Idlib’s rebel court system in disarray, says former judge

Mohammad Nour a-Din al-Hameidi has not presided over a courtroom in three years.

The former judge, who holds an international law degree from The Hague University of Applied Sciences, defected from the Assad government in 2012. Now in the Idlib town of Salqin, he helps the Syrian Civil Defense and other local organizations document human rights violations.

In a conversation with Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier, al-Hameidi explains how Idlib’s fractured opposition hinders the development of a unified, consistent court system.

Rebel factions enforce different legal codes—from Syrian state law to strict interpretations of Islamic law. Residents can file the same lawsuit in multiple districts, receiving different rulings each time.

 Mohammad Nour a-Din al-Hameidi.

Across the province, courthouses lack qualified staff. Al-Hameidi says he and the dozens of judges who defected from the regime are excluded by religious clerics who run many of the province’s courts: “We are caught between the regime’s brutality and the Islamic hardliners’ stubbornness.”

In April, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and the Free Idlib Army, two major rebel groups in Idlib with their own court system, announced they would form a joint court.

Syria Direct spoke with Free Idlib Army spokesman Bahaa a-Suweid on Thursday, who explained that the joint court was only a temporary session to resolve a dispute between the two factions. “There is no court system in Idlib. Each faction just has their own courthouse,” he added.

A representative of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham was not immediately available to comment on Idlib’s courts.

Q: Could you paint a picture of what the court system in Idlib province looks like?

Let me start by saying that any opposition-controlled area needs a court system.

[In those areas,] each rebel faction has its own court, with its own procedures. It is a situation that mirrors Syria as a whole: many different courts, each subject to multiple authorities.

Some courts enforce the United Arab Code, while others use a mix of Syrian state law and the Unified Arab Code.

[Ed.: The Unified Arab Code is a set of legal statues derived from Islamic sharia law that was endorsed by the Arab League in 1996. The code, however, was never ratified by the Arab League and has never been implemented on a state-wide level.]

These courts are not a judicial system in the true sense of the word.

Q: What makes it difficult to establish and implement an effective judicial system in the opposition areas?

One of the biggest hindrances to judicial work in opposition areas is the lack of trained judges to oversee the courts.

I’ve corresponded with a number of legal institutions [in opposition-held areas], and it’s clear that that they are struggling with a lack of staff. There are 87 judges across the country who defected [from the Syrian regime’s court system]. None of us is working in any courts in opposition territories.

Additionally, the courts do not follow uniform procedures, since each corresponds to a different faction. Looking at Idlib specifically, the courts do not coordinate with each other. Their procedures vary depending on who is overseeing the case, thereby preventing any sort of judicial uniformity.

For example, a citizen can file a lawsuit and present it in front of a court in one district. If he loses the suit there, then he can go to a court in another district to file the lawsuit again in order to obtain the decision he wants.

There is no higher authority, such as a judicial body, to enforce and apply the rule of law. The purpose of a judiciary body, which oversees lower courts, is to hold accountable those who inflict abuse or are corrupt.

This is the main reason why the court system has lost its authority.

 Jabhat Fatah a-Sham courthouse in Salqin in 2016. Photo courtesy of Zaiton Magazine.

Q: As you see it, what factors have caused the judicial system in opposition areas such as Idlib to lose authority, or be corrupted?

One of the biggest issues with the court system is that most judges only have a high school diploma. They complete a week or month-long training session, and that’s how they become a judge.

They are distorting the revolution and exploiting the lack of accountability and oversight.

As for us defected judges, we are caught between the regime’s brutality and the [Islamic] hardliners’ stubbornness.

[Religious] clerics, who now work as judges, won’t accept a civil judge working alongside them because they see them as a challenge to their authority. This is another major issue.

Q: You have not worked as a judge for three years, could you explain why?

I hold the factions and clerics accountable for keeping defected judges and lawyers out of the opposition courts.

Since the beginning of the revolution, [religious] clerics have accused former [regime] judges of being secularists because we hold on to the regime’s laws. But these laws have been on the books from the 1950s, even before Hafez al-Assad took power. The clerics took up this excuse as a pretext for keeping us out of the courts.

In 2013, we tried to set up a court in [the northern Idlib town of] Harem, run by defected judges. I was the head of public prosecution. But after the Islamic State came [in 2014], it was closed. We’ve haven’t been part of the judicial system since that time.

After the court closed, some of the defected judges stayed in the country, while others left Syria to make a living.

Q: Why did the clerics accuse you of being a secularist? Are there any aspects of Syrian law that contradict Islamic law?

Syrian law is some of the strongest legislation enforced in the Arab world. When you look for legislation opposed to Islamic law, then you find, for example, that civil statutes are derived from Majelle, most of them taken from the Hanafi school.

[Ed.: The Majelle—also transliterated as Mecelle—was a civil legal code developed in the second half of the 19th century during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. The Majelle was derived from the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh.]

The response to this claim of [secularism] is that there is nothing contrary [in Syrian law] to the Majelle or Islamic law, aside from five articles of the penal code that contradict Islamic law. These articles relate to hudud.

[Ed.: Hudud, a term meaning “limits,” refers to a series of set punishments dictated by the Quran and hadith for specific crimes. For example, the proscribed punishment for stealing is cutting off the hand of the thief.]

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Alaa Rateb

Originally from Homs, Alaa Moved to Jordan in 2013 due to the security situation in Syria. She volunteered with Syrian refugees before joining Syria Direct.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.