Searching for justice in Syria

Searching for justice in Syria
4 min read
12 May, 2015
Comment: Despite a society gripped by war and deception, justice can still be found in Syria, says Diana Darke.
Disputes over property are on the rise in Syria [Anadolu]
If your house is stolen in Syria, how on earth do you get it back? You go to court and fight back of course, as I did on my recent trip to Damascus.

Before the current crisis, Syria's courthouses were always buzzing - but these days they are in a state of frenetic activity bordering on chaos. Divorce cases have soared, with families divided by the stresses of war. But property disputes are the other boom area.

The grandly titled Palace of Justice, the highest court in the land, sits proudly in the heart of Damascus, opposite Saladin's mighty citadel and close to the city's oldest souks.

As so often with government buildings in the capital, the courthouse occupies a site redolent with history, where the Ottoman serail, or administrative headquarters, once stood.

Twenty-five judges, some of them women and all of them theoretically independent, sit at the Palace of Justice. The legal system they have inherited to administer is a combination of French and Ottoman legacies, with Islamic, or sharia, law for matrimonial and inheritance issues.

Two summers ago, a cluster of bombs exploded here in a symbolic strike against state authority - but today the only hint of difficult times is the heavily guarded entrance and the beaten-up prisoner truck parked outside with its ominous iron-barred windows.

     'Fight for honour', the Arab proverb runs, 'for dishonour is easily won'.

Stepping inside the cavernous building is like entering Dante's inferno.

Its raised balcony is reserved for the higher levels. Down below, you are met with a battery of noise, as voices compete to argue, negotiate and haggle - this is, after all, just another market-place where deals are struck.

Dodging behind pillars, we conduct surveillance on my crooked ex-lawyer, nicknamed "Ahmad the Snake".

Checking the court register, we find he has lodged a case to put a fake general inside my house on a forged 25-year rental contract - a typical ploy.

Every day in the courthouse such scenes play out. The dishonest few write spurious security reports "for the safety of the country". They attribute "terrorist" links to people they want arrested or whose homes they want to appropriate - anything goes in a world where deception is eating away at the decent core of society, where everything has its price.

Yet remarkably, with persistence, justice can still be found.

Upstairs, an honest judge has read our file. He agrees a date to come to the house and carry out an inspection - a vital step to thwart the previous owner who is claiming I sold it back to him "voluntarily", complete with all my furniture.

Caught red-handed by my unexpected visit, the greedy rogue must now dream up new ploys.

His lawyer hits on a masterplan, then delivers the bombshell. He is leaving the country in two months, he says, with a visa to go to Holland. He is selling everything. Today, he sold his car. Now, he wants to sell his client.

For $10,000 he will drop the case and settle. Can I trust him? Is it a trick? Is he just testing the waters to see how much I might pay to their slush fund?
     Anything goes in a world where deception is eating away at the decent core of society, where everything has its price.

It is a microcosm of Syria, as all over the country people face similar dilemmas. Desperate not to lose their homes and belongings, they struggle in the courts to regain possession.

War in all countries tests the forces of law and order to the limit, and sometimes they are found wanting.

But judges across the country are uniquely positioned. Their future actions will tell us about the nature of accountability inside Syria. Will these judges be excluded or re-integrated once the war is over?

Can they be trusted to establish a true rule of law, the backbone of any transitional justice system?

The answer depends on honest judges and lawyers, and their will to fight for the rule of law. They are operating under terrible conditions, but they know that to give up is to give in.

If no one challenges the cancerous corruption, evil will triumph, sucking Syria's honest citizens into the abyss. That is the thought that keeps me fighting.

"Fight for honour", the Arab proverb runs, "for dishonour is easily won".

Diana Darke is a Middle East cultural expert and author of
'My House In Damascus: An Inside View Of The Syrian Revolution'.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.