Aleppo’s Sharia Authority: Tyranny in the Guise of Religion

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Al-Akhbar Management

A wounded Syrian woman walks with her children following airstrikes on a rebel area of the war-torn northern city of Aleppo on December 15, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed al-Khatib)

Published Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The so-called Sharia Authority in the Syrian city of Aleppo has been linked to many tragedies, including the slaying of the child Mohammed Qattaa after being accused of blasphemy and the assault on protesters in the Masaken Hanano district in May 2013.

Inception of the Authority

On 10 November 2012, al-Qaeda-affiliate al-Nusra Front founded a body it dubbed the Sharia Authority in Aleppo. Its stated goal: to act as a “purely judicial” tribunal to tackle the theft and looting that spread in the city after the arrival of the “revolution.” The Sharia Authority was subsequently joined by Liwaa al-Tawhid, the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade, Liwaa al-Fath, and the Dawn of Islam Movement.

Sheikh Hassan Kirari was chosen to lead the Sharia Authority, which decided to use a hospital in the Qadi Askar district as its headquarters. The hospital was built by the Syrian Ministry of Health, and had cost hundreds of millions of Syrian pounds to serve the low-income residents of the Aleppo governorates, that is, before the militants of Liwaa al-Tawhid “liberated” it in July 2012 and looted whatever was inside.

Recently, the Sharia Authority moved its headquarters to a former shopping mall in the Shaar district, after an area close to its former headquarters came under attack from exploding barrels.

The core of the Sharia Authority consists of 12 “judges,” mostly former lawyers who were active in demonstrations outside the Justice Palace as part of the group called the Free Lawyers. Though its declared objectives are replete with rosy promises, one opposition source told Al-Akhbar that one of the main reasons for the establishment of the Sharia Authority was to “Islamize” the city, something that became quickly obvious when the court shunned all secular laws. A source that closely followed the work of the Authority said, “Those lawyers adopted a radical Islamic ideology after joining the Authority, in reaction to the death of relatives during the days of peaceful protests.”

Since its creation, the Authority sought to counter the Unified Judicial Council, which was set up by secular-leaning former lawyers and judges who adopted the unified Arab law of the Arab League. The Sharia Authority tried to limit the Council’s influence to the districts of Ansari, Mashhad, and Salah al-Din. When the Council tried to take control of the old transportation department building in the Qaterji district, to establish a court in what was the Sharia Authority’s backyard, militants detained the members of the Council.

The Judicial Process at the Authority

Citizens submit complaints to the Complaints Office, which then studies them. If the office finds a complaint worth turning into a lawsuit, it is noted in the register and then referred to an “investigating magistrate.” The magistrate examines civil, criminal, and Sharia cases, but beyond that, his role is limited to notifying the parties to the lawsuit and hearing their statements, and then submitting his proposals to three clerics who make up the court.

Usually, the defendant is notified when legal action is brought against him or her, and told to follow up with the Sharia Authority. In most cases, the defendant is quick to go to the Sharia Authority, because refusing to appear before a court that rules in accordance with Islamic law could have him deemed an apostate who renounces Sharia.

Paradoxically, the lawyers working for the Authority report to clerics who never studied law, and yet, they arbitrate in disputes. Even those who graduated from Sharia colleges – a minority by all accounts – have not undertaken an in-depth study of the Islamic penal code or Islamic laws governing transactions and so forth.

For this reason, the verdicts issued by the clerics-turned-judges are markedly erratic, because the judges are often influenced by customs, personal opinions, and the political and tribal affiliations of the litigants. The litigants often find themselves forced to defer to the verdicts of the Sharia Authority or otherwise face accusations of challenging Sharia and clerics, despite the haphazard nature of the rulings. Furthermore, the clerics’ verdicts are final and cannot be appealed.

Militants: A Red Line

Meanwhile, disputes between militants, or between militants and civilians, are handled by a cleric appointed as a “military investigating magistrate.” The Sharia Authority cannot try militants and brigade leaders except through the intervention of senior commanders. One of the most famous incidents in this regard involves Hassan Jazra, who entered the Sharia Authority headquarters wearing an explosive belt, threatening to kill everyone inside if they decide to detain him. The altercation ended with Jazra allowed to leave – despite there being hundreds of complaints filed against him – after he pledged to pay large sums of money.

There are many posts at the Sharia Authority, including prison warden, general prosecutor, and chief justice, the latter being the highest judicial post, currently occupied by a Sheikh Osama from al-Nusra Front. The Sharia Authority also has a shura, or advisory, council comprising representatives from all the armed groups that make up the court.

Service Offices and Taxes, Without Any Services

The work of the Sharia Authority, headed by Sheikh Mohammed Abdul-Rahman Abu Jaber, has evolved beyond judicial activities. The Authority now includes “services offices,” including ones related to health, water and electricity, bread, public relations, finance, and administration, which is headed by a Sheikh Abu Yassin from al-Nusra Front.

The finance office handles tax collection. Previously, the office imposed a levy of 1,000 Syrian pounds ($7) on anyone who wanted to move goods through the Bustan al-Qasr crossing, in addition to already-existing levies paid to whichever armed group controlled the crossing.

After the Sharia Authority recently took control of the crossing, the levy was dropped to 15 Syrian pounds (11 cents). To offset the revenue decline, the Sharia Authority imposed a 250-pound fee ($1.75) monthly on each vending stall and 500 pounds ($3.50) on each shop as a “cleaning and security fee.” These levies have been met with much resentment, especially since cleanliness is almost non-existent in the areas under the control of the Sharia Authority and its armed affiliates.

Lawyers: ‘A Satanic Abomination’

Since its inception, a small number of lawyers would approach the Sharia Authority, after they let their beards grow. However, these lawyers were not welcome, because they could challenge the rulings issued by clerics based on solid, convincing arguments, something that ordinary citizens would not dare do.

Earlier this month, the Sharia Authority issued a memo declaring that it did not recognize any lawyer unless he obtained the prior approval of the Authority. To do so, the lawyer has to register with the Authority, after which the latter studies his background, and decides whether or not to approve him.

Even if approved, the lawyer has to also get the approval of the judge (cleric) to be adopted as a lawyer in his court. The memo also stipulated that lawyers may not charge more than the equivalent of $100 per case.

The group called Free Lawyers of Aleppo responded with a statement, saying they were “the first to protest against the regime in support of the revolution at the Justice Palace over the past two years, in order to build the just state.” But one former member of the group, speaking to Al-Akhbar, could not conceal his glee for what happened, as he said, “The Free Lawyers have gradually – with the support of the Authority – banished the seculars and moderates, and kept only the extremists in their ranks. But then the Authority dealt them this blow.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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