The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian human rights documentation organization, recently published a report called Counter-Terrorism Court: a Tool for War Crimes. The report details the establishment of the Counter-Terrorism Court (CTC) in Syria in response to Counter-Terrorism Law No. 19 issued on June 28, 2012. Law 19 includes definitions of “terrorist act, terrorist organization and terrorism financing,” along with the punishments for each. The report uses both publicly available information and its own documentation to argue that, since its establishment, the CTC has not follow due process and has instead rendered politicized, biased, and unfair judgements against detainees with no regard to factual evidence. VDC explains that the purpose of CTCs is “to suppress and stifle any opposition voices and to ensure the regime’s stability where a small clan controls different government establishments as well as all the country’s resources”. This report provides valuable insight into Syria’s flawed legal institutions and demonstrates areas that are in need of institutional reform in the post-conflict transition.
The report relies heavily on interviews with Syrian legal experts and former detainees. With its wide network in Syria and neighboring countries, VDC was well-positioned to access first-hand accounts of the system. One lawyer interviewed described the institutional problems with the CTCs: “The detainees in questions often confess under torture…Most of those referred to CTC are peaceful activists and ordinary citizens. Yet, the CTC judges them without any evidence . . . supporting the prosecutor’s charges. Judges typically do not pay attention to the detainees’ statements and tend to turn a blind eye to the effects of torture on their bodies.” Although the specific procedures for each case is arbitrary and relatively unknown, the report describes the general process that detainees undergo. First, government officials torture detainees into confessing for a crime that aligns with the mandate of the CTC. After the confession, local prisons refer the case to the CTC, after which the detainee are cut off from their families and lawyers and little information emerges about their trial and sentencing. Based on these coerced confessions, the CTC often issues death sentences, more than any other court in Syria. These statements and others in the report discredit the CTC and its decision-making process.
After explaining the arbitrariness of the CTC proceedings, the report examines the CTC through the legal lens of the Geneva Conventions which forbid states from carrying out extrajudicial death sentences and executions. According to report, the Syrian government clearly has been violating the Geneva Conventions through the CTC’s summary procedures that lack in basic guarantees of impartiality. The report concludes by arguing that the courts are not only being used as tools for war crimes, but the widespread and systematic application of Law 19 might also amount to a crime against humanity. VDC’s legal analysis adds depth to its documentation and provides support to the findings that the CTCs are in clear violation of international law.
One area in which the report was lacking was in the description of the methodology used to gather data. The report briefly mentions that interviews were conducted and testimonies were collected but it does not elaborate on a replicable process. Although the sensitive situation in Syria presents difficulties in fully disclosing operational details, a general outline of the methodology would have lent additional credibility to the findings and allowed for greater transparency and accountability. For example, the report is not clear on whether qualitative or quantitative methods were used or whether researchers relied on surveys or in-depth interviews. The report also does not provide information on the sample size and sample selection process or explanation of the timeline and duration of the research.
Despite the methodological gaps, the VDC report provides compelling evidence that the CTC violates due process at every stage, constituting a war crime and possibly a crime against humanity. The report’s emphasis on the abysmal judicial system in Syria ultimately points to the need for institutional reform. Institutional reform is a key aspect of the transitional justice process and is vital to ensure that the abuses that led to discontent and conflict are not reincarnated in the post-conflict period, creating the foundation for long-term peace. Post-conflict states like Syria are usually recovering from decades of corruption and political manipulation that have eroded the integrity of government structures, requiring concerted efforts to rebuild these institutions. In-depth research, like the report published by VDC, provide insight into the specific flaws within institutions and laws that have caused the systematic abuses documented daily in Syria and can provide guidance on how they should be reformed in the transition period.
The full VDC report can be accessed here.
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