In rebel-held Aleppo, Syrian civilians try to impose law through courts, not guns

The United Legal Council of Aleppo, formed by lawyers and judges, hears about 15 cases daily, and has buy-in from some rebels. But it faces a tough challenge from those who want to impose their own justice in the war-torn city.

Manu Brabo/AP
In this Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 photo, A Syrian man turns on the oven at his bakery shop on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria on Oct. 14. In rebel-held Aleppo, the United Legal Council of Aleppo, formed by lawyers and judges, hears court cases and tries to keep peace through law.

Mahad Youssef walks into this bare, new office, sinks into a chair, and holds her head in her hands. Her two adult daughters stand beside her, arms crossed and looking worried, as Mrs. Youssef tearfully petitions the man in the pressed suit sitting behind a desk.

"I swear on the Quran, my son did nothing," she says. "My son is a good man. If he confessed anything, it's because they are torturing him."

This, the newest court in Aleppo, is her last hope to get her son back. And perhaps the slump in her shoulders is an indication of her confidence in its abilities.

Ms. Youssef's son was recently arrested by a brigade of the Free Syrian Army, who accused him of being a member of the shabiha, or a thug working for the Assad regime. They were detaining him, and, she is afraid, torturing him. The judge, who sits behind his desk, waves to a court investigator, who enters the room and informs the woman that he visited the brigade that captured her son, and they promised to turn him over to the court tomorrow. Youssef begins to cry.

"I swear on the Quran, I swear on the Quran, my son is innocent!" she cries.

This newly established United Legal Council of Aleppo is an attempt to bring law and order back to war-torn Aleppo, where rebels and the Syrian regime have fought over the city for three months now. In rebel-held territory, the citizens who haven't fled the fighting find themselves with no courts to perform marriages or try thieves, and at the mercy of the armed rebel groups fighting the regime.

But this group of lawyers and judges is finding it difficult to exert civilian accountability over the rebel groups, whose guns are the law.

"In times of war, justice suffers first," says Abu Ibrahim, the judge who heard Youssef's petition. A judge in a government appeals court before the uprising, he asked not to use his real name because his family lives in an area under the control of the Syrian regime.

The court was established one month ago by a group of about 50 former lawyers and judges. Many of the rebel groups fighting in Aleppo already had their own informal courts, usually based on sharia or Islamic law. Abu Ibrahim says this court is an attempt to build a unified system to apply justice, both for civilians and fighters.

He and the other council members met with the leaders of the various rebel groups to secure their promise that they would cooperate with the new court, to give it legitimacy. Most of them have agreed, he says, with a few holdouts.

But even among those that have nominally agreed, it's not clear how much those words are worth. The judicial council works in an edifice built before the war and never used. The bare walls and floors echo with the voices of the people who fill a hallway, waiting to make their complaints. Downstairs in the basement, several rooms prepared as prisons sit empty, waiting for the rebels to turn over their prisoners to the legal council. Only one cell is occupied, by just two prisoners.

Rebels accused of atrocities

Some rebel groups have been accused of atrocities while battling the regime. This week, a video became public of rebel fighters executing a group of apparent regime soldiers, apparently near the northern town of Saraqeb, where heavy fighting had taken place. Human rights groups say the actions in the video, if verified, may represent a war crime.

Such battlefield crimes are unlikely to make it to this court. But what Abu Ibrahim hopes it can do, at the least, is bring accountability to the interactions between the armed groups and civilians, as well as handle civilian complaints. He hopes it will become the foundation of a civilian infrastructure that can supersede the control of the rebel groups.

The legal council hears about 15 new cases a day, says Abu Ibrahim. It has recognized marriages and divorces and mediated family disputes. There have been many cases of theft, but in each case the council has ordered the thieves to return what they stole, and has declined to punish them because of the difficult circumstances of war.

In fact, the council has yet to punish anyone. That's partly because it has little power to enforce its rulings, or to force an armed group to turn over prisoners.

The obstacles ahead are many. An Aleppo legal expert who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution says a main obstacle is extremists, who don't like the mixture of civil and Islamic law the court applies, and want instead to see a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

"We need the application of the law. The problem is we have extremists and they have their own laws. They want the application of Islamic sharia, but not a moderate sharia," says the legal expert. "There are few of them, but they are increasing."

He says the drawn-out conflict is increasing the influence of extremist armed groups, while their more plentiful resources are an added draw. Even among the rebel groups who do not adhere to an extremist ideology, only a fraction of them are "good," says the legal expert, who calls most of them thieves. "To stop their influence, we have to support civilian institutions. We need courts, and police with uniforms and weapons and salaries."

A fledgling police force in rebel-held Aleppo is good, "but they're also weak," he says. "Because there is no support. No weapons, no uniforms, or cars."

The rebel fighters get support from outside Syria, while civilian efforts like the court suffer, he says.

Some of the rebel brigades appear to prefer their own justice to handing over prisoners to the legal council. Abu Tawfiq, the operational commander of Liwa el Tawhid, one of the largest rebel divisions in Aleppo, says that his group is considering cooperating with the court.

"We have our own judges and lawyers, and they have to agree about this," he said when asked why the division didn't agree to send its prisoners to the court.

The case of an FSA fighter

Even what might be considered a success story for the court -- a Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter imprisoned after being accused of murder -- is complicated.

Kamal Al Abd is accused of shooting a suspected member of the shabiha. He was working with his brigade at a checkpoint, and allegedly shot the unarmed suspect when he fled. His brigade turned him over to the court.

Downstairs in his chilly and dimly lit cell, Mr. Abd says he is not beaten or mistreated in the jail. His guards remained outside the cell while he talked to a reporter. But Abd complains that he doesn't deserve to be imprisoned. He was only one of six men from his brigade who killed the suspected thug. He says he was the only one arrested because the man who died was from the same village as himself, and Abd was accused of killing him to settle a personal score.

"I've been a fighter with the FSA for a year. I fought at the front. The guy outside the door defected recently. Why am I in here and he's out there? It's not fair," he says. He says he has not been given a chance to tell his side of the story to the judge, despite being held for nearly a week.

Back upstairs, Abu Ibrahim says he has spoken with the man, and the investigation into his case is just beginning. He will get a lawyer and a chance to defend himself, he says. He is interrupted when a court worker brings in a complaint handwritten in Arabic. Filed by a doctor in the town of Al Bab, it accuses rebel fighters of breaking down the door to a medical clinic and stealing records.

A day after their first appearance at the court, Mahad Youssef's two daughters are back outside Abu Ibrahim's office, waiting for news of their brother. One of them, who gives her name as Shahad and wears a hijab and a long coat over her clothes, says her brother was taken because of a personal dispute. One of the neighbors wanted to marry her, but her family refused.

She says the angry neighbor then accused her brother of being one of the shabiha. His case was complicated by the fact that her father is listed on activist websites as working as a regime thug. She and her mother say their father is estranged and they haven't seen him for months. Shahad says she doesn't know where she would have turned without this new legal council, but she's not sure if it will bring justice for her brother, either.

She likes Abu Ibrahim, she says. "He listens, and answers." But at midday on the day the brigade promised to turn her brother over to the court, she is still sitting on a chair outside the judge's office, waiting.

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