How can residents of Hama preserve their land ownership after confiscation
Enab Baladi – Zeynep Masri
“We will not be able to harvest the crop; God will compensate us. The regime will leave, but the land will stay no matter how long it takes.” With these phrases, Ahmed expressed his mixed feelings of hope and resentment, after finding his name in a list of 109 names for the people whose pistachio farmlands were confiscated in Mhardeh area of Hama province.
On 21 July, the “Asset Management Committee” of the Head of the Military and Security Commission in Hama province announced an auction to ensure the investment of pistachio farmlands owned by people residing in areas held by the Syrian opposition factions in the Syrian north.
The auction conditions
The committee stipulated the conditions for citizens applying to the auction for the investment of lands for one season in the cities and towns of Mahardah, al-Lataminah, Latmin, Kafr Zita, and al-Zaka north-western Hama city.
The conditions included that the applicant must not be banned from participating in auctions or contracting with public entities nor under provisional or execution seizure of assets by state authorities.
The committee also required that applicants must not be members of the executive offices of the province’s local administration, convicted of a felony or an offense, or have inflicted previous damage to lands.
As for the necessary documents, the committee required a photocopy of the applicant’s criminal record and personal identity card, a civil registration record, or a certified photocopy of power of attorney with the name, address, and country location of the legal agent of the participant if available.
According to the committee’s conditions, the applicant must pay in advance to the auction committee’s financial officer an amount of 50 thousand Syrian pounds (SYP = 21 USD) per dunum (1000 m2) before applying to the auction.
No official documents
The list of names of people whose lands were confiscated along with the auction’s announcement and conditions were placed on the bulletin board of the Farmers Office of the “Ba’ath Party” branch in Hama province.
Ahmed was informed of this list through groups of family members and a number of “Atmeh” camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) on the Syrian-Turkish border, where he has lived with his family for nearly nine years.
Ahmed, a pseudonym for security reasons, is originally from the town of Kafr Zita in the Hama countryside. He and his family own a pistachios orchard they inherited from their mother, which the Syrian regime forces confiscated after controlling the area in 2019.
Ahmed recounted to Enab Baladi how he used to go to his land in secret like a “thief” to take care of it and irrigate it, before the regime’s forces took control of Hama countryside.
After the regime’s control, Ahmed was unable to visit his land, nor could he entrust anybody to take care of it, because the regime required the physical existence of the landowner or the legal agent authorized to look after the land.
Ahmed and his family lack the necessary official documents proving their ownership because their land was inherited, and they did not divide their shares in it.
Instead, they own the property number and the personal identity card of the original landowner, after one of his brothers sold his share of the land to one of the town’s residents.
Ahmed mentioned to Enab Baladi that the sale transaction was not registered in the Syrian regime’s cadastre. He added, the person who bought the land plot would not be able to register it in his name, because the heirs did not agree to the sale, and did not sign on it.
No confiscation… but royalties
Unlike Ahmed, whose land was confiscated, Suleiman who requested not to mention his real name for the security of the land and those working in it, managed to keep his land despite leaving his town of Kafr Zita in northern Hama province. Suleiman was displaced to Sarmada city north of Idlib, which is under the control of the opposition factions.
By contacting people and power of attorney, Suleiman was able to authorize some people in the areas under the control of the Syrian regime to look after his land, from tilling, weeding, and harvesting the pistachio crop.
According to Suleiman, he had to pay royalties to the regime’s security forces, besides the fees of land tilling and weeding through the land workers in return for the regime forces’ check of land for mines and cluster bombs as they claimed.
Suleiman also paid an amount of money for those who control the area from the regime’s forces.
He added the regime had a “strategy” by allowing landowners to assign people to look after their lands so that it can take over the crops that are ready and paid for.
The regime announced the confiscation of lands before their harvest to benefit from the crops revenues, according to Suleiman.
A violation of the law
The Syrian regime is violating the law by leasing the orchards in Hama and Idlib provinces, and by its disposal of property owned by displaced people in the Syrian opposition-controlled areas.
Lawyer Ahmed Sawan confirmed to Enab Baladi that the regime’s auctioning of pistachio farmlands for investment in Hama countryside is illegal, for it is a violation of individuals’ property rights against their will.
Sawan added, the regime’s practices in these lands are a violation of individuals’ property rights protected by the Syrian Constitution and Civil Code, which affirms in its Article No. 768 that “the owner has the sole right, within the limits of the law, to use, exploit and dispose of his/her property.”
He said the right to property is a permanent right, which does not cease due to lack of use, no matter how long, and remains as long as the property exists.
The right to property is exclusive and individualistic because it is limited to its owner, Sawan added.
The Syrian regime is also violating Article No. 15 of the current constitution which stipulates that private property is protected according to two bases: the general confiscation of funds is prohibited, and expropriation of private property is only allowed for the public interest by decree and against fair compensation according to the law.
Besides violating the Syrian Constitution, the regime defines the international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates in Article No. 17 that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his/her property, according to a member of the “Free Hama Bar Association,” lawyer Ali al-Omar.
Al-Omar stressed that the right to property is sacred, and the right of usufructuary and investment are included in the property right that includes several other rights.
He indicated that the regime also violated the Syrian legislator, who regulated legal provisions to protect property rights and all that flows from it.
According to al-Omar, these provisions are related to the public order and morals, and any violation of these provisions requires absolute invalidity.
How can the owners protect their property rights?
The orchards’ owners whose lands were confiscated can claim compensation for the damage that resulted from the unlawful seizure of their property, including the total loss and potential loss of profit, according to Sawan.
Sawan pointed out that the owner is entitled to claim compensation for agricultural seasons and damages of trees caused by destroying, uprooting, or burning them.
He asserted that the compensation claim is linked to the possibility of proof, namely the determination of those who caused the damage.
Sawan continued saying that if a government entity allowed the leasing or the usufruct of land, it makes it easier for the owners to identify who is responsible for the damage and demand the entity responsible for the usufruct to compensate the damage or the seasons’ returns.
Meanwhile, al-Omar said that the seized crops belong to the orchards’ owners, who can file multiple lawsuits only when “the state authority overcomes the authority of the gangs, mafias, and the militias, and when the rule of law prevails over everyone, and after the judicial reform and independence.”
One of the lawsuits is the “property usurpation,” which is from the jurisdiction of the criminal courts. Other lawsuits include the “illegal gain,” the “unjust enrichment,” the “exploitation of others property,” the “unlawful disposal of property,” the “unlawful expropriation of property,” or the lawsuit of “power abuse.”
According to al-Omar, the orchards’ owners who reside in the areas of the Syrian opposition’s control, cannot preserve their lands against confiscation or unlawful disposal, because the regime’s forces and its affiliated militias are above the law and the judiciary.
For his part, Sawan said that the only action the owner can take is to keep property documents of all kinds, such as a title deed, a property registration statement issued by the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs, and a selling agency authorized by the notary.
Other documents include a court rule certifying the purchase, any regular contract that has a fingerprint, or a signature and witnesses, or any receipt issued by the municipality or financial authority.
According to Sawan, such documents would be of great value when proving the right and precedence of ownership, in the event of loss or manipulation of property records by the Syrian regime.
The regime’s legal cover
Sawan pointed out that the regime might seek a legal cover for its property violations; it has many legal tools, including the Counter-Terrorism Law No. 19 of 2012, that provides for the freezing of funds of anyone who commits an offense outlined in this law.
Article No. 12 of this law calls for the confiscation of property and the movable and immovable assets of the convicted person.
Other laws by the regime include the Legislative Decree No. 63 of 2012, which gave the law enforcement authority the right to order the Syrian Ministry of Finance to seize the movable and immovable assets of those accused of threatening the national security.
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