Daraa Chief Justice on rampant gun violence: ‘It is a product of the chaos in Syria’

Late last month, a young man named Maher entered Abu Mohammed’s candy shop in a small town 10km east of Daraa city. An argument over the price of sweets quickly escalated. When the fight turned physical, Maher, who is not a rebel, took out his gun and shot Abu Mohammed in the chest and another man in the leg.

As small arms flood the streets of Daraa province, residents are increasingly turning to guns to settle pretty much any dispute.

“Fights once fought with fists are now settled with guns,” Firas, a Daraa citizen journalist, told Syria Direct in a recent interview. Today’s widespread prevalence of guns is an undeniable result of the deteriorating security situation, he says. “It was inevitable…Today, most people carry guns.”

In light of the growing culture of gun violence, the opposition’s Court of Justice in Daraa is increasingly concerned with curbing it, the court’s Chief Justice tells Syria Direct.

“Moving forward, we will do what we can to limit the further spread of weapons, to bring about gun control and to institute official punishments for such offenses,” Sheikh Osmat al-Absi, Chief Justice of Dar al-Adl fi Houran, the southern Syrian province’s main judicial body for adjudicating civil and military disputes, tells Syria Direct’s Omaima al-Qasem.

In a patchwork province comprising armed factions such as the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Southern Front, Jabhat a-Nusra and Islamic State affiliate Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk, gun violence manifests in the form of personal disputes, reprisal killings and assassinations.

The Court of Justice maintains a 150-member enforcement authority to carry out its rulings related to civilian matters. However the court also turns to local armed groups, notably the Southern Front and its member brigade Jaish al-Yarmouk, for extra manpower.

Al-Absi recognizes that the delicate balancing act with local armed groups is neither desirable nor sustainable. “We are in desperate need for the police force to execute the decisions of the court with regard to gun violence.”

Q: What actions has the Court of Justice taken in light of the recent uptick of gun violence in Daraa?

Gun violence needs to be controlled; however, given the lack of security and stability in Daraa, it is difficult in the immediate future to regulate carrying weapons.

We are in desperate need for the police force to execute the decisions of the court with regard to gun control. Armed groups also have a responsibility to control their members on this issue. Young men shouldn’t be carrying guns unless they are fighting jihad or are on the frontlines, and we need to educate society on the dangers of weapons.

When the court hears of a gun-related conflict among armed factions, our role is to intervene and resolve the dispute. If these groups fail to resolve their differences, the court will detain the culprit, investigate the case and hold the individual accountable.

Q: How is the court able to execute its decisions in the absence of rule of law?

I wouldn’t say that there is an absence of rule of law. There are certainly laws in place, and we are trying to preserve order as best we can in light of current circumstances.

Q: Earlier this month, you told Syria Direct that you are “working to form an enforcement entity” to ensure that Daraa’s rebel factions abide by your rulings. Where do you currently stand with regard to this entity, and, prior to its formation, how have you been able to enforce the court’s decisions?

This enforcement entity is in the process of being formed. Currently, the Court of Justice has a 150-member executive authority, which carries out matters related to civilian affairs. With regard to armed conflicts, the Court of Justice leans on local armed groups to implement our rulings.

Q: Discuss this relationship between the court and the local armed groups. Do these groups respect and abide by the court’s decisions?

The relationship between the court and the local armed groups is strong, and these groups in large part abide by the court’s decisions. While there is certainly mutual respect, that is not to say that we have a perfect success rate in enforcing our rulings. People ignore even divine laws every once in a while. However, our ability to enforce our rulings has improved noticeably in comparison to before.

Q: Was the gun epidemic also present before recent events in Syria?

No, the gun epidemic is new. Prior to the revolution, weapons were not freely floating around like they are today. With so many people from Daraa and across Syria taking up arms in recent years, the spread of weapons has proliferated in an alarming way.

Q: Are there any gun-control regulations for individuals who are not Free Syrian Army (FSA) members?

Currently, there are no regulations in place, but, of course, this is something that we hope to accomplish. We do, however, regulate the trading of guns and have shut down shops that were selling weapons. Hopefully, this will serve as a precursor to further gun control throughout Daraa province.

Furthermore, while owning a gun is not regulated, there are clear laws in place with regard killing or using a gun to intimidate and threaten.

Q: Have there been any incidents of gun violence between members of armed groups due to personal differences?

No. While differences certainly occur between members of armed groups due to personal differences, they have never reached the point of gun violence. At times, these individuals will start crowding around and putting up checkpoints as if they are getting ready to fight, but these situations almost always reach a quick resolution through the judiciary or another form of conciliation.

Q: Have there been instances of revenge killings for events that happened before the war? How are these killings treated?

Yes, and they are treated like murder. They are not treated like reprisal killings. In these instances, the culprit is arrested and is referred to the judiciary for judgment. However, not all cases reach the court, sometimes because particular parties won’t file chargers. In such an event, an investigation isn’t opened.

In the event that cases do come our way, the public prosecution and the investigations office check out the crime scene, at times with the medical examiner. At this point, the court takes the suspect and his brothers to be questioned, and the case is referred to a criminal court.

Q: Have you had to deal with these types of cases recently?

Yes, the court has recently seen a number of such cases. If the suspect is found guilty, the sentence is death.

Q: What does peaceful coexistence look like in Daraa, an area that is so heavily armed?

People did not choose this state of affairs. It is a product of the chaos in Syria, and, unfortunately, gun violence has become a societal reality. Of course it is frightening for the people of Syria. Moving forward, we will do what we can to limit the further spread of weapons, to bring about gun control and to institute official punishments for such offenses in order to curb this dangerous behavior.

Omaima al-Qasem

Omaima was a law student when the Syrian uprising began. She fled to Jordan with her family in 2013 because of the security situation and was unable to complete her degree. In Jordan, she has provided psychosocial support for Syrian refugees. She has also worked for Radio Balad and Until When? magazine.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.