyers and civil society representatives gathered from within neighbouring countries, the report centres on a single recommendation. “It’s impor­tant not to start from zero,” said its author, Mikael Ekman, but to work with whatever legal system Syria has in place. What that legal system might look like is far from clear.

Syria’s legal system is essentially a patchwork of conflicting ideolo­gies and, by extension, legal frame­works. Amid a general rise in law­lessness, what legal systems that exist in rebel-held areas are typically subject to a strict interpretation of sharia.

Discussing the ILAC report at the Royal Institute of International Af­fairs at Chatham House, British Judge Keith Raynor observed that “even in opposition-held areas where sharia law is administered, judges don’t possess the qualifica­tions or training for sharia courts.”

Essentially, two legal systems have become conflated. Judges in opposition areas, trained in the dis­pensation of Syrian civil law, find themselves subject to the rule of the various rebel militias, pressuring them to administer religious edicts that both the judge and the group appear unclear about.

Conversely, in regime-held areas, Syrian President Bashar Assad may remove any judge with a decree, with no access to appeal. ILAC re­searchers interviewed judges in Ga­ziantep, Turkey, during 2016 who described the government’s increas­ing use of its executive arm as a form of intimidation. “I didn’t feel like I was a judge” was the main senti­ment researchers reported among participating


Raynor described a case in which a group apparently connected to a state security agency threatened the judge in a case against them. The judge in question was subsequently forced to flee. Similar instances of intimidation, allied with the dimin­ishing power of judges, contribute to a lessening of legal authority across Syria, Raynor noted.

While judges who remained loyal to the Assad regime remained in situ, those who resisted Damascus reported receiving threats to them­selves and their families. Conse­quently, dozens of judges have left Syria.

The ILAC report also highlighted the status of women in the Syrian justice system, who, in the absence of official documentation, are in le­gal limbo. Denied the correct paper­work, the report noted the women’s inability to report crimes committed against them or secure official em­ployment.

What official paperwork exists comes with a price tag. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said marriage and birth certificates cost $70 and a death certificate costs a bereaved family $160. Petitioners re­port officials asking for further pay­ments, which they say will speed processing. Those who live in rebel-controlled areas are left with paper­work not accepted outside their own region.

Compounding the legal difficul­ties of women living outside of Syr­ia’s bureaucracy are the problems in reporting sexual violence. Women talking with British lawmakers de­termining their response to Syria’s struggles told of a profound lack of trust in the legal system.

Syria’s legal system will need re­building after the hostilities end. How that can be achieved without documentation or faith remains to be seen.

Suddaf Chaudry is a journalist based between London and Islamabad focusing on the Middle East and South Asia.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.


Kurdish militia fire rockets at Turkish town

Saudi calls for cooperation between OPEC, non-OPEC countries

The changing faces of al-Qaeda in Syria

Yemen releases budget for first time in three years

US to overtake Saudi as world’s second crude oil producer

France presses Turkey to end offensive against Kurds

Moroccans wary depreciation of dirham could raise cost of living, despite benefits

Deserted streets, terrified civilians after Turkey attacks Afrin

Iraqi, Kurdish leaders hold talks on bitter regional dispute

Russia-led Syria peace congress to be held January 30

Turkey launches new strikes on Kurdish targets in Syria

Egypt's Sisi says will stand for re-election

Pence heads to Mideast despite Muslim, Christian anger

Assad regime says Syria a 'tourist' destination

Journalists arrested while reporting Sudan protests

Aid for millions of Palestinians hostage to politics

Lebanon thwarts holiday attacks using IS informant

Mortar fire wounds 14 in Syria mental hospital

Turkish military fires on Kurdish forces in Syria's Afrin

More than 32,000 Yemenis displaced in intensified fighting

UN warns of "lost generation" in South Sudan's grinding conflict

Saudi's refined oil exports offset crude curbs

Turkey's EU minister rejects any option other than full membership

Sudan clamps down on journalists covering bread protests

Tribal feuds spread fear in Iraq's Basra

Turkey says not reassured by US comments on border force

UN chief wants to revive Syria gas attack probe

US has no intention to build border force in Syria

Lebanese intelligence service may be spying using smartphones worldwide

Egypt's Sisi sacks intelligence chief

Trump dashes Netanyahu’s hope to move US embassy to Jerusalem

Cyprus denies bail for Israeli organ trafficker

Rising Yemen currency sparks hopes of relief

Turkish ministries to investigate underage pregnancy cover-up

Iraq PM launches online appeal for election allies

Iran central bank sees claim for billions from German stock market blocked

Iraq signs deal with BP to develop Kirkuk oil fields

Israeli occupation forces raid Jenin, kill Palestinian

HRW chief says 'Nobody should be forcibly returned to Libya'

IS poses threat to Iraq one month after 'liberation'

Seven years since ousting dictator, Tunisians still protest

Iran says Trump jeopardising Airbus deals

China says Iranian oil tanker wreck located

Sudan arrests communist leader after protests

Syrian opposition joins condemnation of US 'border force'