RAMTHA, JORDAN // The first case taken on by the Islamic court in Deraa was a trivial affair, especially viewed against the backdrop of a devastating conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.
A baker was caught flirting with a married woman while selling her bread and, after complaints from her husband, the court stepped in, sentencing the would-be suitor to public naming and shaming as a dishonourable man.
That was a year ago and since then the Islamic court system has expanded in rebel-held areas of southern Syria. Now at least four courts – known as Hay’at Al Sharia, or Islamic justice committees – are operating in Deraa province.
The courts have run into resistance, although most of the problems appear to have been caused by powerful armed rebel factions who do not like being called to account for crimes.
Among civilians, the courts appear to have won a certain amount of respect for their use of a mixture of Islamic, civil and tribal law to administer justice, and for helping prevent rebel-held areas from sliding into a lawless chaos.
Ahmed Al Balki, a lawyer from Deraa, is opposed Islamic courts on principle because they are founded on Sharia. But even he admits the courts have been effective.
“They are not going around chopping off people’s hands, in fact they’re not doing a bad job. There are some mistakes but they are working in a way that helps overcome problems, their attitude is to try to achieve reconciliation,” he said.
He and other members of the Deraa Free Lawyers Association rejected an offer to take part in the system, having been asked to provide two people in what began as a six-person court, when it was being set up.
“I want civil courts and Syrian law but the Hay’at Al Sharia are much fairer and less corrupt than the old regime-run courts ever were, and people respect them, they listen to the judgments,” he said. “They are better than not having courts.”
After success with the initial court in western Deraa last year, another three courts, in the north, south and east, were established. All are connected with local rebel brigades and cooperate on cases that cross their jurisdictions.
The rebels backing the courts are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Deraa military council, an organisation linking them to the Supreme Military Council (SMC) – the rebel command unit supported by Western and Arab Gulf states.
Another two courts were established in the province by Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda-affiliated faction, which remains outside of the loose-knit FSA network and the SMC.
One of the Nusra courts merged with the FSA court in eastern Deraa to create a combined court, according to FSA field commanders in the region and rebels involved in setting up the system – a move moderates hope will reign in Nusra’s hardline tendencies. The other Nusra court remains independent.
A major reason for residents embracing the court system seems to be that the seven to nine judges attached to each court are all local people and well respected.
In contrast, Islamic courts in other parts of Syria have, in some cases, seen young foreign extremists handing out harsh judgments, with little legal justification, making them unpopular with the more moderate Syrian population.
“There are problems in other regions because the judges are uneducated. The more they know about Islamic law, the better the sentence, as the Prophet Mohammed taught us the best solution is a compromise,” said one part-time member of the western area court, who recently attended classes on international human-rights law in Amman.
“Realistically we cannot apply the sentences in all cases. For example, it is difficult for us to keep prisoners, so on those matters we come to agreements with the community, based on customary law,” he said.
Others familiar with the courts said they were largely flexible and pragmatic in their sentences, guided by the principle of “solh” – reconciliation – rather than revenge.
“The judges are a mixture of civil lawyers, tribal sheikhs and Islamic clerics; they often have training and understanding of all three systems,” said Yamama, 25-year old-opposition activist from Deraa.
She estimated 80 per of the court verdicts and sentences were appropriate, a record she said was good given the difficulties of carrying out criminal investigations in a war zone.
“The Hay’at Al Sharia are like an umbrella: underneath them are religious laws, tribal laws and civil laws, it’s a flexible system,” she said. “People here would not accept extremists giving rulings.”
Even by its own standards the system does not always work. In the very first case of the womanising baker, an FSA unit added their own extrajudicial punishment of a serious, prolonged beating to the more lenient sentence handed out by the court.
And on at least two occasions the courts have gone up against powerful rebel commanders, with mixed results, according to members of the FSA and political activists from Deraa.
In December, the western region court convicted Amid Abu Nuqta, an FSA battalion commander, of murder. The court ordered him to surrender his weapons, pay 5 million Syrian pounds (Dh162,600) as compensation to the victim’s family and to go into exile from his home village – the latter stipulated in deference to traditional tribal norms of casting out criminals.
In response, Abu Nuqta took a group of armed men and kidnapped the judges, an abduction that ended when a more powerful FSA brigade turned up with hundreds of armed men to free them.
A second clash between a different FSA commander and the southern area court produced a similar result, although the court building was burnt down and, three months later, the court has not been reopened.
“The courts are supported by most of the FSA commanders because it means we don’t have to get involved with small legal matters and can concentrate on fighting but there are a few stray men who do not like to have their power questioned,” said an FSA field commander from Deraa.
Not all verdicts are made public, although a handful of death sentences have been openly passed by the courts, including one against a rapist who killed his victims and another of a man convicted of murder. Bothe were executed by firing squad
Those found guilty by the courts of working as regime spies are also put to death by firing squad, although there are no figures for how many of those have been killed.
Local support for the death sentence in such cases is broad, according to residents of the rebel-held zone in Deraa province.
“At the start we had to be 100 per cent sure that an informant had given specific information that led to a killing but now we say all informants should be put to death because the intelligence they give always kills someone,” said an FSA commander who works with the courts.
“The system does work; there is no chaos in the liberated areas. It’s not perfect, but under the circumstances it is acceptable,” he said.