AL-BAB, Syria: Judge Mahmud Aqeed listens sympathetically to the woes of a tenant locked in a dispute with his landlord before turning to Islamic Shariah for a ruling in this rebel-held northern Syria town.
Aqeed is one of 13 judges and two lawyers who sit on an elected judicial committee tasked with keeping the peace in Al-Bab, along with other institutions set up by regime opponents until the rule of law returns to Syria.
Sitting at a spartan desk in the town’s temporary Islamic court, judge Aqeed listens to a tenant named Abdullah as he vows not to pay his landlord four months of rent if the latter does not agree to fix a door pierced by shrapnel.
“Even if he kills me, I won’t move out of the house,” vows Abdullah, 54, a bearded man wearing a pin-striped traditional robe.
Judge Aqeed, 30, quickly tries to assess how much the tenant is capable of paying and weighs that against the cost of replacing a door unhinged by a bomb blast that also damaged the property’s front hall. So begins the search for a fair compromise.
“In the morning I listen to complaints and at night we sit together to review the cases” with other members of the elected judicial committee who find their inspiration in Islamic law, says Aqeed.
In July rebel fighters seized control of Al-Bab, a town 30 kilometers northeast of the key battleground of Aleppo, pushing out forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad after fierce clashes.
In the days following victory celebrations, residents and rebels got to work to elect a civilian council and a military council, and apply the Islamic law for the town, which had a pre-conflict population of 80,000.
These institutions were created “to handle things until the period of chaos is over” in Syria, says the president of the civilian council, Abu Omar.
According to him the Islamic court was “well received because everyone in Al-Bab is Sunni Muslim,” referring to the majority religious sect in Syria.
Residents turn to the Islamic court to settle disputes and the tribunal is also responsible for making rebel fighters, who use the town as a rear base, respect the law.
After dealing with Abdullah’s civil case, the judge turns to a rebel fighter who was accused by residents of being rude and threatening when he tried to organize a bread line outside a bakery. “He was shouting too much,” concludes Aqeed after questioning the fighter.
Before the Islamic court was set up, Al-Bab relied on eight judges appointed by the regime who administered justice on the basis of civil, criminal and commercial codes inherited from the French mandate.
Only one of the former judges is specialized in Islamic law, with his jurisdiction limited to such issues as marriage, divorce and child custody.
But now in Al-Bab, the Islamic court deals with more issues and, according to officials, strives to break away from past practices of corruption.
“Before courts were corrupt and judgment determined by what a person can pay,” said Fawzi Sayyeh who heads the judicial committee.
“Many people stopped pursuing their cases because they found the procedure to be too lengthy, frustrating and expensive.”
Now between five and 10 cases are brought every day before the court.
“We try to listen to witness testimony and gather evidence in one hearing and solve the matter within a few days,” he added.
Abu al-Najjar, one of the two lawyers on the judicial committee, says he tries “to harmonize Islamic law with existing legislation,” and insists that Shariah can be more merciful in some instances.
To prove his point he speaks of a man convicted of involuntary manslaughter who was sentenced to jail and ordered to pay his victim’s family compensation. Eventually the family forgave him and he was released from jail.
Sayyeh and his colleagues all stress that the Islamic court is a temporary measure that will remain in place until the Syrian people have the opportunity to pick their own government and legal system.
However, Sayyeh says “we do aim to become a model” and boasts that the judicial panel was able to solve in one sitting cases that were stuck in the system for several years.
In a cell below, isolated from the lofty legal chatter, six prisoners pray.
One of them is a rebel commander jailed because his men stole gold watches during a raid on the home of a resident suspected of belonging to the pro-regime militia.
The watches were part of a “mahr,” or dowry, and by stealing them his men “made a mistake and violated Shariah,” says Abu Mohammed.
The gold watches proved too great a temptation for ill-equipped fighters who pay for their bullets out of their own pockets.