A man cycles down a street with no electricity in besieged Douma, northeast of the capital Damascus, 19/11/2014 (AFP)
AMMAN— When Syrian government forces arrested former opposition military commander Abu Muhammad under charges of terrorism and spying for Israel, his wife had no other choice but to sell a small plot of land they owned in the northern countryside of Daraa province to cover the cost of his legal defense.
Abu Muhammad’s wife, however, was surprised to find out that a “provisional seizure” order had been placed on the property by the attorney general of the government terrorism court just a few days after her husband’s arrest last September.
Provisional seizures of property, essentially the temporary seizure of assets, is a measure undertaken by the Syrian government towards properties owned by individuals mainly charged with issues related to terrorism, though it has been used under other charges as well.
The practice is rooted in laws and presidential decrees that that date back to Hafez al-Assad’s era. The range and scope of the legislation that provides a legal basis for the practice, however, has widened since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.
While Law No. 10 of 2018 incited global controversy, as it allows the Syrian government to confiscate property belonging to displaced Syrians inside and outside of the country, the Syrian government has several other legal means by which it can expropriate property from those it suspects of being affiliated with the opposition.
The most important of these legislative tools are provisional seizure (a temporary asset freeze) and executive seizure (asset forfeiture), as well as outright extrajudicial expropriation by security officials. Further, real estate deals are restricted by the state as one has to obtain a security clearance prior to the transaction.
In June 2012, Bashar al-Assad issued Decree No. 19 of 2012, also known as the Counterterrorism Law.
The law was widely perceived as a tool for the government to punish its opponents, especially given its overly broad language. For example, it defines terrorism as “every act that aims at creating a state of panic among the people, destabilizing public security and damaging the basic infrastructure of the country by using weapons […] or any method fulfilling the same purposes.”
Quickly following Decree no. 19, Assad established the Counterterrorism Court under Decree No. 22 of 2012. The court is composed of civilian and military judges who apply the Counterterrorism Law, which according to the Syrian Legal Forum, includes a provision that specifies that “no one who is referred to the court can escape.” Further, there is no ability to appeal or annul any of the court’s rulings.
A few months later, Assad issued Decree No. 63 of 2012, which gave the Ministry of Finance the authority to freeze the assets of terrorism suspects until the conclusion of its investigation.
It was this legislation which allowed the Syrian government to place a provisional seizure order on Munir Mustafa’s (pseudonym) house, after he was accused of “terrorism” due to his media coverage of the Syrian revolution.
Mustafa, now 31-years-old, was displaced from southern Damascus to the countryside of Idlib province. He had previously signed a contract to sell an apartment he owns to his wife. However, when his wife, a resident of southern Damascus at the time, attempted to complete the legal proceedings, a government employee told her that a provisional seizure order had been placed on her husband’s property and that the state was examining his security file.
Also, in southern Syria, according to sources Syria Direct spoke to for this report, there are hundreds of properties belonging to dissidents and their relatives who have had provisional seizure orders placed on them.
According to a former opposition official, the properties of over 250 people have been seized in the city of Jasim, north of Daraa province. Among the 250 are properties belonging to medical and humanitarian workers, journalists, and members of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets).
The official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said that the real number could be much higher as the Syrian government does not notify those indicted under terrorism charges that a seizure order has been placed on their properties, so that “many people are surprised when their property is seized.”
This was also confirmed by Ghassan Omar, a lawyer from the countryside of Daraa province who spoke under a pseudonym for security reasons. According to Omar, asset seizure has been applied to “civilians more than [opposition-affiliated] military individuals, and includes anyone who dreams of having freedom one day.”
The director of the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs, a Syrian government body, revealed the issuance of approximately 8,200 seizure orders in 2017, without specifying if they were provisional or executive seizure orders nor the reasons behind them.
Seizure orders are issued at the request of the attorney general of the Counterterrorism Court or any other court. The judge issues a provisional seizure order, which is then executed by the Minister of Finance.
Provisional seizure can also take place without the arrest of the accused and can occur regardless of whether the accused is inside or outside Syria. According to Omar, “it is enough to just mention his name in one of the reports submitted to the Counterterrorism Court in order to issue such an order.”
The lifting of a provisional seizure order requires a judicial declaration of innocence. If the accused is proven guilty, the provisional seizure order turns into an “executive seizure” (asset forfeiture) order under the counterterrorism law.
According to a member of a negotiating delegation in Daraa province, who asked to speak anonymously for security reasons, in the case of conviction, “defendants are imprisoned, their property is confiscated and its ownership is transferred to the Syrian state.”
Most of the offenses for which terrorism suspects are prosecuted under Decree No. 12 of 2012, give the accused between three and fifteen years in prison, two lawyers told Syria Direct. “Sentences could amount to life imprisonment or execution if the act of the accused resulted in the death of a human being,” one of the lawyers said.
In August 2012, government forces arrested Abu Hashim, 65-years-old, from his shop north of Daraa province, accusing him of financing the organizers of the popular demonstrations in his city. Though Abu Hisham’s fate remains unknown until today, the Syrian government issued an executive seizure order on his assets last month, as well as on the property of his wife and five children.
The police ordered them to evacuate their seized assets, which included agricultural land, shops and homes, a person close to the family told Syria Direct.
Likewise, Abu Haitham, 34-years-old, and Abu Aseel, 29-years-old, two former Syrian Civil Defense volunteers who were forcibly displaced from Idlib last year, reported that weeks after they left their homes in southern Syria, a security patrol raided their homes and arrested Abu Haitham’s father and Abu Aseel’s brother.
After the raid, members of both families were informed that they needed to leave their homes based on the court’s decision to confiscate the families’ property. As a result, both families moved to Damascus to distance themselves from persecution by state security services.
In addition, Ahmad and his family, who lived in southern Damascus before being displaced to northern Syria last year, faced a similar fate. Days after leaving Damascus, a security patrol raided their family-owned building and took an inventory of all the furniture in the building.
Later, a security patrol told residents of the building, among them tenants, that they must leave within two months and warned them against taking any furniture with them.
The confiscated property included, in addition to the eight apartments and a basement, six shops and two plots of agricultural land, Ahmed told Syria Direct.
Furthermore, seizure orders could be issued ahead of government control on the ground, as was the case with Firas al-Laham. Al-Laham, a pharmacist, was the former director of al-Dmair local council in the eastern countryside of Damascus when it was under opposition control. Alongside the deputy director of the council, deputy Osama al-Khatib, a provisional seizure was put on their possessions as well as on those of their families’ possessions.
Al-Laham owned “a house, a car, a pharmacy and a drug store,” all of which were seized by the government. “The total value seized by the regime was about SP 45 million [$69 thousand]. There is nothing left of my possessions in the area.”
He added: “Imagine that my wife, a music teacher, was sentenced as a terrorist and that my children, who are no older than ten, were designated by the regime as terrorists.”
An image of the provisional seizure order on the property belonging to the families of Faris al-Laham and Osama al-Khatib issued by the Ministry of Finance (Zaman al-Wasl)
Outright illegal expropriation
Over the past eight years, government forces and allied foreign militias have expropriated the property of hundreds of Syrians, as well as public property such as mosques and schools, without a legal basis. The seized properties were then converted into military headquarters and checkpoints, or given to government figures and individuals loyal to the regime.
Further, when the security or military mission that provided the pretext for a property’s seizure ends, the owner of that property is not compensated for any damage that might have occurred.
In one such case, military security forces established a detachment in a commercial complex, according to Abu Muhammad, a man from the northern countryside of Daraa province. The complex belonged to his neighbor and was taken without his permission last year.
Even after the “reconciliation” agreements which allowed the government to reassert control over Daraa and Quneitra provinces in July 2018, government forces expelled many families from their homes on the outskirts of the town of al-Karak al-Sharqi in the eastern countryside of Daraa province. Similar to other cases of expropriation, these houses were turned into military headquarters and barracks for soldiers and security officers, Siraj al-Karaki told Syria Direct.
During the past five years, the Ministries of Local Administration and Justice have issued a series of rulings which stipulate that all cases of property sales or transfer of ownership in “regulated or unregulated” areas must obtain a prior “security clearance.”
These rulings also mandated acquiring security clearances for those wishing to conduct power of attorney procedures inside or outside Syria, whether on behalf of companies or individuals.
According to lawyer Ghassan Omar, the process of obtaining a security clearance takes about two months. The application is submitted to the Ministry of Finance, but the decision to accept or reject it is issued by the security services and is based on “your position during the Syrian Revolution, [if you were a] supporter or opponent,” he told Syria Direct.
According to Omar, there is a long list of required procedures for those who wish to sell their properties.
“The seller must submit the title deed and a cadastral survey of the land conducted by the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs. Then, the buyer and seller must request a security clearance from the Ministry of Finance and wait for approval or rejection. This is in addition to bringing a clearance letter from the Ministries of Electricity and Water, in order to prove that the seller has no outstanding debts to them,” Omar said.
According to local sources, there are no known cases of provisional or executive seizures in the town of Muadamiyat al-Sham in Rif Damascus. However, the process of obtaining security clearances still impedes residents from being able to sell their property, a member of the city’s negotiating committee told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity due to security reasons.
Further, if more than one person shares ownership of the property, then all parties must obtain security clearances. In a situation where “there was a security problem with one of the owners, the whole transaction is stopped and the decision is rejected,” the negotiating committee member told Syria Direct.
While the Syrian government appears to be using property legislation as a tool to inflict punishment and revenge on its opponents, two members of the delegation negotiating with the Political Security Service in southern Syrian consider what is taking place to be “a struggle with the government and its security agencies.”
According to a former military commander in the opposition coalition, the Southern Front, who is now a member of the negotiation committee: “The Political Security service in Daraa is trying to exploit [the legislation that permits] the outright expropriation of the property of government opponents and give it to their employees and friends. They are putting pressure on us and besieging us.”
He also stressed that “what is happening is an outcome of malicious [work] by the police apparatus, political and criminal security services, and the corrupt judiciary,” especially since “the concept of terrorism according to them includes anyone who belongs to the Free Syrian Army or opposition, and therefore these decisions cannot be appealed.”
“They want to flood us with details about the opposition and its funding,” the former military commander said.
According to Omar, the Counterterrorism Law and Decree 63 of 2012 are both unjust pieces of legislation “in terms of the authorization of seizure and confiscation.” Furthermore, under these laws, all cash and assets of the defendant can be seized and then expropriated “without regard to the date of purchase or registration.”
In other words, property acquired before the revolution, or even before the accused person’s participation in what is considered by the government to be “terrorist” acts, are not exempt from these laws.
He added that “the government arbitrarily seizes and confiscates the property of both spouses. Individual punishment, [should] only affect the defendant, and not extend to any other member of the family. This is the opposite of what the Syrian government and its security services are doing”
As for verdicts made in absentia, they are “subject to cancellation and appeal if the individual turns himself in voluntarily. But this is simply a formality, and the Court of Cassation [similar to a supreme court] will uphold the verdict, since the laws are arbitrary,” according to Omar.
Last year, several months after the “reconciliation” agreements in southern Syria, the Minister of Finance issued a provisional seizure order on the property of the former opposition commander Adham Muhammad (pseudonym), based on a letter from the National Security Directorate, which accused Muhammad of “participating in terrorist acts in the country.”
The decision was issued “in absentia,” Muhammad told Syria Direct, “without investigating me.” He added that he is now working “to appeal the decision with the help of a lawyer.”
“In the case that a provisional seizure order is issued, the defendant has to file a lawsuit to lift the provisional seizure,” Omar said. However, “lifting a provisional seizure order in Syria will take 24 light-years, whereas its execution will take less than 24 hours,” he added.
Also, the owner of the seized property is usually not notified that a provisional seizure order has been issued, according to Omar. Instead, the “ruling is just posted on the [wall] of the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs,” he said.
“If we wanted to achieve [political] settlement and reconciliation, then the state has to repeal the terrorist law, terrorism court and all of the laws and decrees enacted and issued during the revolution,” Omar said. “Otherwise the claims of reconciliation are false, and the laws will remain a sword on the necks of citizens.”
However, according to the member of the negotiating delegation from Daraa province, “we have only gotten promises of a solution for the [provisional seizures and expropriation] issue; meanwhile, the government is keen on seeking revenge against the opposition.”
This report was originally published inArabic and translated into English by Lauren Remaley, Calvin Wilder and Will Christou.