Sat 26 Sep 2020

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“Adhesion contracts” for seizure of real property in Homs

Destroyed houses by the Syrian regime's bombing on the protest center in Homs city, central Syria - 11 February 2012 (AFP)

Destroyed houses by the Syrian regime's bombing on the protest center in Homs city, central Syria - 11 February 2012 (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas

“I left Homs in 2012 with thousands of people displaced from the cities that have seen violence. I headed to northern Lebanon, and after seven years, I tried to go back to the area to check on my house and was shocked to learn that the General Establishment for Water (GEW) and the Electricity Company in Homs seized my house because I have not paid the bills during my absence from home.”

Fifty-four years old, “Um Layla” recounted to Enab Baladi her fears of not being able to recover her family home, where she lived her most beautiful days, as per her expression. Um Layla’s house was seized because of the accumulated water and electricity bills, that she could not pay during her displacement from Homs to Lebanon. The water and electricity bill total value reached 977,000 Syrian pounds (about 500 USD).

Um Layla from Homs city, who preferred not to mention her real name, wondered over the ongoing billing despite her constant absence from home, which was not occupied by anyone else during her absence.

This led her to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit against the GEW and the Electricity Company of Homs, to claim her property right.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, The Syrian lawyer Ahmed Sawan said that water and electricity bills are issued regularly every two or three months. He added other charges are added to the value of these bills, such as the maintenance fee for the water system and meter, besides other charges added to periodic bills.

According to Sawan, the value of these fees has substantially doubled over the past years, while the Syrian pound deteriorated in value. Besides, the late payment penalties for the bills are subject to compound interest, the addition of interest to the principle billing sum; thus, a new interest amount is added later, and the amount multiplies alarmingly over the years, according to Sawan.

Sawan pointed out that, since the subscription contracts for water and electricity service signed by Um Layla when the measurement instruments (meters) were installed in her house are still valid, and she did not request the avoidance of the contracts, when she left the house; therefore, the Homs’ GEW and Electricity Company’s action is considered “legal,” according to the general principles of the Syrian Law.

In case the bills include an unreal value of water and electricity usage, and the owner could prove that the meters did not register an actual reading, she can object to the amount claimed by the water and electricity establishments. Nevertheless, such objections rarely achieve realistic and effective results due to the difficulty of their proof, according to Sawan.

The Syrian Public Funds Collection Law No. 341 of 1956, from its first until the sixth article, provides for the seizure of the assigned person’s money for taxes and other outstanding payments to public directorates and establishments, such as the GEW and the Electricity Company in Homs.

Taxes, fees, and other payments are paid on time, and the Syrian Ministry of Finance may take measures against those who have failed to pay, such as warning, seizure, and sale of the seized rights in rem.

Moreover, Article 8 of Law No. 341 allowed the imposition of seizure without giving notice, if the assigned person had no fixed address and residence in Syria, meaning that if Um Layla did not object to the value of the bills, or if she objected and her objection was refused, she is still obliged to pay.

According to Sawan, the state can impose a provisional seizure on the house, turn it into an executive seizure, and sell it in an auction to collect the bills’ value.

Sawan mentioned that the subscription contracts of water and electricity establishments in Syria are considered “adhesion contracts” that contain unfair conditions for the subscriber, who is obliged to sign them and agree to their content, as they ensure the daily basic services that the individual needs.

In addition, state institutions within Syria are “blackmailing people, restricting them, applying many arbitrary measures on them, and seeking to collect money from them, rightly or wrongly,” according to Sawan.

The violence of the Syrian regime’s forces in the first half of 2012 caused the first major displacement wave from Homs. Thousands of people left their neighborhoods in the city that were hit daily with heavy weapons, including tank shelling.

According to a study by the “Institute of Syria,” in collaboration with the “PAX” team, which discussed forced displacement in Homs city, central Syria, under the title “No Return to Homs,” large parts of the road, sanitation, water, and electricity networks were destroyed in the neighborhoods that were evacuated, making some areas uninhabitable.

According to the study, some residents from Homs were arrested and harassed, and some were forced to leave by forces affiliated to the Syrian regime.

Many of the interviewed people in the “No Return to Homs” study described how the regime’s forces looted their houses, including water and electricity meters, by saying “all was robbed but stones,” as their resilient houses were transformed into uninhabitable places.

A United Nations (UN) assessment in 2014 reported that the Syrian regime’s authorities might have overlooked these looting operations and facilitated them.

Meanwhile, a large part of the Syrian civilian population is persecuted and at risk of arrest if they were from those who opposed or criticized the Syrian regime, according to reports by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).

This makes the return to Homs or other areas controlled by the regime dangerous, to reach some neighborhoods or to check on the property or its legal status.

Still, Um Layla insists on going ahead with the lawsuit against the General Establishment for Water (GEW) and the Electricity Company of Homs, to keep her house, which preserves her family’s memories and hers.

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