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Power of attorney: The Assad regime’s hidden weapon to deprive displaced Syrians of their property rights

Since October 2017, the Assad regime’s Ministry of Justice has subjected issuing power of attorney, especially for real estate disposition, to prior security service approval.

1 June 2021

AMMAN — In early May, Abu Ahmad’s hopes of disposing of his properties in Syria’s central city of Homs were dashed. The Syrian Ministry of Interior responded with rejection to his application for power of attorney, submitted through the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, to appoint a relative to manage his properties that were “worth about $10 million before the Syrian revolution broke out,” he told Syria Direct

The refusal was due to “security reasons,” according to Abu Ahmad, who is displaced in northwest Idlib province. This “disrupts and obstructs the interests of my partners in some of the real estate.” Before 2011, these properties generated some “$10,000 a month,” he said. 

Abu Ahmad fled Homs in the early years of the Syrian revolution, heading for opposition areas in the northwest. He has been wanted by Assad regime security services since 2011, accused of “inciting the overthrow of the regime,” he added.

A prolonged struggle

In August 2015, the Assad regime’s Ministry of Local Administration stipulated in a secret circular that security approval must be obtained for a person to complete any real estate transaction. Subsequently, in October 2017, the Ministry of Justice issued Resolution 689, requiring those wishing to complete power of attorney processes to get security approval, especially for real estate disposition.

While the security approval requirement affects all citizens inside and outside Syria, it poses a more serious threat for “every regime opponent, displaced person or expatriate,” warned lawyer Hassan al-Aswad. Security approval, alongside other decisions and laws, allows the regime to “limit a Syrian citizen’s ability to dispose of his property for several reasons, including failure to pay the military service exemption fees, or under the pretext of the counterterrorism law.”

Although the security approval has recently been employed as a prerequisite for Syrians to dispose of their real estate properties, the policy of targeting citizens’ property is not new to the regime that has ruled Syria for five decades. According to al-Aswad, since the clashes with “the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, the regime has resorted to inventing security approvals.” Further, “approvals have also included power of attorney made by Syrian expatriates for disposing of their movable and immovable assets with the aim of beleaguering political opponents and preventing them from acting freely with their money.” 

Besides the possibility of a refugee failing to obtain security approval to allow their agent in Syria to dispose of their property, the fees for issuing a general power of attorney could prevent some displaced Syrians from doing so.

Constitutional violation

In January, Abu Ahmad crossed the Syrian-Turkish border using a temporary entrance permit and headed for the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. He intended to appoint a relative of his living in Homs, who has no security problems with the regime, as his agent. He said this is the only way “to protect my property from seizure or confiscation through the laws issued by the regime to confiscate the property of Syrians abroad.” 

He submitted the documents required by the consulate to issue a general power of attorney: a passport or identification document of the person giving power of attorney alongside their physical presence, as well as two personal photographs, a copy of the identification of the person to be given power of attorney and $125, $25 of which is a consular fee. Before that, he had to pay “$25 to a middleman to get an appointment” at the consulate, a tactic imposed by widespread corruption in Syrian diplomatic missions.

Besides the possibility of a refugee failing to obtain security approval to allow their agent in Syria to dispose of their property, the fees for issuing a general power of attorney could prevent some displaced Syrians from doing so, said Abeer Izzadeen (a pseudonym), who lives in Amman. 

Abeer and her siblings inherited a plot of land from their mother, who died in 2014. But because the land “will be divided among four daughters and two sons, meaning that each person’s share will be small, we didn’t think [until recently] to divide or sell it,” she told Syria Direct. Early this year, the family was forced to consider selling after “all the heirs were unable to buy one of my brothers’ shares because of economic conditions in Syria and the deterioration of the exchange rate of the [Syrian] pound.” 

Because Izzadeen lives outside Syria, none of the heirs can dispose of the land “without a power of attorney from me. But the fees to do so are high compared with the value of my share, which is no more than $1,800,” which means “paying 10% of my share’s value as fees for money transfer to Syria, as well as attorney and property transaction fees.” 

She worries about “submitting a request through the embassy in Amman, for fear of being rejected,” especially because her son living in Europe “is wanted for military service.” This means that “on top of paying fees I can’t afford, I would deprive my brothers of the land.” 

In this context, Syrian legal advisor Ahmad Kamal said imposing security approval as a prerequisite for real estate transactions—whether sale, purchase or transferring ownership—means “the executive authority has become the guardian of the judicial authority.” This, he told Syria Direct, stands in “clear violation of Article 134 of the Syrian Constitution, which states that ‘judges are independent and there is no authority over them except that of the law.’” It also contravenes Article 15, which protects the property rights of individuals and groups. 

Furthermore, as lawyer al-Aswad explained, the requirement to “renew the power of attorney every three months to ensure that none of its parties has died” means more obstacles for displaced Syrians inside and outside the country. Thus, “many of the displaced will not be able to dispose of their property.”

Turkey, in particular, is seeing widespread intermediary activity. Their role is not limited to carrying out the transactions of refugees in government departments inside Syria for money, but also to selling consulate appointments.

Exploitation and extortion

Like Abu Ahmad, Abu Deyaa, 66, applied for a limited power of attorney at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul “to appoint my brother to sell my house and farm in Homs, after regime loyalists seized the house and lived in it,” he told Syria Direct. On top of the power of attorney fee, he paid “$800 to get an expedited passport, as it is a document required to obtain a power of attorney.”

Six months later, “it was refused, under the pretext that I am wanted by one of the security branches.” As a result, he cannot get the security approval “except by returning to Syria to settle my situation,” Abu Deyaa added. He received an offer to make the settlement “without going back, in exchange for paying a middleman $3,000. I refused because I can’t afford it, and the result is not guaranteed.”

The Assad regime has contributed to the flourishing of intermediary trade in the documents needed by displaced Syrians, especially those related to property disposition. According to Kareem al-Shami, 42, “the restrictions on displaced people have forced some to dispose of their properties in roundabout ways, by paying bribes to powerful people within the regime.”

Al-Shami, who has been displaced from East Ghouta’s city of Douma to Idlib province, accused a member of the regime’s People’s Assembly (Parliament), “Amer Kheiti, of being involved in buying up properties in Douma from those wanted [by the regime] or displaced.” Kheiti “takes care of all necessary legal procedures, through his lawyers, with the benefit of his influence and relationships with the regime,” al-Shami told Syria Direct. 

According to opposition-leaning media, Kheiti is accused of buying properties “for the benefit of influential people with the regime and Iran,” exploiting “people’s need and poverty to buy their lands and farms for low prices.”

Turkey, in particular, is seeing widespread intermediary activity. Their role is not limited to carrying out the transactions of refugees in government departments inside Syria for money, but also to selling consulate appointments.

In a 2019 report, the Turkey-based Free Syrian Lawyers Association accused the Syrian consulate in Istanbul of colluding “with a large network of middlemen to reserve appointments for petitioners, in exchange for burdensome amounts of money,” ranging from $300-$500, “due to the inability to book from the [consulate] website.” 

For his part, Deyaa Alrwishdi, a lecturer at the American University Washington College of Law, warned against dealing with intermediaries and unlicensed individuals. “The person [seeking to give] power of attorney should seek out a licensed lawyer or legal advisor if the transaction requires follow-up on their behalf,” he told Syria Direct

However, apart from freeing the hands of intermediaries or colluding with them, “the regime, with its laws and decisions regarding refugees, has killed two birds with one stone,” according to Abu Ahmad. These laws and decisions are “designed to serve [the regime’s] goals and aims,” including “making a substantial financial income from the fees it imposes on citizens at embassies and consulates.” The security services then take it upon themselves “to refuse the powers of attorney and prevent their owners from disposing of their property and real estate, so that it is taken for the benefit of the Shia and loyalists.”

The road ahead

During the period of Syrian opposition control of East Ghouta, in Reef Dimashq province, from 2013 to 2018, the sale and purchase of real estate in the area went through the Real Estate Registry Department of the opposition Syrian Interim Government or by a sale process documented by a contract through specific real estate offices with the signature of witnesses to the sale. 

Under the second method, Sameer al-Ahmad (a pseudonym) bought agricultural land in Douma in 2016. But after he left East Ghouta in the displacement convoys to northwestern Syria, “the seller seized the land,” al-Ahmad told Syria Direct, “describing [me as] a terrorist.”

For three years, al-Ahmad’s attempts to regain his right to the land failed since he lives in an opposition area inside Syria. This means he cannot “issue a general or limited power of attorney to appoint another individual in regime areas to reclaim my right,” he said. 

There was only one solution left for al-Ahmad, according to what two lawyers in Damascus indicated to him, which was to “send the original contract of sale and appoint a lawyer to file a lawsuit against the seller, provided that the witnesses to the contract agree to testify in court.” Even so, “bribes had to be paid to get a ruling of ownership of the land,” al-Ahmad said. 

More serious still is the infringement on property involving displaced people who are not wanted by the security services, as in the case of Kareem al-Shami’s brother-in-law, who is also displaced from East Ghouta. “Regime elements took possession of his house, even though it was documented in his name with the regime departments before 2011 and there was no decision to seize his properties,” al-Shami said. 

This prompted al-Shami to “agree with a relative of mine to live in my house, so as not to leave an opportunity for regime elements to lay their hands on it,” especially since “my house can’t be disposed of without an official power of attorney, which I can’t get since I am wanted by the regime.” 

Similarly, Haitham, who lives in Jordan, asked his neighbor in Homs province to “demolish the wall separating his shop from my shop, so they become a single shop,” after his application for power of attorney through the Syrian embassy in Jordan was denied. This method has so far protected Haitham’s store from being occupied but does not ensure protection will continue in the event of an audit of the title deeds.

Umm Muhammad, a resident of Jordan, is unable to rent out her home in the al-Hajar al-Aswad area south of Damascus because she is the wife of a defected officer and, as such, will not be able to issue a power of attorney, she told Syria Direct. Instead, she has to send “a small monthly sum to my husband’s brother, in exchange for him staying at our house and taking care of it.” This is so “the regime won’t know it’s deserted and get its hands on it.” 

However, solutions such as these could lead displaced people into another real estate problem. “In cases like these, they should seek out trustworthy and faithful people before allowing any individual to use the property,” warned legal advisor Ahmad Kamal. It is also necessary to “keep the real estate ownership documents or those that support its confirmation, such as sale contracts and court rulings since they increase the opportunity to save the encroached-upon property in case of the owners’ return to Syria.” 

In the meantime, until he can regain his right to dispose of and benefit from his properties valued at an estimated $10 million, Abu Ahmad lives in a rented house in Idlib and is “barely able to support my family,” he said. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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