AMMAN — Marwa’s house, located behind Basateen al-Razi in Damascus, is registered in the name of her husband, “who was killed by a bombing of the area in 2012,” she said. That did not stop her husband’s brother from selling “the house to one of the Hezbollah members who surround the city of Darayya city.” However, “I can’t go to the government institutions in Damascus to make a claim for my family’s right to the property,” the displaced woman now living in northwest Syria’s city of Idlib told Syria Direct.
While attention is focused on the Bashar al-Assad regime’s attempts to seize the property of displaced Syrians inside and outside the country, plunder methods perpetrated by individuals are emerging, encouraged by the regime’s nature. In addition to the widespread corruption that historically characterizes regime institutions, there is the fear among displaced people of persecution upon their arrival in the regime-controlled areas.
Proof of ownership
The “green deed,” or the title deed obtained by registering property in the owner’s name in the government real estate registry, constitutes the most decisive document of proof of real estate ownership in Syria.
Other less powerful documents include “court notary documents,” according to Syrian lawyer Hussam Sarhan, a member of the Turkey-based Syrian Lawyers Association. They include “a document of power of attorney for the sale of a real estate; a deed of a real estate sale with power of attorney; and a deed of a real estate sale with an irrevocable power of attorney that is considered the strongest of the documents.”
A document of a power of attorney for the sale of a real estate “compels the seller and buyer to go to the transaction in the real estate registry, even if the document is written by the notary. If the seller does not show up, the buyer has to file a lawsuit against him or her in court to prove paying the price of the property and owning it,” Sarhan added.
The deed of a real estate sale with power of attorney is “authorization from the [property] owner for someone to sell the property to any person other than himself without consulting with the owner, which is what is recorded clearly in the document.
As for the deed of a real estate sale with an irrevocable power of attorney, it is “a declaration from the owner before the notary that he sold the property and received the patment, and authorized the buyer to carry out the process of transferring ownership to himself in the real estate registry without consulting the original owner.”
There is also the “regular deed of sale,” which is “a document [stating a deal] between the property seller and buyer that is drawn up between them or by a lawyer without confirming the sale and transfer of ownership in the real estate registry.” This is a “weak document,” Sarhan said, “unless the buyer files a suit in which this document is presented, and its validity is proven. And thus gets a court ruling confirming his purchase of the property and then registers it in the real estate registry.”
Forgery and fraud
The rampant corruption in Syrian government institutions allows individuals to seize the properties of displaced and absent Syrians through illegal means by presenting claims of ownership without the actual owners’ knowledge.
The Ministry of Interior announced this month that the Criminal Security Department “arrested eight people and thwarted an operation to transfer real estates belonging to residents of two areas (Darayya and al-Tijarah) in Damascus, valued at hundreds of millions of Syrian pounds,” using “forged documents, powers of attorney and identity cards of the owners of these properties, taking advantage of some of them being outside the country.” The Ministry also announced two other arrests for the same offense in Latakia province.
However, the ability – or even the desire – of the Damascus government to pursue fraud practiced by or benefiting influential people remains doubtful, as in the case of Salwa al-Yousef’s (a pseudonym) family home in Aleppo city.
Al-Yousef’s brother, she told Syria Direct, sold the family home registered in the name of their father, who has been detained since 2014, to a commander of an Iranian militia that he joined in Aleppo. “I found out about it after I went to visit the house and found an Iranian family living in it. After a lengthy discussion about the ownership of the house, I found out my brother is the one who sold them the property and that they have an official deed.”
Following that, al-Yousef got “a lawyer a year ago to carry out the procedures to recover ownership,” she added, “but the judiciary is stalling; I haven’t been able to recover my rights and those of my five other brothers.”
In the case of Muhammad al-Zoubi, who hails from the city of Izraa in the northern countryside of Daraa province and now lives in Germany, his sister’s ex-husband transferred ownership of the family’s house to himself. “He was alone with my blind father and took his signature and fingerprint on the deed selling the house to him,” al-Zoubi told Syria Direct. “Then he sold it and took the money without us knowing. Two months ago, the buyer came to my father and presented the deed proving the validity of his purchase of the house.”
Al-Zoubi’s sister has filed a lawsuit and appointed a lawyer, and “we are still waiting for the procedures to be completed.”
Dealing with a property that has been taken through forged documents can be more complicated “when ownership of the property is transferred to a person of good faith, who has no knowledge that forgery occurred,” Sarhan pointed out.
“The [original] owner of the property can’t recover it if it has been transferred to a person of good faith. He has to prove that the person who purchased the property was in bad faith, which is not easy to prove. Accordingly, the property [original] owner loses his ownership, and his rights are limited to the price from the seller or sellers with the forged power of attorney.”
Complicity of judges and lawyers
The types of forgery that are being revealed in Damascus, according to a lawyer living in the capital, are “forging the identity of the property owner by leaving the owner’s information and replacing the image with the imposter; forging seals and signatures of the notary and judges by printing other ownership documents and changing the name and personal information of the owner, as well as the impersonator claiming to be authorized by the original owner to sell the property.”
Further, “the Syrian judiciary is not sufficiently impartial,” the lawyer, who requested anonymity, added, accusing judges and notaries of “significant complicity” in forgery operations “through leniency in the procedures and not verifying the authenticity of statements by the person selling the property.”
There are also “many lawyers who are complicit in the forgery operations and transferring the property of people who left their homes to others, including Iranians. Most of them know the judges’ loopholes and the sums they charge in exchange for each case of transferring real estate with forged documents.”
Ahmad al-Sayyed, the Minister of Justice, confirmed in a statement to the pro-regime newspaper al-Watan on November 24 that court rulings had been issued by some judges “transferring ownership of properties to other people based on forged powers of attorney.” He claimed those judges are “under trial in the Supreme Judicial Council.”
Also, “Law No. 10 of 2018 had a major impact on the forgery operations and demographic change led by the Syrian regime,” according to Lebanon-based Syrian lawyer Nabiha al-Rayyes. The law has led to “making the perpetrators of real estate property forgery offenses prevalent, as they know the inability of the displaced owners to prove ownership with the state after the government gave them only one month to present proof of ownership.”
Nevertheless, “in the future, after salvation from the ruling gang, ownerships based on forgery can easily be voided,” al-Rayyes told Syria Direct, because we can ïdentify the actual owner of the property by signature or fingerprint, especially if it is proven that the owner lived outside Syria on the date of the property sale.”
Sarhan echoed this opinion. While there are no “immediate solutions,” he said, “when Syria becomes a state of the rule of law with an independent and impartial judiciary, this will allow the owner to demand restitution of property and compensation for the period in which it was squatted.” He also stressed that the regime could not abrogate the ownership of the original property owner from the real estate registry because “every property in Syria has a real estate number on a large page, on which events are recorded. So the name of the main owner of this property cannot be erased, and the name of another person put in its place. Rather, the occurrences on this property are recorded on the same page as the main owner, with every sale on paper or even seizure of the property.”
On February 4, 2018, the Syrian Lawyers Association launched a “Housing and Real Estate Restitution” project to document information about civilian properties confiscated or destroyed over the past ten years in order to share it with the responsible entity in post-war Syria.
The project, according to Sarhan, is based on “the United Nations document issued in 2015 that endorsed principles related to housing and property restitution to refugees and displaced persons, announced by Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.” Sarhan indicated that “based on this document, we have worked on the national documentation project since 2013, and have been able to preserve copies of real estate records in some Syrian provinces that were outside the regime control, such as Homs, Idlib and the countrysides of Aleppo and Hama.
The project also provides an online platform through which Syrians inside and outside the country can document their lost properties—whether confiscated or destroyed—with available information, even if incomplete. “All information that is added to the platform is confidential, and only looked at the management of the association whose mission is not to resolve real estate disputes, but rather to form a documented database to provide to the entity responsible for resolving property-related disputes in the post-conflict era in Syria and then to any individual following up on the status of their property. [It will also be used] to prosecute violators of property rights,” according to Sarhan.
But despite “our promoting the importance of preserving these documents on the platform and publishing weekly awareness-raising videos on issues of property rights and their protection through the association’s Facebook page, the turnout for registration is less than hoped for,” Sarhan regretted. “The number of those registered has so far not reached 5,000 people, and the percentage of those registered who do not have any ownership documents, or who only have a regular title deed, is more than 50 percent of the total number.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.