In contrast to expropriation and private confiscation,which were legislated by the Syrian constitution to confiscate private property, the Syrian Penal Code considers any other forms of seizure targeting privately owned real estate to be extortion. Property extortion, according to Syrian law, is the seizure of properties without the owner’s consent, or seizure without any legal basis for ownership or any other legitimate reason.
In cases of extortion, Syrian law does not stipulate that coercion must have taken place; a lack of legal justification for the property seizure is sufficient. Articles 723 and 724 of Syria’s Special Penal Code clarify that punishment for the crime of property extortion is imprisonment for up to six months for anyone who does not carry a document of ownership or disposition and seizes either property in whole or in part. The penalty doubles to one-year imprisonment if the crime is accompanied by a threat or coercion against the targeted property owner. Prison time increases to three years if the extortion is committed by a group of two or more armed people.
While expropriation and private confiscation are carried out by public bodies or institutions, extortion, as defined by the penal code, is only done by individuals. While Syrian judiciary procedures appear tied to expropriation and private confiscation, property extortion cases fall on the shoulders of the ordinary judiciary through possession tenure claims.
Here, it is important to clarify the difference between extortion and tenure. Tenure and extortion appear to be similar, in that both occur when property is seized without any legal basis. However, in cases of tenure, unlike extortion, there is a legitimate reason for the seizure.
The legal difference between ownership and tenure must also be clarified. Ownership implies perpetuity, and that the owner of the property has proof of ownership. Meanwhile, tenure is mostly temporary, and it suffices that there is a justification or legitimate reason for seizing the property. Property is safeguarded and protected by law, and cannot be taken from its owner except in accordance with tenets laid out in the constitution. Tenure does not necessarily mean that the holder is the owner of the property, and it is therefore possible to claim in a court that the property should be recovered, or restituted, from that holder.
In cases of possession tenure claims, the holder of the property demands protection of their right of possession in response to requests that they return the extorted property. In restitution lawsuits, in un-delimitation and census lands, the plaintiff must have had tenure of the property for a period of one full year or more, and they must file their claim for restitution of that property within one year of losing it. As for delimitation and census lands, their owner may file a lawsuit for restitution of tenured properties without being bound by previously set conditions.
Legislative Decree No. 107 of 2011, which is also called the Local Administration Law, permits governors to remove apparent extortion on a certain property under certain conditions, and only in exceptional cases. Article 45 of the law states that if an apparent misuse occurs on an extorted property, then the governor may decide to return that property to the legal status it was in before the extortion. The law stipulates that the governor, in order to exercise his power to reverse an extortion, must prove that there has been a clear misuse of the property. Measures then taken by the governor remain in effect until they are cancelled or amended by a decree from authorities, or until a final decision is issued by judicial authorities on the origins of the dispute.
The governor’s decision to cancel the extortion of a property is not irrevocable, and he may be challenged. Those with an interest in the property or those who may have been harmed by the extortion can challenge the governor before the judiciary.