House usurpers in regime areas deprive Syrians of own property
Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud
“When my brother asked the resident of my house to leave, he wrote an intelligence report that led to his arrest by Political Security for a month,” says Mahmoud al-Asmi, summarizing the man’s suffering and his inability to evict a family that had lived in his house after his decision to travel to the United States.
Al-Asmi, 52, who comes from the al-Sabil neighborhood, northwest of Daraa governorate, traveled to the USA four years after the start of the Syrian revolution, which began in March 2011, and he had allowed a family who had fled to Daraa city to live in his house before leaving the war-torn country.
Some homeowners left their property in Syria in the possession of people they did not know personally, and some of them allowed people related to them to reside. Many of them were exposed to problems including theft of these properties and the usurpation of the property from their owners, without being able to evict them because the owners are opponents of the Syrian regime and are at risk of arrest if they decide to return to Syria and recover their property.
Many people in Syria, like al-Asmi, have been exposed to the problem of the usurpation of their property. During the preparation of this report, Enab Baladi contacted three property owners who faced the same problem.
Enab Baladi sheds light on their attempts to evict those residing in their homes in regime-controlled areas and discusses the legal methods available to restore them.
Property usurper is in control
After the start of the revolution, the phenomenon of homes being handed over by their owners to people displaced from other cities or to families from the same area or offering them for rent at nominal prices spread for similar goals, including providing assistance to others or not leaving the homes empty after leaving the area and protecting them from theft and looting.
Al-Asmi told Enab Baladi that about a week before he traveled to the US in 2015, one of his neighbors asked him to allow a family displaced to Daraa to reside in his house.
He did not refuse to house them for free, and no rental contract was concluded between the two parties after he heard the story of the family. The family consisted of 7 people and was living in an uninhabitable basement in one of the buildings.
The owner of the house told Enab Baladi that since the family’s stay in the house, several complaints have been received about its behavior and its members’ dealings with military security in the area, and the writing of biased and arbitrary reports about the neighborhood’s youth, which led to him asking them to leave the house, without receiving a response.
Al-Asmi tried to send one of his brothers to talk to the family, and a quarrel broke out between him and its members.
The matter ended with his brother being arrested for a month in the Political Security branch, and they were charged $10,000 to get him out and after veiled threats came from the usurper of the property to al-Asmi about harming his brothers if he decided to take him out of the house, it was confirmed that the usurper was in contact with the Military Security.
The threats directed at al-Asmi prompted him to consult a lawyer from his friends, but he changed his mind after the lawyer convinced him to surrender to the status quo for the time being to avoid harming his brothers in the nearby town of Dael, he said.
The legal name for this act of usurping a house or property is called “usurpation of real estate,” and some legal books call it “unlawful squatting.”
The situation is not much different for Nihad al-Falouji, who allowed her cousin and her family to live in her house in Daraa city five years ago, without charging any money for it, but she was met with the family’s refusal to leave the house when she asked them to do so.
Al-Falouji, who left Syria at the end of 2018 with her family and mother for France, agreed to her relative’s request to live in the house to facilitate her husband’s work in one of the nearby shops within the same neighborhood.
Residents of expatriates’ homes use several methods to put pressure on the property owner to escape the implementation of the request to leave, including barricading themselves with security branches and threatening the owner with harming his/her relatives and others by exploiting the property owner’s political and security situation, or by appealing to his/her feelings.
Al-Falouji told Enab Baladi what happened between her and her cousin and the reason that prompted her to ask for her home after about five years, which was to secure a place for her mother to reside after returning from France to the city of Daraa.
She added that refusing to leave the house was the last possibility that came to mind, as her relatives proposed alternative solutions by having her mother live with them in the same house if she wanted to, or al-Falouji and her family returning to get them out.
According to al-Falouji, she was subjected to pressure from her cousin, who took advantage of her opposition to the Syrian regime, which ruled out the possibility of her returning to Syria, and her mother currently resides in a house rented for 400,000 Syrian pounds in Daraa.
As for Ibtisam (who refused to give her full name), her story is somewhat different, as she learned from her acquaintances in Daraya city in the Damascus countryside, where she is from, that her house, which she left half-destroyed following the bombing of the city by regime forces, was restored by a family from the same area without asking permission or waiting for approval from its owners.
Ibtisam, 58, an immigrant from Daraya to northwestern Syria, decided to put her family’s house up for sale in late 2021, but that family’s residence there hindered the inheritance inventory procedures that she was going to work on through lawyers in the Damascus countryside.
She was able to contact the family by phone, who refused to leave under pretexts including the large financial cost of renting a house, the poor living conditions in the Damascus countryside, and the absence of alternative housing. However, the conversation ended with a categorical refusal and the condition of bringing the title deed.
“Absent” evidence hinders solutions
Some homeowners try to resort to the law and hire a lawyer to seek a decision that will restore their rights, but the absence and loss of papers hinder the process, and the security accountability that inflicts on the person appointed prompts lawyers to reject such cases many times.
Ibtisam’s case did not end when the residents of the house asked to bring ownership papers, as she appointed a lawyer to follow up on the case and extract ownership papers to replace the lost ones that she lost during the bombing and displacement, according to what she told Enab Baladi.
The woman reported that the rest of her brothers and sisters do not currently have title deeds or contracts proving their ownership of the house, and the presence of a detained brother prompted the lawyer to refuse to complete the case for fear of legal accountability from the regime, due to the family’s political position and opposition to the regime.
Returning to al-Falouji, she stated that she explained what happened to her to a lawyer in Daraa, who explained to her the necessity of having a lease contract between the tenant and the owner of the house and that it is difficult to obtain a power of attorney for her mother in Daraa, as she is 73 years old, cannot pursue legal matters, and does not have any ownership papers for the house in Syria, and all the ownership papers are with her in France, she told Enab Baladi.
Laws of confiscation of opponents’ property
Since the beginning of 2011, the Syrian regime’s government has issued a set of laws and legislative decrees related to property rights, which raised the concerns of Syrians inside and outside Syria and included the seizure of movable and immovable assets of political opponents or sympathizers with the Syrian revolution accused of supporting what the regime calls “terrorism.”
Legislative laws and decrees have also been issued that affect the property of people, especially those accused of “terrorism” charges, including the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 19 issued in July 2012, and its danger lies in freezing the movable and immovable assets of anyone suspected of committing crimes of this kind.
Syrian lawyer Ahmed Sawan told Enab Baladi that the “anti-terrorism” law includes the property of Syrians residing outside Syria in the event that judgments are issued against them, as it includes paragraphs that include seizure or confiscation of real estate and registering it in the name of the state.
Regarding the fate of homes in which people have lived for years, there are two cases for recovering the property. The first is if the property is registered in the real estate registry. It remains in the owner’s name, and whoever takes possession of it cannot transfer its ownership to him. This method is considered the easiest and safest legal way to recover it through the judiciary.
However, if the property is registered in the name of another person, then the issue is complicated because there are several cases. Either the property was purchased under the power of a notary public or, according to a ruling issued by the court, or by a customary contract according to a document with a fingerprint, signature, and witnesses, and for each of these cases, there is a detailed explanation for the house’s legal position, according to Sawan.
Lawyer Sawan added that if the purchase is made under a notary agency, the buyer is required to execute the agency with the real estate registry departments so that the property becomes a “green tabu” or title deed. Through this procedure, the buyer can appoint a person or a lawyer to transfer ownership to the real estate documentation office.
The property owner must show a statement (real estate contract) proving his ownership of the house he is claiming in order to be able to recover it and claim the property’s rent throughout the period of seizure and what is legally called (claiming a similar wage), and the owner has the right to claim his property.
Ahmed Sawan, Syrian lawyer
In the event that the property owner loses his proof of ownership registered in the real estate registry, he can extract a real estate contract statement or a replacement title deed by appointing a person or a lawyer to follow up on the procedures. As for the real estate contract statement, it can be extracted by any person from the real estate registry for a small fee, Sawan concluded.
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