Syria Table of Contents
Data published in the government's Statistical Abstract do not lend themselves to a realistic analysis of Syria's crime problems. The total number of persons reported to have been convicted in penal cases rose steadily from about 56,000 in 1952 to nearly 275,000 in 1969, and then dropped dramatically to about 165,000 in 1971, at which level it remained through 1975, apparently reflecting Assad's loosening of pre-1970 police controls.
The 1985 statistics, the most recent statistics available in early 1987, cited a total of 187,944 convictions of Syrian nationals in penal cases. Nearly three-fourths of these convictions were for crimes and contraventions neither mentioned in the penal code nor further identified. Of the other convictions, the largest category was for "crimes against religion and family" (not further defined). Other frequent crimes were acts endangering or causing loss of life, robbery, insolence, and crimes against public security.
A rapid increase in crimes against religion and family was the only trend discernible in the data for the 1970-85 period. The figures for the number of convictions in nineteen other classifications of crime remained stable. Accounts of crimes committed in Syria published in Western publications were limited to crimes against state security, such as assassinations and bombings, and to such crimes as bribery and embezzlement as exposed by the Committee for the Investigation of Illegal Profits. The latter committee was set up by the government in September 1977 to investigate a reported growth in corruption by government officials and business leaders.
In 1986 petty offenses were tried in magistrate courts, also called peace courts, found in all population centers. Courts of the first instance, located in twenty-four major urban areas, tried more serious crimes and acted as courts of appeal from the magistrate courts (see The Judiciary , ch. 4). The courts of appeal heard appeals from both lower courts. Juveniles, defined as those between the ages of seven and eighteen, were tried in separate juvenile courts.
The Court of Cassation acted as Syria's supreme court. Located in Damascus, it reviewed appeal cases to determine if the lower courts had applied the law correctly. If an error were found, the case was sent back for retrial to the court of original jurisdiction.
The judicial system and constitutional rights to some extent were abrogated and superseded by martial law imposed when the National Revolutionary Command Council invoked Syria's State of Emergency Law on March 8, 1963. By early 1987 Assad had not repealed this condition. The State of Emergency Law provided for the selection by the president of a martial law governor (the prime minister) and a deputy martial law governor (the minister of the interior). Article 4 of the State of Emergency Law empowered the martial law governor or his deputy to issue written orders to impose restrictions on freedom of individuals with respect to meetings, residence, and travel. It sanctioned preventive arrest, censorship, withdrawal of licenses for firearms, evacuation or isolation of areas, and the requisitioning or sequestration of movable property, real estate, and companies, with compensation to be deferred indefinitely.
Article 6 of the State of Emergency Law defined as violations of martial law "offenses against the security of the state and public order, or public authority, and actions which disturb public confidence, or constitute a general danger." More specifically, Article 6 prohibited "actions considered incompatible with the implementation of the socialist order in the state" and opposition to the unification of the Arab states or any of the aims of the revolution. Furthermore, it enjoined communicating with or benefiting from any organization or foreign state for the purpose of undertaking any action, verbal or physical, hostile to the aims of the revolution. Article 6 also proscribed attacks on places of worship, command centers, military establishments, or other government institutions. Finally, hoarding of or profiteering in foodstuffs, and currency regulation violations, fell under martial law.
Because the 1963 martial law directives gave blanket authority to the martial law governor, in 1979 Assad vowed to "apply firmly the sovereignty of law" and to "strengthen the authority of the judiciary." He issued orders limiting the jurisdiction of the State Security Courts and annulled martial law in cases not actually affecting state security. Moreover, the written orders implementing extraordinary measures were subject to review by the Administrative Court of Justice (Majlis ad Dawlah), which had ruled in several instances that the martial law governor's powers did not exceed the limits specified in Article 4. In such cases, the administrative court could rule the martial law governor's actions illegal and invalid and award compensation to the injured party.
Martial law offenses were tried at State Security Courts, whose presiding members were appointed by presidential decree. The verdicts of State Security Courts were not subject to appeal, but were ratified by the president, who could suspend or vacate the verdict, order a retrial, or reduce the penalty. The decision of the president was irreversible.
In 1987, criminal and judicial procedures continued to be modeled after those of France. Following an arrest, the police presented their evidence to a public prosecutor, who conducted his own investigation. If the prosecutor decided to proceed, he referred the case to the appropriate court. Decisions were made by a majority of the three judges of the court, who ruled on questions of law and fact. There was no trial by jury. In the mid-1980s about 90 percent of all criminal court cases resulted in a conviction. Although the legal code provides for due process, it is not always followed. For example, in its Human Rights Report to the United States Congress of 1985, the United States Department of State stated that "under the state of emergency in force since 1963...an individual may be held indefinitely without charge or trial, especially in political and security cases." Penalties were severe. They included loss of civil rights, fines, imprisonment for up to life, forced labor, exile, and death by hanging or firing squad. Public hangings in Damascus Square of convicted thieves, murderers, assassins, and spies continued to be a common occurrence in 1987. Amnesty International reported that 15 "officially confirmed executions" took place in 1985.
Observers have asserted that the Syrian penal system was geared toward punishment rather than rehabilitation. In a 1986 report, the United States Department of State provided little detailed information about prison conditions, but reported that those charged with or convicted of criminal offenses have been detained in isolation from those charged with political and security offenses. Health care, food, and access by family to persons held in ordinary prisons were reported to be adequate, while conditions at prisons where political and security prisoners were held were reported to be more severe, with family visits prohibited. In its 1985 human rights report, the Department of State also noted that "there have been numerous credible reports of torture, primarily during arrest and interrogation," and (referring to the 1985 Amnesty International Report) added that "use of torture by the Syrian security forces is routine."
In 1985 the Syrian government declared two general amnesties, but only one benefited political prisoners, covering between 200 and 500 members of a faction of the banned Muslim Brotherhood (see Anti-Regime Opposition Movements , this ch.). In 1986 Amnesty International estimated that there were thousands of political prisoners under Syria's state of emergency legislation, including 290 prisoners of conscience.
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English-language literature on Syrian national security was extensive in 1987. Valuable information regarding the development of the Syrian armed forces, their political role, and the sociology of the military is contained in the works by Gordon H. Torrey, Nikolaos Van Dam, Moshe Ma'oz and Avner Yaniv, John Devlin, Eliezer Beeri, J.C. Hurewitz, Itamar Rabinovich, Benedict F. FitzGerald, Amos Perlmutter, and George H. Haddad. The most informative and reliable sources on current Syrian national security issues are the annual Middle East Military Balance, published by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the annual Middle East Contemporary Survey, published by Tel Aviv University's Shiloah Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, the annual Strategic Survey and The Military Balance, both published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the annual World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, published by the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. All these sources have been widely used for a variety of information, particularly on the changing size and equipment inventories of military organizations and national security doctrines and concerns. (For complete citations and further information see Bibliography.)
Data as of April 1987
Syria Table of Contents