Recent years have seen the coercive expropriation of private real estate in areas under the control of the government through pressuring owners to either relinquish the properties or sell them at low prices. At the helm of these expropriations are usually influential figures supported by the security or military apparatuses.
The Syrian Civil Code outlines certain conditions that must be met in order for a sales contract to be considered valid. Among those conditions is consent. A sales contract is a consensual contract in which a seller must transfer the ownership of a thing to the buyer in exchange for a payment.
Coercion is considered a flaw in any sales contract under Syrian law, one that, if present, either renders the contract void or threatens to do so. The Court of Cassation, in Decision No. 10376/3182 of 1991, defined coercion as the usage of the means of coercion on an individual, which creates a sense of fear in that person that pushes them to accept something they otherwise would not have accepted.
Coercion can be physical, such as through beating, torture or kidnapping, or it can be moral, such as through making threats to kidnap or murder. Article 128 of the Civil Code states that the psychological fear that an individual faces under coercion forces them to imagine grave and impending danger either to themself or to others, whether that danger is to their life, body, dignity or money. This concept was further affirmed in the Court of Cassation Decision No. 569/1805 of 1971, which said that the purpose of coercion was to instil psychological fear, forcing the affected individual to imagine grave and impending danger. Such coercion pressures the victim against their will, leaving them without the freedom of choice so that they sign a contract under the perpetrator’s authority.
Article 128 of the Civil Code specifies certain factors that are taken into consideration when defining coercion and its impacts on an individual, including the victim’s gender, age, social and health status, and every circumstance that might affect the severity of the coercion. Under Article 128, a sales or relinquishment contract is described as null if it occurred under coercion. A person who faced coercion to relinquish their real estate property may file a lawsuit to nullify what occurred. The coercion must be proven by any means available, including by witnesses.
Article 635 of the Syrian Penal Code also defines coercion as a crime of “coercing another person to perform an act that damages their assets.” The victim has the right to file a civil suit to nullify the transaction that occurred under duress, or to incriminate the perpetrator.
Syrian law categorises coercion as a misdemeanour punishable by three months to two years imprisonment and a fine. The crime becomes a felony punishable by hard labour if the perpetrator bore a weapon while threatening the victim.
A gendered lens
In distributing inheritances, there are many cases of women having relinquished their shares to the men in their families. This is in line with the principle of “disassociation” in the Personal Status Law, or a waiver by one of the parties of their share of a property or inheritance before a Sharia judge, in exchange for the payment of an allowance. This allowance is often worth far less than the actual property value. In theory, “dissociation” must be done with the consent of all parties involved, but for women, consent to give up her share is often based on social customs or coercion from her family. Such cases could be considered a form of coercive relinquishment.