How has the judiciary evolved over time in the insurgent-held areas of Syria? The town of Azaz in the north Aleppo countryside, currently part of the Turkish-backed 'Euphrates Shield' zone, is a useful case to examine for the insurgent-held areas that are not dominated by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and the Salvation Government, which primarily exercise authority in parts of Idlib and its environs in west Aleppo countryside.
The following post features an interview conducted with a source who has worked in the judiciary in Azaz. The two main observations to note from the interview are:
(i) The judicial system has tended towards more organisation and sophistication over time, with the development of litigation procedures and an appeals system.
(ii) The judicial system has become less Islamic and more secular in character over time. In the early years of insurgent control in various parts of Syria, the judiciary was characterised by the prominence of 'Shari'i commissions' and 'Islamic courts' under the heavy influence of so-called 'Shari'i officials' and other religious figures. There was also much talk over the years about the necessity of implementing Islamic law. Over time in Azaz, the Shari'i officials and religious figures have actually been marginalised in terms of their role in the judiciary. Further, the judiciary in Azaz and other 'Euphrates Shield' areas (as well as the 'Olive Branch' area of Afrin and the 'Peace Spring' area stretching from Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ayn) now simply adopts the Syrian law codes, eschewing Islamist and jihadist notions of implementing the rule of 'God's law' and even the notion of adopting the 'Unified Arab Code,' which in earlier years came to be seen as the more 'moderate' alternative to jihadist visions of the judiciary and was applied in the insurgent-held areas of southern Syria by the Dar al-Adl. In other words, the judicial system in Azaz and other areas now almost mirrors that in Syrian government-held areas.
I do also have a number of documents from the judicial system in Azaz and other parts of north Aleppo countryside. I hope to publish and archive them at a later stage.
Below is the interview with the source, which was conducted in late December 2020.
Survey of Azaz
Q: What is the judicial system adopted in the Azaz court currently and why? For example do you use the Unified Arab Code? Explain the system followed in the matter. To which judicial side is the Azaz court affiliated?
A: Explanation about the situation of the judiciary in the liberated areas since 2012:
The first court in the town of Azaz was established in 2012 after the liberation of the town, and the first court was a mixture between legal and Shari'i officials, and the administrative matters in the court were managed by one of the mashayakh in the capacity of head of the court. And the first court was composed of a general prosecution directorate, a civil court, a civil [sic] court and a court of first instance, but during this there was no application of procedures of litigation in an entire sense. And I mean here that the court did not follow a law code organising the courts and what the soundness of litigation requires from procedures, and especially in procedures of notification that is enshrined in procedural law. This stage was characterised by the men of religion's seizure of the face of judicial work, and there arose disagreements in opinions between the legal and Shari'i officials, but the legal specialists, and on account of their few number, were the weaker party. The venturing of the people to these courts was average as the people were not used to this type of courts. This situation continued until the end of 2013 when the Da'esh organisation seized the town and established a court led by Shari'i officials only, without following any principles for litigation. During this stage the venturing to the resolution of disputes in the courts was very weak for the control of Da'esh over the town was based on the idea of dominance and imposing influence by force. The Da'esh organisation court continued for a period of seven months approximately as the Da'esh organisation withdrew from the town at the end of February 2014.
After the Da'esh organisation left the town, the Azaz court returned to work more or less with its same old staff and some of the people from the Shari'i officials were included.
Lengthy discussions occurred in this time between the judges from the legal specialists and Shari'i officials as to what law must be applied in the court. The discussions revolved between those rejecting any codification and those pushed towards applying a defined law for litigation.
And under the pressure of the legal specialists and a group of the Shari'i officials, there was agreement on the application of the Unified Arab Code. Also it was subsequently agreed to form the Supreme Judicial Council as an umbrella bringing together all the courts in Aleppo countryside.
The Unified Arab Code was contaminated by much obscurity in its articles, for the code was not applied in any land and it has no commentaries as was the case in the Syrian law codes.
Confusion remained the master of the position in the courts and the judiciary was on one degree only, as there had not yet been established courts of second degree (court of appeal and second instance) and this was among the big problems facing judicial work.
And under pressure from the legal specialists and with the aim of strengthening the legitimacy and correcting the course of judicial work, and the judicial cadres were presented with a number of legal specialists and the matter began heading towards more stability, and the appointed judges began working in accordance with the Syrian procedural law without announcing that and without mentioning the texts of articles on decisions that they issued. Also a cassation court (in the degree of second instance court) was established, that was initially composed of five people: three Shari'i officials and legal specialists, reviewing the cases in which the decisions that are issued are challenged.
In mid-2016, the court's structure was reorganised according to the system that was implemented in the Syrian courts before the revolution after one of the legal specialists took up the position of head of the court and this name was replaced with the name of prosecutor general.
Work began proceeding towards the correct course, and the judicial staff was expanded in judges and employees. And a criminal court was established in addition to the establishment of a military criminal court.
And the court here was composed of:
1. Directorate of the prosecutor general, to whom a civil prosecutor and a military prosecutor were affiliated (from legal specialists).
2. Criminal court composed of legal specialists and a Shari'i official.
3. First investigative judge-second investigative judge.
4. Penal court that was working as a conciliation court and court of first instance.
5. Civil court of first instance and it was divided into two rooms: the first was operating as a conciliation court and the second operating as a civil court of first instance.
6. Personal circumstances court.
7. Implementation directorate.
8. General diwan.
9. Law enforcement affiliated with the prosecutor general's office.
This stage was the beginning of judicial stability and the venturing of the people to resolve their disputes among the courts began to increase. This situation continued until 7 January 2017, when the court was targeted with a car bomb, which led to the destruction of parts of the court and the martyrdom of a judge and justice assistant and some of the law enforcement members in addition to the exposure of much of the contents of the court to destruction as a result of the fire that followed the great explosion.
After the explosion, the court stopped working for a period, then it returned to work, and some of the courts were established in the sub-districts affiliated with the court (Marea, Sawran, Akhtarin). Each court was composed of a prosecution general directorate and a penal judge responsible for reviewing also the Shari'i cases, and a civil judge responsible for reviewing the investigative cases.
In September 2017 was the most important stage in the history of the judiciary in the liberated areas, as the Shari'i officials were distanced and the legal specialists were kept only, and the court was transferred to the new building that was prepared and renovated by the Turkish governorate of Kilis, which also supplied it with all it needed from furniture of offices and equipment.
In this stage the Azaz court included:
1. Prosecutor general directorate, with prosecutor affiliated with it.
2. Investigation judge entrusted with reviewing the Shari'i cases.
3. Penal court that operated as a conciliation court and court of first instance.
4. Civil court of first instance and it operated as a court and civil court of first instance. The head of the court was the head of the civil implementation directorate as well.
5. Court of personal circumstances.
6. General diwan.
7. Law enforcement.
And the judicial inspection directorate was established composed of three people. Then a cassation court was formed, which became the judicial reference authority in the area. And all of the judicial staff was gathered in the locality of al-Ra'i and a statement was signed for the adoption of Syrian law in what does not contravene the principles of the revolution.
Then a decision was issued to establish a criminal court and for the first time a member of the defecting judges entered and became the head of the court. Then the referral directorate was established and one of the defecting judges was appointed as referral judge. Then a court of second instance was formed and the appeal court and criminal court and referral court were transferred to the locality of al-Ra'i, as it was decided that it should be the judicial centre for the region and thus the judicial framework in the liberated areas has become a comprehensive framework.
Q: What are the main divisions in the court? What are the responsibilities of these divisions? What is the number of judges and workers in the court?
A: The judges are eight in number:
1. Prosecution head (he takes for himself the name of prosecutor general), to whom the prosecutor is affiliated under the name of prosecution head.
2. First investigative judge.
3. Second investigative judge.
4. First penal judge.
5. Second penal judge.
6. Civil court of first instance, whose head is responsible for reviewing cases of conciliation, civilian cases, urgent cases, and administrative ones in addition to leadership of the civil executive.
7. Personal circumstances court.
As for the side of employees, the work staff in the court is composed of 25 people:
1. General diwan, to which is affiliated the diwan of ushers, and it includes three ushers and the copying office that includes employees.
2. Notary directorate: one employee responsible for the task of clerical inspection.
3. General prosecution diwan, including two employees.
4. Investigation and penal department, also working as a directorate for implementation of penal rulings: one employee.
5. Civil diwan: one employee.
6. Civil executive directorate in its civil and Shari'i branches: one employee.
7. Shari'i court diwan.
8. Justice assistants, whose number is eight employees.
9. Accountability directorate: one employee.
10. General warehouse: one employee.
11. Two servants.
Q: The salary of the worker in the court and the salary of the judge with detailing if there are work incentives. Does the court permit dualism of work and why? Is there sufficient protection for the judicial apparatus? Is there sufficient immunity for it? Is the judge given additional perks?
A: The judge receives a monthly salary of 2000 Turkish liras in addition to a sum of 1000 Turkish liras that he receives from the treasury of the courts by decision from the judicial inspection commission.
In the beginning the salaries were equal for all, then the employees were divided into a number of groups.
1. The head of the diwan receives monthly 1000 Turkish liras.
2. The justice assistant 500 Turkish liras.
3. The usher 600 Turkish liras.
As for protection, there is no system for the protection of the judicial staff and there is no immunity made available for the judges or the lawyers.
As for the additional perks for the judge, the judges have been granted permission to enter the Turkish lands whenever they like.
Q: Are there rulings of execution in your region? And are they implemented and how?
A: Rulings of execution are issued from the civil and military criminal courts, but during the time of my work in the court and extending from 2014, the current custom has been to suspend implementation of rulings of execution so the ruling of execution has not been implemented at all.
Q: What are the lists of punishments for theft, murder and joining Da'esh or the PKK?
A: As I have previously mentioned, the applied law in the current courts in the liberated areas is Syrian law and the Syrian code of punishments is applied entirely. And so the rulings that are issued for the crimes mentioned in the question pertain to the articles of the criminal code and it is somewhat difficult to document all the punishments and list them, for as is known, theft for example is divided into ordinary theft and aggravated theft and within ordinary theft there are also divisions, and it is difficult to document all the punishments that are issued in these types of crimes, but I repeat and say that the applied law is the Syrian code of punishments.