The Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Security Branch in Damascus arrested 25 Damascus governorate employees around six months ago over suspicions of corruption related to unlicensed construction. One of the detainees is rumoured to have died after his arrest.
The suspects were working in the governorate’s services department and the various affiliated municipalities. The Municipal Services Directorate is charged with addressing unlicensed construction occurring within its zone of operations. The directorate also grants housing and cladding permits for licensed buildings, scrutinises unlicensed construction controls, calculates the fees and fines arising from controls for unlicensed structures that can be settled legally, and prepares any necessary financial decisions.
Some of the people arrested were engineers tasked with investigating and scrutinising unlicensed construction, including an employee of the governorate’s Department of Legal Affairs. The former governor of Damascus accused them of facilitating and overlooking unlicensed construction in exchange for bribes. And among those arrested in the case is an employee of the governorate’s legal affairs department.
Some of the arrestees had turned a blind eye to unlicensed construction in the capital, a Damascus governorate source told The Syria Report. However, all of the unlicensed construction in question was small, the source said, and included occupying sidewalks for business activities, encroaching on various setbacks, and changing building descriptions.
The governorate source justified the employees’ actions, saying that their monthly salaries are no more than SYP 150,000. Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to increase amid inflation, food, heating, and transportation shortages, and continuous power outages. The source added that citizens are forced to search for “alternative” means of living and cannot quit their public posts unless the government approves their request. If an employee insists on resigning or not showing up for work, they are summoned by the security apparatus for interrogation. This is the case in all Damascus governorate departments, the source added.
Unlicensed construction is widespread in Damascus and its outskirts due to a lack of available plots of land upon which construction is permitted, as well as the high prices and difficulty of obtaining construction permits. Most such construction in Damascus consists of building additional storeys or encroaching on public or private properties. No official statistics exist on unlicensed construction in the capital, but some estimates point to more than 750,000 such violations being committed since 2012.
One building contractor told The Syria Report that the mayor of a municipality just outside Damascus wanted to build an unlicensed additional storey on a modern, licensed building. The mayor offered the contractor SYP 30 million, which included a share for him and other shares distributed “with his knowledge” to security and police officers in the area to turn a blind eye to the construction.
Municipal employees are tasked with monitoring unlicensed construction and searching for any violations, no matter how little they deviate from existing building codes. Such codes set the percentage of a property’s surface area used for construction, the storeys’ height, the mandatory distances between buildings, and other specifications. Each local administrative unit issues its construction code according to the criteria of the zoning plans for that area and based on urban planning laws.
Employees then obstruct the settlement process for unlicensed construction they have found, hoping to extort the perpetrators. According to an informed source in the Damascus governorate, setting unlicensed construction has become very difficult without paying bribes to municipal authorities, despite Decree No. 40 of 2012 allowing the settlement process with conditions. In most cases, the settlement process takes years to complete, from being presented to the different committees, amending the property description, paying fees, and documenting the building code violation in the property’s land record.
According to The Syria Report’s sources, the former Damascus governor upended the norms in ordering the arrest of the 25 governorate employees. In similar previous cases, employees accused of corruption were instead transferred to the governorate’s internal monitoring department for administrative investigation and suspended from work until decisions were reached on the charges against them. If the charges were upheld, they faced certain administrative penalties, including halting any promotions and moving them to marginal positions. In some rare cases, employees accused of corruption were transferred to the judiciary.
The arrest and imprisonment of employees happen in special cases, such as when an unlicensed construction they were responsible for inspecting results in the total or partial collapse of a structure that causes a loss of life. If this occurs, the mayor and municipal engineers will be immediately arrested and transferred to the civil court, per Decree No. 40 of 2012.
However, this measure does not apply to Damascus employees who have been detained for six months without trial. Their whereabouts and condition remain largely unknown. Until now, they have not been brought to court or been authorised to meet with lawyers or their families.