Real estate seizures, utilization, and royalties… Who protects property rights in Afrin?
Enab Baladi – Ninar Khalifa
“They removed her out of her house and placed her in a tent in the yard. They brought a displaced family and gave them her house after she could not afford to pay 1,000 US dollars (USD) to allow her to stay in her house.”
This is what happened to Mrs. “Um Diar” (pseudonym), a woman from Kokhara village of Maabtli district in Afrin countryside, according to what was mentioned by her relative to Enab Baladi.
He spoke about the abuses of the military opposition factions controlling the area against the residents and their property.
The source added that the factions also expelled a girl from her house, where she lived alone, after her mother’s death in the suburb of Sheikh al-Hadid in the countryside of Afrin.
He indicated that small families of two persons or less, or families of women only, are forcibly removed from their houses so the factions can place displaced families or people close to them in these houses.
According to eyewitnesses, the number of houses whose original owners were forced to evacuate in the suburb of Sheikh al-Hadid alone has reached about 60 houses since the factions took control of the area in March 2018.
The factions impose a sum of 10,000 Syrian pounds (SYP = 5 USD) as a monthly tax on each house, whether occupied by its owner or a tenant from the Kurdish residents, who refused to leave the area.
The source confirmed to Enab Baladi that taxes and royalties also included land and crops.
He said the factions imposed taxes up to thousands of dollars on olive crops and took 10 SYP ( 0.005 USD) for each sold kilogram of vine leaves.
The factions considered the crops as legitimate spoils in case their owners were outside the area, the source said.
He also pointed out that taxes are sometimes imposed on the rich people who did not leave their areas, without clarifying the reasons, and that the last of which was to impose a tax of 25,000 USD on two people from the Sheikh al-Hadid suburb.
The source refused to mention his name, his relative’s name, or the name of any of those who were forced to pay taxes for security reasons.
According to him, anyone who speaks of the factions’ violations, or criticizes any of their acts on social media, is called directly by the faction leaders for investigation.
He added that if the person who “offended” the factions were outside the province or the country, then the factions would target the person’s family members, indicating that his cousin was killed for the same reason.
On 20 January 2018, Turkey, supported by the “Syrian National Army (SNA)” factions, launched an offensive on Afrin city and its countryside northwestern Aleppo. On 18 March 2018, Turkey announced its control over the area, following the incursion of the factions inside the city center of Afrin and military advancements against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
According to the United Nations (UN), Turkey’s control of Afrin has led to the displacement of more than 137,000 persons.
Afrin region is divided into seven areas: Afrin, Sheikh al-Hadid, Maabtli, Sheran (Şera), Bulbul, Jindires, and Raju.
The Afrin region is inhabited today by tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) from other areas, mostly from the Eastern Ghouta region, Homs and Idlib.
The factions’ exploitation of crops and shops
Kurdish media websites, including the “Afrin Post” media network, have reported that the factions controlling Afrin have seized the crops of olive, sumac, grape leaves, cherry, and other fruit-bearing trees.
Afrin Post also mentioned that the factions imposed royalties on olive presses, and documented the cutting of forests trees, besides imposing a 15 percent royalties on vine leaves crops and all shipments.
The factions’ seizures also affected the shops despite the presence of some of their owners.
These shops were taken as investment by faction leaders for their benefit or rented to displaced people from the Western Ghouta in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Moreover, about 60 percent of the shops in Afrin city are invested by the factions.
The “Syrian National Army (SNA)” was formed in late October 2017, under Turkish initiative and support. It is affiliated to the ministry of defense of the “Syrian Interim Government (SIG)” of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
On 4 October 2019, the “National Army” and the “National Liberation Front (NLF)” were united to include seven legions, with 80,000 fighters.
The most prominent dominant factions in Afrin are the “al-Hamza Division,” the “Suleiman Shah Brigade,” the “al-Waqqas Brigade,” the “Sultan Murad Brigade,” the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya,” the “al-Sharqiya Army,” the “Sham Front,” and the “Sham Legion.”
Problems of proof of ownership
Shiar (an alias name), who worked in real estate in Afrin, talked to Enab Baladi about the difficulties he had experienced in his career since the military factions’ control of the region, which forced him to abandon his job, leave his city, and head to Germany as a refugee after losing a lot of his real property.
Shiar said, “I had a group of apartments, buildings, farms, and shops in the city center, as I was working in real estate; however, the majority of these properties were seized by the Turkish-backed factions, and I could not restore any of them.”
The “Human Rights Watch” organization documented in its report that the SNA factions in Afrin had seized, looted, and destroyed the property of the Kurdish residents there, and placed their fighters’ families in their houses, without compensation.
The Acting Emergencies Director at the Human Rights Watch, Priyanka Motaparthy, said that “the formally known as the “Free Syrian Army (FSA)” should not destroy or inhabit the property of those who had to flee the conflict when it arrives in an area. These fighters are increasing their violations instead of protecting vulnerable civilians.”
The organization called on the ruling authorities to provide shelter for the displaced families, without violating owners’ private property.
As for the utilization of vacant properties, the Human Rights Watch organization said it should be “temporary,” without any damage to the property.
The organization asserted that the laws of war prohibit looting, seizing property by force, using it for personal purposes, or destroying it, which could constitute a “war crime.”
Regarding the methods by which property is seized in Afrin, Shiar explained that some workers in the real estate documentation in local councils refuse to acknowledge the documents issued during the control period of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Shiar added, the local councils only recognize the documents issued by the Syrian regime’s government circles, despite the existence of many buildings built in the PYD’s control period.
The owners of these buildings have received licenses from the PYD after they could not obtain necessary documents from the regime’s official circles, as they were not allowed to travel to Aleppo.
According to Shiar, “the majority of these documents are not recognized currently unless the property owner is present, added to prohibitive conditions and requirements.”
Shiar added that some “unscrupulous people” of real estate owners exploited this condition and took over other people’s property.
According to Shiar, a property owner who possesses certified documents by the regime’s government departments can restore all the properties sold during the PYD’s control period to his name, as many people were unable to register the purchase contracts, and some of them still have their property records registered in the name of the owner.
Besides, charges of joining or supporting the PYD are made for people to seize their property, according to Shiar.
He pointed out that these are “broad” and “one-size fits all” charges, that anyone could be charged with to confiscate his/her property.
Shiar indicated that he was in Afrin when Turkey entered the region and could not claim any of his property, as the charge of belonging to the PYD was ready for him in advance.
He said, “most of the properties were registered in my name; nevertheless, they seized them.” He continued saying, “when people tried to restore the properties to my name, they were charged for covering up on me, including the people I sold or bought the property from.”
Shiar added, “even upon claiming rightful property rights, there is a big chance that the right holder would be charged with belonging to the PYD or be kidnapped for large ransoms.”
He said, despite the efforts of Afrin’s local councils to prove ownership and certify real estate documents, they refuse such papers when presented and tell the right holder “these documents are worthless, the house belongs to no one, and is inhabited by displaced people.”
In addition to the chaos associated with proving ownership, the property owner is sometimes forced to pay up to 1,000 USD to stay in his/her house.
According to Shiar, even if the payment was made, the dominant faction’s elements would come back two or three months later to blackmail the right holder.
If the property owner paid lots of money, he/she would become subject to kidnapping for ransom by the factions, Shiar said.
He added, it is a difficult and complicated matter. These factions control the livelihoods of people and impose their own laws and royalties.
For example, in order for house owners to have water or electricity, they must pay an amount of money, and to open the dam to irrigate their lands, owners must pay also.
Shiar pointed out that this frequently happens with all people in the Afrin region.
The “Syrians for Truth and Justice” organization (STJ) documented the economic tightening and intimidation practices of the SNA’s military factions against Afrin’s residents.
The STJ mentioned that the factions dominated all aspects of the economy by controlling the checkpoints with other areas, the border crossings with Turkey, imposed taxes and royalties on houses, land, crops, and shops, and confiscated houses of Kurdish civilian residents after evicting them.
The organization reported that the residents believe the policy adopted by the factions aim at forcing the remaining original residents to leave the area to other places.
The STJ met with a faction commander within the SNA (who preferred to remain anonymous) and said that the factions had divided Afrin’s seven areas into sectors of influence.
According to the commander, each faction fully controls all life aspects in each area without any supervision from the Turkish government.
He added, Turkey aims to incite division between the local and the displaced communities, as it can prevent the SNA from these abuses and control the situation if it wants.
The local council response
In an interview with Enab Baladi, the head of the local council in Jindires, Subhi Rizk, denied any seizures of real estate properties in Afrin or the imposition of monthly rents on house owners, shops, and agricultural land. He asked evidence to these allegations and stressed the willingness of the local council to accountability.
Rizk justified the housing of families in houses owned by Kurdish people from Afrin’s residents by saying, “after the fierce attack on the people of Idlib and the accompanying massive wave of displacement, the local council coordinated with the villages under its supervision to help to shelter the displaced people without taking any rents from them.”
He continued saying, “everyone welcomed the displaced people and tried to help to shelter them, as there were many empty houses whose owners headed to European countries.”
Rizk added, “the displaced persons inhabited these empty houses in legal ways through villages’ chiefs and committees without paying rents.”
He confirmed that if the absent homeowners returned to Afrin, they could restore their properties immediately and remove whoever living in their houses, after presenting the title contract.
Rizk indicated that people living abroad could authorize their relatives, acquaintances, or neighbors as their legal agents by a video recording to facilitate the process, which would be certified by villages’ chiefs and witnesses.
Thus, homeowners can offer their property for rent or place people they know in their houses without rent, according to an agreement between the two sides.
Rizk added that in cases where someone says that the absent owner of the house told him/her on the telephone that he/she can live in the house, the local council asks to contact the original homeowner and demands to have a power of attorney document to register the property in the owner’s name.
He clarified that the “Real Estate Documentation Department” was created to register movable properties in their original owners’ names and to issue a real-estate record to prove ownership.
Homeowners who lost their official documents because they were stolen, burnt, or destroyed can still prove their rights to their properties by resorting to the chiefs of villages or witnesses.
Rizk pointed out to Enab Baladi that the main reason for establishing this department is to “serve citizens and protect their rights,” adding that “some people spread rumors when they see institutions doing their job well.”
On 8 October 2018, Afrin city’s local council issued a statement calling on owners to review the “Real Estate Documenting Office,” bringing all relevant documents for official certification.
The statement indicated that those who lost ownership proving documents would be granted the right to temporary ownership after the council’s official registration of property.
The statement pointed out that the local council would not recognize any new sale or purchase of property and considered them as “invalid.”
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICI) stated that there are many reports of wide-scale property confiscation and looting operations in Afrin.
According to the IICI, the SNA fighters had been housing their family members in some of the houses owned by Kurdish people who fled the area or offered them for rent.
The IICI also mentioned that the SNA fighters demanded the property titles from the Kurdish owners who chose to stay at their houses.
It pointed out that, in some cases, the returning homeowners had no choice but to share their houses with the families of the SNA fighters who had been living there.
The IICI added that when some civilians complained to senior officers in the SNA to restore their property, their appeals were met with threats and violence.
The wide scale of property expropriation led to the establishment of a complaint mechanism within the structures of the SNA; nevertheless, the residents indicated that it was ineffective.
The legal point of view
Judge Riad Ali considered that there is no legal or moral basis for the eviction of Syrian families from their houses and lands in Afrin or other areas by the armed factions.
Ali pointed out to Enab Baladi that such acts cannot be considered individual mistakes, as property seizures are carried out systematically and in an organized way.
He said the commanders of the armed factions under the umbrella of the SNA did not hold their elements who confiscated the properties accountable, and the heads of the local councils issued no instructions or orders to prevent such acts.
On the contrary, there are some cases in which factions’ leaders and heads of local councils participated in these violations by converting some private houses into public places, without any justification except that the owner has been forcibly displaced, killed, or subjected to enforced disappearance.
Moreover, the SIG’s defense minister, the chief administrative officer of the SNA, has not stepped in to prevent such violations and held no one accountable.
Ali added that, according to the “Rome Statute” of the “International Criminal Court (ICC),” the “looting and usurpation of real estate can be considered a “war crime” because it happened and still happening in a systematic and widespread manner.
Regarding the charge of belonging to the PYD that the factions direct to some real estate owners to justify expropriating their property, Ali pointed out that many of the people arrested or had their property confiscated under this pretext were opponents to the PYD and former detainees in its prisons.
Ali wondered that even if the factions’ claims were valid, what is the guilt of the owner’s (the accused party) family and children to deprive them of their right to housing provided for in international covenants and charters?
Moreover, the property confiscation is carried out by “elements” of the factions, without a neutral, autonomous judiciary governing the subject matter.
Legal ways to prove title
Ali pointed out to Enab Baladi that to prove ownership of confiscated properties in Afrin, there should be a real estate registration extract if the property were partitioned and registered in the name of the owner or if the owner owned shares if the property was not subdivided.
Ali added, right holders should keep court orders that prove ownership, public notary proxies, and cooperative housing associations registers.
He added that building permits issued by municipalities could also be used to prove ownership, besides sales and purchase contracts between a seller and a buyer, in addition to any other evidence that would help prove the ownership of a property.
In cases of no official documents, owners can resort to human rights organizations active in the documentation field, which will request the hearing of witnesses’ testimonies, whether from the same neighborhood or relatives, to verify the property ownership claims.
According to Ali, the right holder can also resort to media platforms when they cover property confiscation by armed factions.
He added, committees or courts responsible for considering such cases in the future are supposed to take into account the war circumstances that destroyed many real estate documents.
These committees and courts should carefully consider allegations of ownership, especially those who claim the right to a real state outside of their original housing areas within the current war conditions, Ali said.
He added, the presumption of false ownership claims should be considered unless evidence is provided.
Ali stressed that even if the property were sold more than once, this would not affect the right to a property title for the original owner, because the sales were carried out in unstable war conditions at times of armed groups’ control over this area or that, while half of the Syrian people were displaced or refugees.
Therefore, the buyer is supposed to be attentive as long as he/she knows that the seller is displaced from another area and not from the residents of the property to be sold, according to Ali.
Ali discussed the example of Colombia which passed Law No. 1448 of 2011, known as the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which assumed that the buyer (the holder of the property) is ill-intentioned unless proved otherwise and that the buyer did not know that the seller was not the rightful owner of the property and that he/she bought the property at its original price.
Upon providing evidence, the buyer will be compensated for his/her payment to the seller, and the property would be returned to its rightful owner before the dispute.
Regarding the compensation ways for people whose agricultural lands and crops were seized, Ali noted that, in the post-war phase, farmlands must be returned to their original owners by law.
He added, there should be procedures for reparation and restitution of rights to compensate the owner for the yields during the years in which the agricultural land remained uninvested.
This procedure is done through assessment by specialized people agreed on by the dispute parties or by the relevant court.
Following extensive investigations on Afrin’s living conditions, the “Amnesty International” organization released a report accusing the SNA factions of committing “grave” human rights violations in Afrin, with Turkish complicity.
The organization pointed out that these violations range from arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance of persons, property confiscation, and looting operations.
The organization accused Turkey of supplying “the armed groups responsible for these violations with weapons and aid,” It also criticized the Syrian regime forces and the Kurdish YPG, who failed to protect the displaced civilians from Afrin and increased their suffering.
The punishment of property appropriation by factions’ fighters
As for civilian property seized by armed fighters for personal use, Ali pointed out that the “Geneva Conventions of 1949” and their “Additional Protocols of 1977” prohibited attacks on civilian targets (non-military or not used for military purposes).
Therefore, the appropriation of houses and shops by military factions for personal purposes is prohibited by law, and the fighter involved is considered a “war crime” perpetrator as long as the violation occurred at times of armed conflict.
Ali added the law states that the property must be returned to its rightful owner before the conflict, and the perpetrator (fighter) who committed such a violation must be held accountable before the law.
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