Syria’s justice system: ‘working without a written law’

Sunday 10/12/2017
Syrian soldiers standing outside a building that was used by ISIS members as an Islamic court

London - 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 judges.

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.