Mohammed Haj Hussein is a Syrian lawyer who for 12 years worked in the regime’s system – a system he says thrived on bribes. If you had the money or knew someone senior in the court, he says, you could get away with murder. Literally.
That system collapsed in Jabal al-Zawiyah in Idlib province when opposition fighters took control of the area. Mohammed was determined to set up a new court in his town that respected human rights and where justice couldn’t be bought. He describes it as a kind of legal window that the people can breath through.
“If someone has lost his rights he now has somewhere where he will be heard,” he says. “This court is a relief for the people. I’m happy to be a part of it. We now have justice for all.”
The judge, a sheikh, is from a different region to avoid accusations of favouritism. This trial system, based on Islamic law, relies on witnesses and personal testimony from the accused to make a judgement. It is used for civilian and military cases.
Sheikh Abdullah Ahmad Barbur knows full well that Syria still has many problems to sort out. But doing that would not be possible without bringing in some sort of law and order.
“Now we are trying to fix the prison problem,” he says. “We have problems from the past and now in the present. First we have to organise Syria with all the errors of the old regime as those continue to this day. Once we have put our house in order we can then ensure the legal system works properly.”
On the day we visited his court he was trying four rebels who were accused of stealing cartons of cigarettes from a car they had stopped at their checkpoint, a lowly crime in the current scheme of things, but a good sign that such petty theft was being taken seriously. The sheikh spoke proudly of how he had sent a rebel brigade commander to prison for killing a man. Every brigade in this region has signed up to adhere to the decision of the court, even if its commander is accused of murder.
Outside the courthouse there was a sense of achievement. People talked of the horrors of the previous legal system. One old man said his case had been going through the court since 1998. He is now hoping just two court sessions under the new system will result in a verdict.
Both the sheikh and the lawyer were at pains to point out that even supporters of President Bashar al-Assad or pro-government people who were accused of crimes they didn’t commit would be found not guilty. There is a fear that however this conflict ends, revenge and retribution will spark more violence and extra-judicial killings. Just this month more video emerged of fighters in Idlib executing government soldiers in their custody. It would be a tall order for any legal system to stop that from happening.
And not everyone has quite grasped the concept of innocent before proven guilty. A former brigade leader who has set up a security force for one court told me that if the accused don’t confess then pressure is applied until they comply. He wasn’t forthcoming on just what he meant by pressure.
Watch Sue Turton’s reports from Idlib province: