AMMAN: The main opposition-run court in Daraa province is closed this week “due to lack of security,” the court president told Syria Direct on Monday, citing unwillingness on the part of local rebel factions to provide support and protection to the judicial body.
The main branch of the Court of Justice in the Houran, the judicial body for rebel-held areas of Daraa and Quneitra provinces, witnessed an IED attack and a large-scale jailbreak in just the past week due to a lack of adequate security staff, said court president Sheikh Osmat al-Absi.
“We had to announce a work stoppage in order to take action and demand that the rebel factions send us guards to prevent us from falling into complete disarray,” he told Syria Direct.
The Court of Justice announced the closure in an October 27 statement that circulated online. Two days later, the opposition judicial body met with local rebel factions to request funding and additional security personnel to no avail, said al-Absi. As of Wednesday, the Court of Justice’s main branch remains underfunded and understaffed with the courthouse’s doors shut.
Nearly 100 factions in Syria’s rebel-held south—the majority of them aligned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—formed the Court of Justice, a united judicial body for the region’s opposition-held territories, in 2014.
The hardline Islamist faction Jabhat a-Nusra, the predecessor to today’s Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, partnered with the Court of Justice in the early days of its founding. But due to repeated conflicts with FSA-affiliated factions and an unwillingness to abide by the Court’s decisions, a-Nusra eventually broke away and now maintains its own court system, which implements the faction’s particular interpretation of Islamic law.
The court’s purpose was to implement a uniform system of law and mitigate civilian as well as inter-rebel conflicts in countryside areas of Daraa and Quneitra provinces under opposition control.
The Court of Justice in the Daraa town of Gharaz, Sept. 2015. Dar al-Adl fi Houran.
Prior to the court’s establishment, “the profusion of different bodies applying different laws and often contradictory results was unacceptable, even for the armed groups,” read a 2017 report by the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC), a Sweden-based nonprofit that conducts research on rebuilding justice systems in countries in conflict and post-conflict. The group based its conclusions on interviews with local judges, lawyers and civil society members.
The delegation of legal responsibilities was also in the best interests of the local factions, a researcher specializing in Syria’s governance systems told Syria Direct over e-mail this week.
“Dealing with the civil matters the court hears would be time-consuming for the armed groups,” said Marika Sosnowski, a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne whose research focuses on governance in ceasefire areas of Syria.
At the Court of Justice, which maintains three branches across rebel-held areas of Daraa and Quneitra provinces, residents of the opposition-held south can file for divorce, register land purchases, resolve inheritance disputes and settle a host of other legal issues. The main branch just outside the provincial capital of Daraa city also houses, maintains and staffs a major prison in the region.
But the Court of Justice is entirely dependent upon its partner factions to implement the rule of law and judicial decisions in the region, a responsibility which local rebel militias have increasingly shirked since the court’s establishment.
That original sense of cooperation between the civilian-run Court of Justice and local rebel factions has all but disintegrated, al-Absi and a local rebel spokesman told Syria Direct this week.
“Deteriorating relations between the Court and the rebel factions are probably based on the fact that support by the armed groups for the Court has always been a marriage of convenience,” said Sosnowski.
In the past year, Syria Direct has interviewed civil society and judiciary officials about increased lawlessness and a spike in IED assassinations in Daraa province due to what they call negligent law enforcement and security measures by opposition militias.
The opposition court system also received funding from the FSA-aligned rebel groups, al-Absi said, but almost all financial support had stopped by November 2016.
Syria Direct contacted five separate rebel groups in Daraa province to inquire about the cut in financial support. Only one faction replied.
Osmat al-Absi, president of the Court of Justice in the Houran on October 20, 2017. Photo courtesy of Central Media.
“Jaish a-Thawra did not stop providing support, but it does not provide the same amount because of limited resources,” Abu Kanan a-Sharif, a commander for the faction, told Syria Direct.
“There have been major shortcomings on the part of all the factions, and I think it comes down to nothing other than a lack of a sense of responsibility,” he added.
On Sunday, the main branch of the Court of Justice, located in the town of Gharaz just outside the provincial capital, appealed to local rebel groups to resume financial support and provide interim guards to fill the gaps in the security staff.
“The response by the factions, as we see it, has been underwhelming,” said al-Absi.
The Court of Justice in Gharaz maintains both a courthouse and an adjacent prison, both of which are severely understaffed.
On October 25, an unclaimed IED explosion near the entrance of the main courthouse injured a security guard and several judges, several pro-opposition media outlets reported. Another unclaimed IED attack killed a court official just two weeks earlier on October 9.
Last week’s explosion prompted the week-long closure of the Gharaz branch to “reinforce our security measures...and ensure the safe proceedings of judicial work and services to civilians,” announced the Court of Justice in the Houran on October 27 in a statement that circulated online.
The Court of Justice’s other two branches in the western Daraa countryside and Quneitra province respectively remained operational this week.
Just before dawn on Sunday, 20 prisoners escaped from the Court of Justice’s penitentiary, among them inmates charged with selling narcotics, burglary and murder.
Because most funding for the Court of Justice came to a halt in November 2016, the Court of Justice “can’t even feed the prisoners,” court president al-Absi told Syria Direct this week.
With the penitentiary’s commissary out of stock, the court-affiliated prison began to allow inmates to order food from local restaurants.
Last week, a prisoner was able to smuggle in a small, iron knife with serrated edges, Osmat al-Absi said after an investigation of the jailbreak. The knife was purportedly hidden in a plate of mandi, a dish of spiced chicken and rice.
A group of prisoners was then able to gradually saw off one of the bars on the window of their cell and make their escape in the early hours on Sunday.
The Court of Justice’s prison in Gharaz is surrounded by three guard towers, but a lack of staff and financial support mean that “we can’t even keep one tower operational,” says al-Absi.
A slew of resignations by courthouse and prison guards over the past month has left the Court of Justice with only enough staff to guard the main entrance to the penitentiary.
After losing the majority of its funding, the opposition-run court has “accumulated mounds of debt,” and in recent months is unable to pay salaries to its employees, said al-Absi. The lack of salaries, as well as the dangers of working at the courthouse, pushed many staff members to resign over the past month.
Syria Direct was able to confirm this week that at least one rebel faction continues to provide financial support to the Court of Justice in the Houran: Jaish a-Thawra. However, the group’s contributions only amount to roughly 10 percent of the opposition court’s operational costs.
As for the remaining rebel factions who helped establish the court, they have a “responsibility to guard and protect, to send us a number of guards,” said al-Absi, “at least until we can employ other people ourselves to ensure safety and security.”