The situation of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in Syria is unimaginable. Unfortunately, even their release does not mean that their persecutions have ended. Authoritarian regimes always find new ways to complicate the lives of victims and their families in the long run. For the Syrian government, arrests and confiscation of property have always been their way.
A few days ago, a press investigation stated that the Syrian government had confiscated assets worth $1.5 billion from detainees and forcibly disappeared persons from 2011 to 2021 without due process or any compensation. These assets include bank balances, cars, real estate, and agricultural lands.
The investigation said the detainees are forced to sign convictions against them while blindfolded after being tried on charges related to "terrorism" without knowing that the "anti-terrorism" law deprives them of their civil rights and allows the government to seize and confiscate their properties.
Long-term collective punishment
In 2012, about one year after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, President Bashar Al-Assad issued Law No. 19 on combating terrorism. Under the law, the government can freeze funds, meaning it can prohibit the disposal, transfer, move, or change of the form of movable and immovable funds for a certain period or during the investigation and trial stages. The law also allows the confiscation of said properties. This means the permanent deprivation of movable and immovable funds and the transfer of their ownership to the state by a court ruling.
Since then, the Syrian government has exploited anti-terrorism laws to target dissidents and clamp down on detainees and forcibly disappeared persons on charges of terrorism after extracting forced confessions from them under torture. It is especially true since Article 7 stipulates that the court is not bound by standard trial procedures. This means that the court is not obligated to conduct open trials and has absolute power to determine its procedures. Therefore there are no guarantees of a fair trial for people exercising their basic rights of expression and assembly.
Under the same legal cover, the Syrian government has decided to punish the detainees' entire families and violate their right to own property based on having a blood relation with the accused and not on individual criminal responsibility. Unequivocally, such conduct is prohibited by international human rights and humanitarian law.
In many cases, the victims or their relatives received no notifications of the confiscation, and they only learned about it when they tried to access their properties, register them, or conduct a transaction related to them. Sometimes the victims learned about the confiscation through the media. Oftentimes, no one dared to object for fear of arrest or not knowing to whom they can turn to solve such cases, especially with the absence of impartial or independent institutions in the country.
Given the nature of the Syrian government and its appalling human rights record, and specifically regarding the file of detainees and enforced disappeared persons, it is evident that the state is ruled by an institutionalized repressive regime, which not only deprives thousands of people of their freedom but also of their livelihood. It destroys the lives of detainees and their families, even after surviving prison, where there is no shelter, no money, and no right to object.
There is no doubt that the Syrian government is using these arbitrary practices to take advantage of these funds to get out of its current economic crisis and compensate its fighters and militias. These facts lead us to the same conclusion every time: imposing international sanctions on the Syrian government is not enough to end its massive human rights violations and bring justice to the victims. What is happening now is the exact opposite, as the authorities persist in their brutality and tactics of repression and starvation.
Based on this fact, it is no longer possible for the international community to confront the grave violations of human rights in Syria with sanctions alone. The chain of atrocities must be addressed by ending the culture of impunity, beginning to hold accountable those responsible for wartime crimes, and providing adequate compensation to the victims and their families.
Unless we see decisive measures to stop these violations, we can only expect to see more practices of arbitrary seizure and confiscation without Syrian citizens having the right to recover their property or live in safety and dignity.