The judiciary’s acquittal of several government employees accused of involvement in the illicit construction that led to the collapse in September 2022 of a building in the Fardous District in Aleppo, killing 14 people, mostly from the Madbess and Madrati families, has led to a local outcry.
The building had been marked for demolition since 2021, with its main door sealed with red wax, following a previous decision by a safety committee affiliated with the Aleppo City Council due to non-compliance with structural safety standards. However, the city council didn’t mind the building owners removing the seal and selling the apartments without the buyers knowing the imminent danger. One buyer, for instance, paid SYP 50 million in late 2021 to purchase two apartments in the building without being informed of the risks.
The Aleppo governor issued Decision No. 9291 on September 7, 2022, forming a committee to investigate the collapsed five-storey building and determine the causes. The committee’s report, published on September 8, revealed that the building, constructed in the second half of 2020, was newly built, unlicensed, and located in an informal settlement. It also noted that the building’s structural elements were hollow blocks, violating Syria’s building code.
The report was forwarded to the Criminal Security branch for further investigation and appropriate legal action against those responsible for negligence to properly supervise or suppress the unlicensed construction, based on the provisions of Legislative Decree No. 40 of 2012 and its executive instructions.
According to Decree No. 40, if an unlicensed building lacks sufficient durability and is at risk of collapse, anyone proven responsible for the violation faces one to three years in prison. If the collapse results in one or more deaths, the punishment is at least ten years of hard labour and a tripled fine, in addition to compensation for the deceased’s heirs.
The semi-official Al-Watan newspaper reported that the Aleppo Criminal Security branch detained the director of the Bab Al-Nairab Services Directorate, where the building is located, the responsible officer of the judicial police in the same directorate, and the building contractors.
A source in the Aleppo City Council told a correspondent for The Syria Report that four engineers and two building contractors had been detained in Aleppo Central Prison since September 2022 in connection with the Fardous building collapse. It appears that pressure was exerted on the judiciary to persuade the investigating judge at the Samaan Court, the court for the area, to drop the Fardous collapse felony case in early 2023 and transfer it to the military judiciary due to jurisdiction reasons. This is because the building contractors responsible for the unauthorised construction were military personnel from the “Auxiliary Forces”, which stands for various pro-regime militias. Sources told The Syria Report that the contractors are affiliated with Al-Baqir Brigade, which is linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The transfer of the case to the military judiciary was, according to these sources, an attempt to remove it from public view and resolve it informally. This process did not reach its conclusion, albeit for an unclear reason. In April 2023, the military judiciary returned the case to the Aleppo Justice Palace, citing a lack of jurisdiction and without examining the case.
In October 2023, a decision by the investigating judge at the Samaan Court prohibited the trial of the four engineers, while the fate of the building contractors remained unclear. According to the criminal procedure law, if the investigating judge finds that the defendant’s act does not constitute a crime or finds no evidence of it, the judge can decide to prohibit the trial of the accused and release them if detained. The Public Prosecution and the private plaintiff can appeal this decision to the referral judge, who can either confirm the decision to prohibit the trial or issue an indictment and refer the case to the competent criminal court if new evidence is found.
Notably, the investigating judge’s decision in October included an accusation against a deceased engineer, Abdul Qader Qattan, holding him responsible for the earlier removal of the red wax from the unauthorised building before the collapse. Removing the red wax allowed the building owners to sell some apartments. In cases of unlicensed properties, sales are made through regular sale contracts but are not recorded in the Land Registry.
Public prosecutions cannot be initiated against a deceased person. If the defendant dies during the trial, the judge decides to terminate the public prosecution. In such cases, only the private plaintiff can claim compensation from the deceased’s heirs in criminal court solely concerning compensation.
According to the source, senior officials in the Aleppo City Council are behind the recent decisions of the investigating judge. The engineers, who were released from the prohibition of prosecution decision, are also employees of the Aleppo City Council.