Property extortion cases are today one of the most common housing, land and property violations in areas controlled by the majority-Kurdish Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) and constitute the most significant share of cases in local courts.
Property extortion is the seizure of other people’s properties without their consent or the seizure of others’ properties without a legal title deed or legitimate reason to do so. Under Syrian law, extortion does not necessarily mean that coercion has taken place. Rather, only the seizure of another’s property without any legal justification needs to have occurred for the act to be considered extortion.
A The Syria Report correspondent in northeastern Syria met with a Syrian man called Osso, who in 2021 bought an apartment through a legal agent from a woman who has lived abroad for the past two decades. The sale was legally registered by a court within the Syrian judicial system and documented within the Land Registry. However, Osso later discovered that the expatriate woman’s ex-husband had claimed ownership of the apartment and began leasing it to tenants.
Osso said he turned to the People’s Court, which is under AANES authority, and filed a claim to recover possession of his apparently extorted apartment. In Syrian law, lawsuits for recovery of possession are civil suits and fall within the jurisdiction of urgent matters judges. Such judges may, on an urgent basis, restore possession of properties to claimants if they meet certain legal conditions for possession. In Osso’s case, the court ordered a precautionary seizure of the apartment pending a decision it would later issue in mid-2022 that handed the property back over to Osso, emptied of occupants.
Some property extortion victims in Hassakeh have preferred to file property extortion claims before the People’s Courts. This is because such cases are considered criminal cases related to the public right, in which the public prosecution arrests the accused and investigates them as soon as the case is filed. Here, the AANES’ Asayish security forces play the role of the judicial police – if someone files a case of property extortion against another person before the People’s Courts, then the Asayish arrest the accused party and question them. Then, if the Asayish are able to confirm that the accused party does not have the proper documents proving their ownership of the disputed property, the tenants are forced to evacuate the property and hand it over to the rightful owner.
This process has opened the door to many malicious property extortion lawsuits before the People’s Courts in Hassakeh, such as claimants filing suits against others for extortion when, in fact, the case involves a lesser dispute like property transgression, eviction from a rental property or refusal of a sales contract. One Hassakeh resident told The Syria Report that he was able to recover his property from a seller who had reneged on the sales contract by simply filing a property extortion lawsuit. The prosecution then summoned the seller for questioning. This prompted the seller to voluntarily undo the renege on the sale and request that the problem is resolved by mutual consent with the buyer, outside the court’s scope.
However, cases are often not settled so easily and quickly, as many are further complicated by the continued presence of the Syrian judicial system courts in northeastern Syria alongside those operating under the AANES. Any opposing parties in a given case may resort to one of these courts or even both at the same time.
Yousef, one resident, said he filed a property extortion lawsuit in mid-2022 in the city of Qamishli before a criminal court affiliated with the Syrian’s judicial system. Days later, he filed a similar suit before the AANES’ People’s Court, believing this would further protect his ownership of the property and ensure its recovery. However, the People’s Court turned down the case based on Circular No. 5, which was issued in May 2015 by the Judicial Council in the Jazira Region affiliated with the AANES. The circular stipulates that any lawsuit filed before the AANES courts be rejected if another judicial authority has already considered the case. Yousef was then forced to wait for a decision from the Syrian court to recover his extorted property.
In 2021, the Social Justice Council for North and Eastern Syria, the AANES’ judicial authority, issued Decision No. 6, which barred the body’s courts from considering cases of original right for Amiri lands and properties located in areas outside cities and towns that do not have zoning plans. In cases of original right, a court may consider which party has ownership of the disputed property – that is, who is entitled to ownership. However, the AANES courts may not consider such cases for real estate because they do not have their own Land Registry. People living in AANES-held areas still must rely on the Syrian judicial system courts and Land Registry records in order to prove their property ownership.
At the same time, there is a mismatch of jurisdiction between the two coexisting judicial systems. One extortion victim, Zinar, told The Syria Report that he had purchased a common property and obtained a decision from a Syrian judicial system court of First Instance confirming his ownership of it. However, Zinar later discovered that someone else had bought that same property and obtained a similar court decision. Zinar filed a lawsuit before a Syrian court claiming that the other buyer had used forged documents, in addition to filing a lawsuit before an AANES court claiming property extortion on the part of the second buyer. The AANES court decided to place a precautionary seizure on the property and preserve the file pending a decision from the Syrian court on Zinar’s forgery lawsuit.