Syrian regime cancels thousands of Eastern Ghouta’s real estate contracts leaving properties’ fate unknown
Enab Baladi – Ninar Khalifa
The people of the Eastern Ghouta seeking to establish their property ownership have been experiencing a “real estate chaos” that led to disputes and manipulation of rights, with the real-estate market lacking clear regulations and mechanisms governing the selling and buying property operations.
This opened the door widely to property disputes over thousands of title deeds issued during the opposition factions’ years of control following the Syrian regime domination over the region in April 2018, which constituted a new chapter of the Syrian conflict’s consequences that have had a severe impact on the lives and rights of the Eastern Ghouta’s population.
Firas (a nickname), one of the internally displaced people (IDPs) of the Eastern Ghouta residents to the Syrian north, describes to Enab Baladi what has happened to his real estate ownership.
He said, “I lost my apartment in Douma area four months before our forced displacement, which I owned under an outright sale contract that I could not register in the cadastre of Douma city, due to the extensive bombing of the region by the Russia-backed Syrian regime.”
He added, “during the displacement process, I lost the sale contract, and I only have an electronic copy of it stored on Google Drive.”
Firas continued saying, “after being displaced for almost a year, the apartment seller who stayed in the Ghouta sold it to a new person, and registered its transfer contract in the Cadastral Department of the regime’s government.”
“This has completely deprived me of the right to claim ownership of my property, as property ownership according to the Syrian law is granted according to the precedence of placing an encumbrance of equitable lien upon the cadastral certificate, while my property was transferred to someone else’s name,” Firas added.
Property sale contracts during the Ghouta’s siege period are “invalid”
The residents who stayed in the Eastern Ghouta also faced problems related to property ownership, especially as the regime refused to recognize any real estate transaction made during the opposition control period, which prompted some of the real estate owners of sold properties to restore them or provoke their new owners.
This is what happened to Rabie, (pseudonym) who spoke to Enab Baladi about his experience, saying, “I bought a house in the Ghouta region in 2014, and then I transferred its ownership at the Cadastral Department which was run by the opposition factions back then.”
Rabie continued saying, “after the regime retook control over the Ghouta, I asked the seller to register the property in the regime’s land registry records as the regime rejected all the sales that were registered by the opposition in the cadastral records.”
“However, the seller refused to register the property and asked for a payment of half of the property’s value, arguing that I bought it for a quarter of its real value.”
In late April 2018, the Local Administration and Environment Minister of the Syrian regime’s government, Hussein Makhlouf, said in statements that the contracts made during the period of the opposition control over the Eastern Ghouta are deemed “invalid,” adding that “all rights shall be reserved to their owners.”
Nevertheless, Makhlouf did not specify any mechanism for preserving these rights, which raised a state of ambiguity and chaos, exploited by some people.
In May 2016, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, issued the Legislative Decree No. 11, stopping the registration of real-estate rights in rem in the entities legally authorized to maintain property records, in the closed real estate departments “due to the emergency security conditions.”
According to the decree, the closure of government records in both Douma and Arbin cities, which took place when the Ghouta area was taken over by opposition factions, means that any property sale operation is considered “illegal.”
Since its establishment in 2013 until the regime’s control on the Ghouta in 2018, the land registry in Douma documented about 9,200 sales and purchase contracts, in hard and electronic copies, according to what the Cadastre Director, Adnan Taha, stated to the “Syria Direct” news website.
Taha pointed out that the documentation was made following the laws in force by the regime, in the presence of the property owner or a legal agent and two witnesses.
According to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA,) the property records that the opposition established in al-Ghouta were restored by the regime government’s “General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs” and “in perfect condition and undamaged.”
These records were moved to the al-Mezza area in the capital Damascus, where a new real estate registry for the Eastern Ghouta was established.
The Eastern Ghouta region became out of the Syrian regime’s control in August 2012, after a series of battles started by the former “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) factions at the time. These battles enabled the FSA factions to force their influence over vast areas of the vicinity of Damascus.
The cities and towns of the Eastern Ghouta witnessed a military and economic siege by the regime’s forces for five years. Then the regime launched a major military campaign, following which it managed to gain control of the entire Ghouta area in April 2018.
This came after a cease-fire agreement between the regime and some opposition factions (the Army of Islam, al-Rahman Corps, and the Ahrar al-Sham Movement). The deal allowed the factions’ fighters to leave to northern Syria along with the residents who refused the “settlement,” while residents who refused to flee remained in the Eastern Ghouta region.
According to the “Syrian Cities Damage Atlas,” report issued by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in cooperation with the REACH initiative, the Eastern Ghouta is considered Syria’s second-largest destroyed area due to the bombardment, as the total number of its destroyed buildings has reached 35,000.
Many problems due to cancellation of sales contracts
Human rights activist Thaer Hijazi noted that the regime’s cancellation of all real estate transactions to prove ownership in al-Ghouta documented by the opposition between 2012 and 2018 and estimated at 13,000, without reference to scientific or legal grounds for reviewing these records, is “disastrous.”
According to Hijazi, the regime’s procedure created 13,000 problems for the people in and around the Douma city area.
Hijazi told Enab Baladi that this procedure by the regime was part of a punishment policy towards the Eastern Ghouta’s residents, who had been among the first to organize popular demonstrations against the regime at the early stages of the Syrian revolution and later they had come out of its control.
Hijazi added this procedure is one of many practices that have been adopted by the regime against al-Ghouta’s residents in the past period, including starvation, siege, systematic killings and bombing civilians with internationally prohibited chemical weapons.
He pointed out that the regime’s annulment of property sales operations without suggesting any real ways to handle this file or solve the problems that appeared among people, as a result, caused many people to exploit the situation and deny the sales’ transactions.
Hijazi wondered, “How can those who bought properties and then were displaced, or left the country to seek asylum, prove their ownership of the property they purchased?”
Most of the residents who stayed in the Ghouta are reluctant to review the official entities of the regime, which perform a “security check,” for their reviewers, another obstacle to proving property ownership.
Hijazi noted that the Ghouta’s real estate market had seen a commercial boom due to the post-war stability situation, as the selling and buying activity increased, causing the real estate prices to double.
For example, the price of the property, which was about 2 million Syrian pounds (SYP), doubled to 10 or 12 million SYP.
According to Hijazi, this allowed some sellers to take advantage of the regime’s cancellation of property contracts. They insisted on denying the contracts and recovered their properties, which doubled in price, besides the money they received from the buyers.
As for the cases where real estate buyers resorted to courts to prove their ownership of the property sold during the period of the opposition control, many sellers argued that the selling procedures were conducted at gunpoint.
The sellers used the regime’s cancellation measure to their benefit, as it was in the seller’s interest to terminate the contract after prices of properties increased, which added to the problems and complicated legal matters of property rights, according to Hijazi.
What methods are available to prove ownership?
In order to establish ownership, many people from al-Ghouta pay large sums of money as bribes to employees in government institutions in exchange for facilitating such procedures, especially if one party to the contract is outside the Ghouta, according to a report published by the “Syrians for Truth and Justice organization (STJ).
The report indicated that in cases where the seller is displaced from al-Ghouta to the Syrian north, the property sale contract could be established in one of the following methods:
The seller can authorize someone from the Ghouta through the notary.
The buyer may agree with the witnesses and the transactional expeditor on changing the date of the contract or the date of purchase and changing the date of the established contract or the purchase date to be before 2011.
The buyer can also bribe the notary to prove the transaction that the seller made.
However, if both the seller and the buyer existed inside the Ghouta, it is easy to complete the ownership registration procedure after obtaining a security clearance.
Nevertheless, the report pointed out that civilians who have obtained property ownership documents from opposition real estate records are reluctant to show them in fear of being arrested or held accountable by the regime’s government entities.
They fear accusations that they are dealing with “terrorist entities.”
The population of the Eastern Ghouta during the domination of the opposition factions reached about 325,000, according to the statistics of the “Humanitarian Aid Coordinating Committee,” which was formed by a group of organizations and institutions concerned with humanitarian relief in order to conduct a census of al-Ghouta’s residents before the recent military campaign.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry figures, after the “settlement agreement,” around 144.000 civilians exited the Ghouta through the safe crossings opened by the Syrian regime towards the areas under its control (that is to Damascus) with Russia’s auspices. While, 65.000 others headed to the north of Syria under the same agreement, according to estimates of the “Response Coordination Group (RCG).”
Most of those who went out through the safe corridors returned to the Ghouta despite the poor service conditions and the regime’s futile attempts to reactivate some services.
Meanwhile, there are no accurate statistics on the number of Ghouta residents who remained in the areas controlled by the regime, compared to those who returned to their cities, towns, and villages.
Difficulties of proving ownership
The coordinator of “the Day After” organization’s legal reform project, Abbas al-Mousa, has confirmed the difficulty of proving ownership in areas held by the opposition.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Mousa explained that the selling and purchasing procedures of real estate were carried out under direct external contracts between the seller and the buyer with witnesses to the contract or before the civil courts established in those areas.
Those contracts were established while taking into consideration to place an encumbrance of equitable lien on parallel real estate certificates in the related cadastral directorate so that no alteration or change can be made to the original records, as part of a precautionary measure to keep these records official, for any change in them may eliminate this quality.
Al-Mousa added the property selling was sometimes made directly in the “General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs” if the property was determined by legal boundaries, registered, and has a cadastre in the relevant real estate agency.
Al-Mousa explained that properties in al-Ghouta are divided into two categories. The first division is properties marked by legal boundaries (property line), registered, and regulated in the land registry, whose owners have a permanent real estate title deed (Tabo).
The second division is properties of joint ownership in areas outside the administrative regulation of the main cities, which are often sold and purchased either in the courts close to the property’s location, written before the notary public, or in an external contract in unlicensed real estate or lawyers’ offices.
Al-Mousa pointed out that all the transactions that took place in the opposition-held- areas are considered null by the official circles of the Syrian regime, which means that they should have been registered from the beginning according to the procedures stipulated by the regime.
Nevertheless, property registration is impossible for some of al-Ghouta’s residents due to security risks and complexities that are likely to face those who have these property registration transactions.
Besides, it is difficult to assign a lawyer or to authorize a relative to carry out these procedures, as they require a security clearance, opening bank accounts for the seller and the buyer to receive and deliver payments through the bank, according to decision No. 5/2020 of the Syrian Prime Ministry.
On the other hand, al-Mousa noted that the forced displacement of al-Ghouta residents forced them to leave their properties and leave them subject to expropriation or title deeds forgery.
Besides, if Law No. 10/2018 came into force, a new group of owners (bona fide) would proclaim ownership, making it more difficult for the original owners to restore their properties.
Al-Mousa considered that the economic hardship witnessed by the regime and the absence of finance for such reconstruction projects prevented the effective on the ground application of the law so far.
The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad issued Law No. 10 on 2 April 2018, following the forced displacement of the Eastern Ghouta’s population.
The law provides for “the establishment of one or more regulatory areas within the overall organizational chart of the administrative units.”
Law No.10 also stipulates that IDPs and refugees should provide their property ownership documents within a period of 30 days, which was subsequently extended to one year, due to international pressure to repeal the law.
Confiscation of property
While Law No. 10 has not yet entered into force, accusations are directed at the Syrian regime for using the “Counter-Terrorism” Law to confiscate its opponents’ property.
Al-Mousa confirmed that after the displacement of al-Ghouta residents, the properties of many of the forcibly displaced persons were confiscated by the regime under Legislative Decree No. 63, that allowed the Syrian Ministry of Finance to seize the movable and immovable assets of those charged with “terrorism” by the Counter-terrorism Court (CTC) as by Law No. 19/2012.
The farmland and real estate near the air defense battalion based in Darya area were confiscated after displacing their owners to become military ownership.
It is worth noting that the Syrian regime amended its counter-terrorism laws about a year after the Syrian revolution started, and issued a decree granting courts the power to issue orders to confiscate private property for security reasons.
These procedures allow the seizing of movable and immovable assets, which prevents their owners from selling or using them for commercial purposes.
In case the orders of the courts are implemented, these assets will be put up for sale at a public auction.
The role of civil society organizations
The coordinator of “the Day After” organization’s legal reform project, al-Mousa, considers that an integrated process is needed to protect property rights in Syria.
According to al-Mousa, this process must include the documentation of forcibly displaced people’s property in all possible professional ways, as well as monitoring the regulations issued by the Syrian regime in this regard.
The process should allow the documentation of administrative and procedural transactions of IDPs’ properties, as a future cornerstone of the restitution of houses or compensating them.
“The Day After” organization, conducted a survey on forcibly displaced people and real estate, in which 8,000 IDPs from Damascus, Rif Dimashq, Homs and Aleppo were interviewed.
Those people were transported by buses to Idlib between 22 December 2018 and 31 March 2019, under “reconciliation” agreements, besides more than 2,000 people who have been displaced from their original residence under other circumstances.
The survey showed that only 34 percent of the displaced persons included in the “reconciliation” agreements have documents proving their properties, while the vast majority (66 percent) have no official documents, and only 33 percent of the IDPs from Damascus and Rif Dimashq province have title documents.
The reason why 78 percent of the IDPs included in the “reconciliation” agreement do not have ownership documents was due to being destroyed by the bombing, according to the survey.
While 12 percent of IDPs said that their documents were lost, and 5 percent did not have property documents in the first place.
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