A communal legal system has been established in North and East Syria that focuses on conflict resolution through grassroots social mediation. While justice committees play an important part in the judicial work, the high number of IS prisoners and the lack of international support in dealing with them poses a serious test to Rojava’s legal system. In the eighth part of a series of articles on the occasion of the Rojava Revolution, [the Civil Diplomacy Center] spoke with Rîma Berekat as co-chair of the Legal Council of North and East Syria about the legal system in the self-administration.
We want to start our questions at the commune level. There is a justice committee in each municipality. How does this committee function?
The social system in North and East Syria is based on the commune. This applies to neighborhoods in cities as well as villages. The commune is the smallest unit in which people organize themselves. Here they take care of their daily concerns and problems. Various committees are formed in the communes, including the Justice Committee, whose task is to solve local social problems. This committee consists of at least three members from each municipality. Thus, the members are from the same neighborhood or village. Their task is to find amicable solutions to problems or disputes between people. The members of the justice committee are elected by the community itself.
If a dispute arises in the neighborhood, the work of the committee proceeds in the following steps: The complainant presents his or her complaint orally or in writing to the Justice Committee of the municipality and explains the subject of the complaint. If the dispute is a civil one, the committee invites the parties and tries to settle the conflict in an amicable way through dialogue and reconciliation. If the dispute is settled, a reconciliation document is drawn up, signed by both the parties to the dispute and the Committee, and submitted to the Court. If reconciliation does not occur, the Committee prepares a report and sends it to the Court. There is a possibility to refer the unresolved disputes to the Justice Committee of the next higher council structure. If no solution is found there either, the Court must take up the case. The Court also tries to find an amicable solution, but in contrast to the Justice Committees, it can also pass a final judgment to the detriment of one of the parties to the conflict. I can tell you, however, that the justice committees resolve the vast majority of conflicts without the cases ending up in court. We registered a total of 23,312 civil complaints in 2021 in North and East Syria, and 17,955 of these cases were resolved through the work of the justice committees.
Women occupy a defining role in the social system of North and East Syria. Can you explain how this is reflected in the legal system? And how are women’s rights defended legally?
We consider the Rojava Revolution first and foremost as a women’s revolution. Women have taken responsibility and made great sacrifices in all areas of this revolution. They play a central role in the organization of the communes and all social structures. This is also true of the justice committees. The struggle of women has led to a change of mindset throughout society. Today, for example, domestic violence against women is not tolerated in any way. The justice committees play an important role in stopping violence against women and protecting them. In addition, the committees also intervene in all other family disputes, for example when it comes to separation, custody or inheritance claims. In these cases, women’s rights are our priority, because for far too long, women have been discriminated against and disadvantaged in these matters in accordance with customary cultural and religious law. Today, it is the activists in the justice committees and in the women’s shelters who keep an eye on ensuring that women’s rights are protected. Women’s structures also stand by the plaintiffs and support them in cases of violence against women before the Court.
The legal system in North and East Syria relies very heavily on consensual solutions to legal disputes between two parties to a conflict. This method may work for civil disputes. But how do you proceed in criminal cases? What happens, for example, in cases of robbery, assault or murder?
In these cases, the case is heard directly in court. But we also try to involve the community at this level, especially in cases that are of public interest. To do this, we use various methods, some of which are also used in other countries. For example, there are procedures that involve a jury made up of various segments of society. Then there are cases that are accompanied by the media. There are also proceedings in which representatives of human rights organizations are involved in the process. It is important to us that even criminal proceedings are conducted transparently and, as far as possible, with the involvement of society.
When we talk about the legal system, we must also talk about IS prisoners. Political representatives in North and East Syria have repeatedly called on the international community to assume more responsibility in this matter. What is the current situation regarding this issue?
It is no secret that the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and the entire population of North and East Syria have made great sacrifices in the fight against IS. They have made these sacrifices not only for the protection of their own regions and their own people, but for the entire world. IS has caused great suffering in the Middle East and to people around the world, causing terror, destruction and displacement. The self-administration in North and East Syria now faces the challenge of bearing the brunt of the legal prosecution and detention of members of this organization. We created three special courts back in 2014 to try suspected members of IS and other Islamist groups. Today, there are only two special courts left because the third court was in Afrin Canton, which has been occupied by Turkey since 2018. As I said, the burden is great and actually hardly manageable for us here alone.
In the trials, we pay very close attention to ensuring that our legal standards are also met in “terror trials.” This means, for example, that even an alleged member of IS has the right to appeal a verdict just like any other person in North and East Syria. Since the establishment of the special courts, 8,000 trials have already been held against alleged members of the various Islamist groups. 6,000 more people are still awaiting trial. Among them are Syrian and Iraqi nationals as well as people from various other countries.
We continue to plead for the international community to help us share this burden. We have suggested on several occasions that some form of international jurisdiction be established for suspected IS members. This would allow the countries whose nationals are interned here to share responsibility. In addition, we have repeatedly stated that we need international support for securing detention centers. The same applies to offers for the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners. However, to date we have largely been left alone in these areas.
Finally, we would like to ask how the new legal system is being accepted by the people in North and East Syria. And how is it being accepted in the majority Arab areas? Many people have experienced both the dictatorial legal system of the Baath regime and the Sharia laws of IS. How do they now perceive the differences from the current legal system?
In 2021, the legal authorities of the self-administration received 34,202 complaints. In addition, there are the above-mentioned civil cases, most of which were settled by the justice committees. So we have a lot of work to do. However, this also shows that people have confidence in the legal system of North and East Syria. We are trying very hard to ensure that all social components of our region are represented in the justice system. This is the case with the justice committees anyway, because they are directly linked to their local municipality or local council. But it is also important to us that all ethnic and religious communities are represented among the judges and other employees of the legal system. Today, a large number of lawyers registered with the Syrian Bar Association participate in our legal system, and even some former Syrian judges have left the Baath regime to work with us. Kurdish or Arab tribal elders, for example, who already have social prestige and whose word carries weight among the population, are also involved in the justice committees.
We follow a philosophy in our legal system that is very different from that of the previous rulers. First of all, no individual decisions are made. In the justice committees, there are always at least three people who mediate. In court, too, there are always at least three judges who pass a joint verdict. This is a method of self-control. We are against a legal system in which one judge alone can decide the fate of a person. Moreover, we do not take the approach that we want to punish people through the justice system. We are concerned with the question of how we can win back a person who has come into conflict with the law and society. So it is about rehabilitation and reintegration. Our legal system is not meant to protect the interests of the ruling class, but of society as a whole. People perceive it that way. They perceive the legal system as just and suppor[t it.]