In rebel-held Syria, revolutionary courts decide matters of life, death

McClatchy NewspapersJune 18, 2012 

— Two months ago, Syrian rebel fighters arrested Ahmed Dayob over allegations of rape and murder-for-hire for the Syrian army.

The Syrian government long ago lost control of this area in the country’s northwest, and has proved incapable of more than temporary incursions into the surrounding towns and rebel-held countryside. The remaining police officers have defected to the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella rebel fighting force.

While there’s no formal government structure left here, mundane civil problems such as legal cases haven’t ceased during the uprising against President Bashar Assad. With the prospect of a protracted civil war, local leaders recognized the necessity of some sort of governing. That’s why, when Dayob was arrested, he was handed over to the custody of a revolutionary court.

The seven-month-old court, which is responsible for affairs in the northern part of Hama province and portions of Idlib, is one way Syrian rebels and their supporters are pressing their authority in the parts of the country that have fallen out of Assad’s control.

The court here in Kafer Sajenah was the innovation of a respected community elder named Khalid Sheikh, who’s one of seven members and two alternates who sit on the bench. They include a Free Syrian Army representative, three Islamic scholars and three lawyers, and they’re led by Jamil Radoun, a colonel who defected from the Syrian army.

“In the beginning of the revolution, people took their problems to the FSA,” Sheikh said. “But the FSA has no authority over civilians. We created this court to address that problem.”

Defected Syrian army Capt. Zuhair Sheikh – the court’s rebel representative and Khalid Sheikh’s younger cousin – explained the court’s philosophy as “based one-third on law, one-third on knowledge and one-third on religion.”

Radoun, who also commands the largest rebel unit in the region, said he personally dealt with minor civil matters such as divorces, land disputes and price gouging, and that he made decisions case by case, without reference to laws written by the Syrian government – or any other entity.

“I often hear 10 or 15 of these cases a day,” he sighed. “This revolution is giving me gray hairs.”

The court also sets prices for fuel and foodstuffs, which are in short supply. Khalid Sheikh said some merchants had tried to double the price of gasoline since before the uprising began last year, and that now, if merchants exceeded the court-determined price, they paid fines that went to support the rebel army and victims of the violence.

Radoun added that the court also monitors food quality and fines shopkeepers who are found selling unfit foods.

For more serious cases, such as the rape and murder allegations against Dayob, Radoun convenes the full court. Khalid Sheikh said that Dayob, whom the army had hired as a mercenary, had confessed to the crimes while trained interrogators were interviewing him and that he later led investigators to the body of a woman he said he’d raped and killed. The court officials described the whole affair as a model of transparency, although it wasn’t immediately possible to verify their claims.

“He was not beaten or tortured in any way. We videotaped the entire interrogation process,” Sheikh said. The recordings then were provided to Dayob’s family, and “when they heard his confession, his family agreed that he must be executed.”

Not all those accused of crimes in rebel-held areas receive the level of due process reportedly afforded to Dayob. One prisoner in a nearby town was arrested recently on allegations of being a double agent, and was beaten and executed within four days. Court members in Kafer Sajenah denied involvement in that incident, saying it had occurred outside their jurisdiction.

After 30 days of confinement, investigation and trial, Dayob was condemned to death by a unanimous vote and executed by firing squad. He’s the only man the court has sentenced to death so far, court officials said.

“I wished it had never happened, but justice had to be done,” Zuhair Sheikh said. “I did not celebrate it.”

Khalid Sheikh said Dayob was provided with a neutral, respected defense attorney and that the judges had been determined to be impartial in the matter.

“We kept written records of the entire proceedings, so that in the future people can know that justice was done,” he said.

The court was holding two other prisoners on serious charges, but officials declined to comment on their cases, citing ongoing investigations.

Radoun said the court, after deliberating, issued verdicts by a majority voice vote. In the case of an even split, it would adopt the lesser punishment that was proposed. Available punishments include fines, exile or execution.

“We are in a revolution,” Radoun said. “We cannot afford to keep people in prison.”

Zuhair Sheikh said: “Our justice is better now than under the regime. In the old days, this man would have probably bribed the judge and then been released.”

Captured Syrian army soldiers are processed directly by the Free Syrian Army. Those who aren’t suspected of war crimes occasionally are released, but more often they’re absorbed into the rebel ranks.

Radoun said similar but unaffiliated courts had sprung up elsewhere in the country.

Khalid Sheikh said their court’s powers would expire at the conclusion of the revolution, when elected civil authorities would take over.

“In the meantime, if the regime were to catch us, I’m sure we would all be executed,” he said.

Tice is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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