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Legitimising State Violence in Syria

Updated: May 1

‘It is authority and not truth that makes the law’[1]

German philosopher Hannah Arendt says in her book On Violence: ‘The authority does not need to be justified itself, because it is an organic part of the existence of political groups, but it needs legitimacy. As for violence, it can sometimes be justified, but it’s impossible, and absolutely, to be legitimate’.[2] This leads us to the main question which this paper tries to analyse and respond to, taking the Syrian authority in place since 1963 as a case study: How does political authority legitimise violence against its opponents?

 

Utilising Arendt’s definitions in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, one can distinguish between two eras. The first is the era of Hafez al-Assad (1970-2000). This was a secret police state, according to Arendt’s introduction of the Bolshevik model in Stalinist. The second is the era of Bashar al-Assad (2000-present), who surpassed his father using violence, and moved Syria to a totalitarian domination model during his office. This distinction is vital for understanding the presence of violence in the state structure and its relationship to the ruling authority in Syria. What distinguishes the Syrian experience from the Bolshevik and Nazi political systems studied by Arendt is that it did not carry the ideology of socialism or the supreme racial superiority to ensure its control to the same extent. Instead, it was an authority that came with the power of violence and domination through it from the very beginning.

 

After nearly a decade of seizing power, Hafez al-Assad developed his theory of fighting the enemy so that his institutional identity for violence became the need to fight the external or internal enemy in times of war and peace. The enemy is the enemy of the nation, the homeland, and the President: al-Assad systematically eliminated any separation between these areas. With time, state institutions lost any actual control over violence, especially after the 2011 revolution, which allowed violence to swallow everything in return for him staying in power. As Arendt writes, the stage in which the ‘police state began to eat its children’, is the stage of totalitarian domination based on terrorism.[3]

 

The relationship of violence to the state has been debated for a long time. In his lecture Politics as a Vocation, the German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as following: ‘We have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory…The state is considered the sole source of the “right” to use violence’.[4] States use violence to ensure public order, but this use is always possible to question in democratic countries that allow accountability by an independent press and an independent judiciary. But in dictatorships, such as the Syrian regime, violence goes beyond its role of protecting the people or public security, despite slogans maintained by dictatorial authorities. Rather, violence moves to play a constitutive role in the production and maintenance of political power itself in authoritarian regimes. Moreover, when political authority depends on violence in this way, law becomes a tool to legitimise the violence.

 

Authoritarian political authorities control and use law not only as a monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence, but to legalise violence, to ensure that they remain the only party that has the legal right to practice violence and ensure that they remain in power by practicing this violence, ie, by using its power as a state. As the German jurist Carl Schmitt—who was close to the Nazi Party—suggests, legal orders are based on sovereign decisions, and not legal norms.[5] So, in the discussion of the relationship between violence and legitimacy, we can ask: How does a political system which monopolises the power of law use this legal order to justify its violence?

 

By studying the Syrian case during the rule of the Assad regime (father and son), bearing in mind that this regime relied on historical, legal, or political precedents, we attempt to answer this question. For this purpose, the study is based on qualitative research, and draws on the work of Arendt, Weber, and Schmitt. The analysis of how law is used to legitimise state violence also utilises the theories of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his article The Force of Law, and particularly the concept of the legal field. Because of the difficulties imposed by the Syrian government in accessing information—in particular related to human rights issues—it was not possible to rely on official government data. But with the help of reports by human rights organisations, we were able to document indicators of the violence of the regime. This is in addition to the use of press articles, studies by Syrian human rights defenders, and present humanitarian examples of victims of legal violence in Syria who were arrested and tried before exceptional judicial bodies and spent 10-17 years in prison.

 

Foundational violence: the juridical field in Syria

 

This study suggests that the Syrian authority legitimises its violence by relying on law. According to Arendt, this legal approach puts together practice and discourse to normalise violence and thus shifts the question from: What is moral, to what is legal?

 

The significance of this normalisation of violence is explained by Bourdieu as follows: ‘It makes sense that, in a complex society, the universalization effect is one of the mechanisms, and no doubt one of the most powerful, producing symbolic domination (or, if one prefers to call it that, the imposition of legitimacy in a social order). When the legal norm makes the practical principles of the symbolically dominant style of living official…The universalization effect, which one could also term the normalization effect, functions to heighten the effect of social authority already exercised by the legitimate culture and by those who control it. It thereby complements the practical power of legal constraint’.[6] Bourdieu also notes that: ‘The law is the quintessential form of “active” discourse, able by its own operation to produce its effects. It would not be excessive to say that it creates the social world, but only if we remember that it is this world which first creates the law’.[7] In Syria, it is the Sovereign Dictatorship who created the law. The effect of legal action turns into a legitimisation of the practices of this political authority, and normalisation of violence in terms of being one of the effects of the legal action itself. Accordingly, the law is not only a tool of authority—as Bourdieu points out—but also an attempt to formulate authority as a legal authority and ensure its continuity. As Bourdieu writes: ‘Juridical labor has multiple effects. It provides the guarantee that, in the absence of a revolution which would upset the very foundation of the juridical order, the future will resemble what has gone before’.[8]

 

Discussing the legalisation of state violence also motivates an engagement with Schmitt’s work. Schmitt linked power to the ability to define law and the exception to it. In his words: ‘the sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception: If there is some person or institution, in a given polity, capable of bringing about a total suspension of the law and then to use extra-legal force to normalize the situation, then that person or institution is the sovereign in that polity’.[9] Moreover, Schmitt reasons that: ‘If a sovereign, so understood, exists, its authority to suspend the law does not stand in need of positive legal recognition, since the law’s applicability itself depends on a situation of normality secured by the sovereign’.[10] This jurisprudence theorising established for Schmitt the legitimacy of absolute dictatorship, or what Arendt would later call ‘Totalitarianism’, characterised by terror. As Schmitt argues: ‘The question of the legitimacy of law thus turns on the question of the legitimacy of an identity-constituting sovereign exercise of foundational violence’.[11]

 

In Syria, Hafez al-Assad succeeded—by playing a leading role in formulating the 1963 military coup, and then his personal, white coup against the party’s comrades in 1970—in making himself the person with the ability to determine the exception. This power of sovereignty enabled al-Assad to determine the exception when he declared himself president of the country and ensure that emergency laws continued in Syria for 49 years. With al-Assad, foundational violence became identity-constituting sovereign, and the basis of al-Assad’s legitimacy as sovereign dictator. 

 

Since emergency laws give power to the government to the detriment of the juridical field, then the juridical field in Syria cannot be understood without reading it as a field created by a dictatorial authority whose constituent identity is violence. Accordingly, there is no autonomy of the legal field from the state, which brings to mind Hobbes’s dictum that: ‘It is authority and not truth that makes the law’.[12]

 

Yet, al-Assad needed to justify this violence, and for that he needed a common political identity. As Schmitt argues: ‘A sovereign dictator is a dictator who does not defend an already existing constitution but attempts to create a new one and who does so not by his own authority but in the name of the people’.[13] Thus, in the name of the people, al-Assad used emergency law. Even the constitution, which he tailored and implemented to suit his will and interpretations, was limited by the upper authority of emergency law. For example, he did not designate himself as the head of the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, which consists of 11 members. However, all these members are named and appointed by him.

 

Al-Assad sought to eliminate all his political opponents and present a model of terror that Syrians would not easily override. In the 1980s, al-Assad enabled his power as sole ruler through two violent incidents, which are not the only ones, but are foundational in understanding the legitimating identity of violence. The first, known as ‘Hama massacre’ is one of the founding events of the direct, broad-spectrum violence of the al-Assad police state. Second is the campaign of arrests of all his opponents, which effectively killed political life in Syria.

 

In his definition of what he called the ‘juridical field’, Bourdieu remarked the following: ‘The social practices of the law are in fact the product of the functioning of a “field” whose specific logic is determined by two factors: on the one hand, by the specific power relations which give it its structure and which order the competitive struggles (or, more precisely, the conflicts over competence) that occur within it; and on the other hand, by the internal logic of juridical functioning which constantly constrains the range of possible actions and, thereby, limits the realm of specifically juridical solutions’.[14]

 

Detailed analysis will show that the juridical field in Syria was established during the rule of the al-Assad family, according to the rule of exception established by Schmitt, which radically changed its logic. Therefore, this study discusses the legal field established according to the status of the exception.

 

The emergency law issued by Legislative Decree No. 51 in 1962 stipulated two main articles. Article 2 read: ‘The state of emergency is declared by a decree taken in the Council of Ministers convened under the chairmanship of the President of the Republic and by a two-thirds majority of its members, provided that it is presented to the House of Representatives in its first meeting’.[15] Paragraph (b) of Article 3 added: ‘The decree determines the restrictions and measures that the martial ruler may take as stipulated in Article 4 of this Legislative Decree without prejudice to the provisions of Article 5 thereof’.[16] But in reality, the leaders of the 1963 military coup were the ones who announced the implementation of the emergency law, and the same declaration was satisfied with repealing the decree and thus eliminating what was stipulated in paragraph (b).

 

We could not find the official text of Military Decree No. (2) of 1963 that reiterated the emergency law enforcement. However, we found press articles that refer to it as follows: ‘The state of emergency is declared in all parts of the Syrian Arab Republic and even Further notice’, but without specifying the exact source. This was not announced in a decree published in the official newspapers, but rather through what is known as Statement No. (2) that follows the Military Statement No. (1) announcing the military coup.

 

The legal order in Syria—as Schmitt concludes—‘is based on a sovereign decision and not on a legal norm’.[17] A sovereign decision based on exception. The exception according to which the juridical field was established in Syria is manifested not only by the exceptional declaration of the emergency law itself but also by not providing any specifics. Consequently, the Sovereign, in this case Hafez al-Assad, was free to draw up mechanisms and measures for implementing the state of emergency according to his will. Thus al-Assad defined positive laws and formed the mechanisms for implementing violence within a legal frame.

 

Based on this exception, free of time limitations, the sovereign authority has established exceptional judicial bodies, such as the Supreme State Security (SSSC) and, later, the Terrorism Cases Court. These two bodies, as well as the Military Field Court, are all exceptional forms without any timeframe for their mission. The court operates as long as the exceptional laws exist, with no ceiling to its mission. In fact, the SSSC was not abolished until the 2011 revolution, and Military Field Court was only abolished 3 September 2023.[18]

 

The absence of time restrictions for these exceptional judicial bodies is the second characteristic of the legal field which, congruent with the absence of the finiteness of time at the formal narrative and the ideological slogans of power, emphasise the infinity, the eternity, and the absolute permanence of this exception.

 

Building on the legitimacy of power in defining the exceptional, the juridical field in Syria was built as a field to regulate the domination of the dictator or the leader of the ruling party. Max Weber describes this as ‘organized hegemony’, which ‘calls for continuous administration, requires that human conduct be conditioned to obedience towards those masters who claim to be the bearers of legitimate power. On the other hand, by virtue of this obedience, organized domination requires the control of those material goods which in a given case are necessary for the use of physical violence’.[19]

 

While the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers are one of the conditions for democratic state, in the Syrian model organised domination was represented by the president’s monopoly of those three powers, in the text of the constitution. The following articles are examples of the 2012 constitution that al-Assad approved after the 2011 revolution. Still, it was a legal aim to impose more domination that derives its legitimacy from a constitutional text.

 

Article 105: The President of the Republic is the Commander in Chief of the army and armed forces; he issues all the decisions necessary to exercise this authority. He might delegate some of these authorities.


Article 108: Power to pardon. The President of the Republic grants special amnesty and might reinstate individuals.


Article 111: 1. The President of the Republic might decide to dissolve the People’s Assembly in a justified decision he makes.


Article 132: The judicial authority is independent; and the President of the Republic ensures this independence assisted by the Supreme Judicial Council.


Establishment of judicial council Article 133:

1. The Supreme Judicial Council is headed by the President of the Republic; and the law states the way it shall be formed, its mandate and its rules of procedures.[20]


This monopoly of domination breaks the conditions of the legal game referred to by Bourdieu: ‘The juridical field is a social space organized around the conversion of direct conflict between directly concerned parties into juridically regulated debate between professionals acting by proxy. It is also the space in which such debate functions. These professionals have in common their knowledge and their acceptance of the rules of the legal game’.[21] In Syria, this legal field formed based on exception does not recognise the balance of power between the dominant parties. It is not a field of organising discussion, but rather a field for imposing the domination and control of one party over another. Upon that, a judge is no longer a ‘mediating party’ but rather an implementer of the political will. Even some judicial bodies did not require legal knowledge when appointing the head of the judicial body but instead focused on his military rank, as in Military Field Court.

 

In the Assad regime, and as Arendt says: ‘In these ideologies, the word “law” constantly changes its meaning. Instead of being a fixed framework where human movements and actions take their place, the latter has become an expression of the movement itself’.[22] With this, the law is not a field of punitive action only. The imposition of power is manifested through prohibition and criminalisation, punishing opponents, and rewarding loyalists.

 

This protection code eliminated any possibility of establishing what is known as the state of law. The loyal men, members of the security establishment, are above the law and are even protected by it. So al-Assad, the father, and then Bashar al-Assad, released a set of decrees that would protect the agents and members of this institution from legal accountability. Whereas ‘agents of the intelligence services (Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, and General Intelligence) are protected from prosecution by Article 16 of the law establishing the State Security Administration issued by Legislative Decree No.14 and by Article 74 of the Law of Internal Organisations of the Administration State security and the rules of service for its employees issued by Legislative Decree No. 549.

 

The texts of these two articles is as follows:


Article (16):

It is not permissible to prosecute any of the employees of the State Security Department for crimes they commit while carrying out the specific tasks entrusted to them or in the course of carrying out them except by a prosecution order issued by the director.


Article (74):

It is not permissible to prosecute any of the employees of the State Security Department, or those who are seconded or seconded to it, or those who contract with it directly before the judiciary, in the crimes arising from the job, or in the course of carrying it out before referring it to the disciplinary board in the administration and issuing a prosecution order by the director.[23]

 

In 2008, three years before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Bashar Al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 69, which amended the Syrian Military Penal Code. The articles of this new decree stipulated limiting the decision to prosecute police, political security, and customs personnel accused of practicing torture to the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces, even though they report administratively to the Ministry of Interior. Noting that in 2004 Syria ratified the Convention against Torture, the intelligence services in Syria, or the secret police in Germany, are both, as Arendt says: ‘an embodiment of law itself’.[24]

 

The authority in Syria does not face a conflict from any other party in the interpretation of the legal text but possesses complete control, or absolute appropriation, in its determination and application. According to Bourdieu: ‘Control of the legal text is the prize in interpretive struggles’.[25] So, al-Assad ensured by his possession of the Exception Report that only his power was to read, interpret, and reframe the legal text, as Hafez al-Assad did when he amended the work of the Military Field Court to include times of peace as well as war.[26] In its language, provisions, and applications, the legal text is a means and a tool of political authority to suppress public freedoms and control the masses..

 

Legal language and the normalisation of stigma


Attempting to understand the impact of the legal field in Syria requires researching what Bourdieu called the normalisation of violence. As Bourdieu explains: ‘The law, an intrinsically powerful discourse coupled with the physical means to impose compliance on others, can be seen as a quintessential instrument of normalization’.

 

Since the time of the father, Syrian authority succeeded in merging its legal discourse with its official discourse, to produce a normalisation of violence that pervades the entire society. Opponents of the state have lost their humanity through the repetition of the official narrative vocabulary in official speeches, in the media, slogans, and as well as in forced daily repetition in schools, by words which announce political opponents as if they are enemies.

 

The Syrian totalitarian authority spreads terror and fear of the other. The enemy is an enemy of the ideology, the regime, the president, the security establishment, the army, and most importantly, an enemy of the state. Any violation made by an opponent, activist, writer, or whoever, is considered a violation or not by the security agents as they are the representatives of the president. These are the ones who have the authority and the right to determine if there is a betrayal committed.

 

Although the legal text does claim to defend the nation, the arbitrariness of its power is revealed by the arbitrariness of sentencing. As Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism: ‘The aforementioned totalitarian regime only acted under the guidance of the law, but not as the Nazi or Bolshevik regime claimed that its laws were derived from the laws of nature and history’.[27] The Assad regime’s laws stemmed only from the sovereign dictatorship and the will of the ruling individual.

 

Totalitarian legitimacy here makes an exception with the aim of saving the loyal group, and saving itself from what Arendt refers to as the ‘objective enemy’, who here has become the enemy of the ‘nation’, which is itself the homeland, security, and represented in the person of the individual dictator.[28] So, laws—whether exceptional laws or ordinary—become a representation of an action to eliminate the objective enemy.

 

The nation, the revolution, the party, the symbols of the state: this is a vocabulary repeated in Syrian laws, which Syrians know very well. In their morning slogans they were forced to repeat it throughout their lives. They know these words, but not their meaning. They are—as they appear in the Syrian Penal Code—empty and unidentifiable words. But this ensures that enforcers of state authority can arrest individuals, torture them, and keep them in prison for many years. Specifically, it includes the following articles, many of which have equivalents in democratic or republican regimes such as France.

 

Article 278 of the Penal Code: Whoever undertaking acts, writings, or speech unauthorized by the government that exposes Syria to the danger of belligerent acts or that disrupt Syria’s ties to foreign states.


Article 285 of the Penal Code: Whoever, during wartime or when it is expected to break out, issuing calls that weaken national sentiment or awaken racial or sectarian tensions while Syria is at war or is expecting a war.


Article 286 of the Penal Code: Whoever reports in Syria news which he knows that are false or exaggerated information that weakens national sentiment while Syria is at war or is expecting a war.


Article 307 of the Penal Code: every act, every writing, and every speech intended or results in provoking sectarian or racial strife.[29]

 

There is no accurate count in Syria of the number of prisoners of conscience who have been prosecuted according to these two articles (285-286). But by analogy, Human Rights Watch reports in its 2009 report Far from Justice that, according to the observation they conducted for the hearings trial of detainees of conscience in Syria before the Supreme State Security court:

 

Of the 237 cases it is known to have decided since January 2007, the SSSC sentenced at least 153 of the defendants on the basis of vague and overbroad offenses, such as ‘issuing calls that awaken racial or sectarian tensions’, spreading ‘false or exaggerated information that weakens national sentiment’, or undertaking ‘acts that…disrupt Syria’s ties to foreign states’. The Syrian government has long relied on such broadly worded ‘security’ provisions in its penal code, primarily based on speech or writings, as its primarily lever to silence critics, or perceived critics.[30]

 

According to the report, the ratios were distributed as follows:

 

(34) People were tried according to Article (278). / (104) people were tried according to Article (285). / (6) People were tried according to Article (286). / (9) People were tried according to Article (307).[31]

 

The Media Law Promulgated No.108 of 2011 provides a clear example of the problematic legal language, in terms of being an unmeasurable rhetorical language that allows a wide scope for the sovereign authority to exert violence on whoever it wants.

 

Article 12: The media is prohibited from publishing…


1. Any content that would prejudice the national unity, and the national security, or offend divine religions and religious beliefs, or stir sectarian or doctrinal strife.


2. Any content that incites the commission of crimes and acts of violence and terrorism or incites hatred and racism.


3. News and information related to the army and the armed forces, except for what is issued by the army and the armed forces, and it is permitted to publish it.


4. All that is prohibited from being published in the 'General Penal Code' and the legislation in force, and everything that is prohibited by the courts from publishing it.


5. Everything that affects the country’s symbols.[32]

 

But who can say what the ‘country’s symbols’ are and what ‘touches them’? According to Bourdieu: ‘Law is the quintessential form of the symbolic power of naming that creates the things named, and creates social groups in particular. It confers upon the reality which arises from its classificatory operations the maximum permanence that any social entity has the power to confer upon another, the permanence which we attribute to objects’.[33] This means that Assad’s sovereign authority used laws to implement its political identity. As Schmitt argues, ‘identification is possible only in virtue of the prior identity of all citizens as members of a group constituted by a shared friend-enemy distinction’.[34]

 

After March 2011, the Syrian media used inflammatory vocabulary that divided the Syrian population into ‘honourable citizens’, ‘infiltrated citizens’, and ‘traitors’. Another time, as ‘agents’ as well as ‘the Salafists’. The media used the worst kind of discourse when it stigmatised the protesters as nothing more than traitorous foreign tools, inciting calls to kill and drag them. Examples include the Al-Dunya channel’s report on Talbisa in Homs, on 5 November 2011, or worse, its report after the mascara of Daria on 25 August 2012.[35]

 

We can classify some of the words being used into two categories:

With the Syrian regime

Against the Syrian regime

Citizens

Traitors

Honourable citizens

Infiltrated citizens

Syrians

Salafists

Patriots

Agents

Brave

Cowards

Warrior

Mercenaries

Martyrs

Dead

Loyal

Unfaithful

Patriots

Terrorists

Champions

Germs

 This division made by the hegemonic power in Syria—between a stigmatised, disgraced group and a group regarded with honor—culminated at the national level with the Syrian president telling the world in an official speech in July 2015 that ‘Syria is not for those who live in it or who holds the Syrian nationality but for those who defend it’.[36]

 

Normalisation of state violence

 

To normalise state violence, fear should control all people, excepted for those whom the Sovereign dictatorship provides security. Hence, a political activist was not arrested as an individual, but his wife, father, sisters, and even his friends were arrested, if an intelligence agent—representing sovereign power—decided so. In the case of Nizar Muradni, the political activist in the Communist Action League in Syria, his wife was arrested with him for her activity in the party and to pressure him, but his mother was also arrested to pressure him to confess in the investigation.

 

All these actions—arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment, unfair trials, extrajudicial executions, security oversight, prevention of individual and intellectual freedoms, and the abolition of political life—all were legal acts by the power of exception, the power of emergency law. Or as Arendt says: ‘Terrorism become the legitimacy if the law becomes a law for the movement of a supra-human force’, and ‘citizens of the totalitarian state are only allowed to be the implementers of the law that accompanies it (the movement) or be victims of it’.[37]

 

Article 4 of the emergency law, which was declared operational between1963 and 2011 (when it was replaced by the anti-terrorism law) declares:

 

- Putting restrictions on the freedom of persons meeting, residence, moving and passing in certain places or times, and detain a suspect or those who are dangerous to security and public order in custody precaution, and authorize the investigation of persons and places at any time, and to assign any person to perform any of the tasks.

- Monitor messages and calls of any kind, and monitor newspapers, pamphlets, files, printing, publications, broadcasts, and all means of expression, advertising and advertisement before publishing, seizing, confiscating, disabling, canceling their concessions, and closing their printing houses). Two simple texts with a total of no more than four lines were sufficient to include a clear breach of sixteen of the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[38]

 

This is an example of the legal field becoming an area for symbolic violence practiced by authority on one hand, and a tool for applying direct, physical violence on other hand. Where these laws and bodies are mostly exceptional, they are based on legal expressions and formulas that are not measurable. Only sovereign authority determines it interpretation.

 

Bourdieu suggest that ‘The symbolic imposition of power, which only succeeds because it is fully based in reality. Juridical ratification is the canonical form of all this social magic. It can function effectively only to the extent that the symbolic power of legitimation, or more accurately of naturalization ‘since what is natural need not even ask the question of its own legitimacy’.[39] The multiplicity of legal texts and bodies, and the open time range for nearly half a century, in addition to the inclusion of enforcement mechanisms against civilians and military personnel, all turned the exceptional into the normal. It is legal in the sense that it is based on a legal text and has a legal formula and legal effect—even if it violates the rules of the constitution itself or other legal articles of the country’s laws—as Schmitt sees it, because it comes from a sovereign authority.

 

Through this legal system, the political authority legitimises its violence. As Bourdieu writes: ‘The result of the separation between judgments based upon the law and naive intuitions of fairness is that the system of juridical norms seems (both to those who impose them and even to those upon whom they are imposed) totally independent of the power relations which such a system sustains and legitimizes’.[40] In other words, the system of legal rules legitimises the power relations between a hegemon, or authority, and the subjects of domination.

 

We can present a horrifying example of the legalisation of symbolic and physical violence in Syria by returning to the Military Field Court, which continued its work even after the abolition of the emergency law. A machine to implement terror and carry out various wide-spectrum human rights violations, we are talking about thousands of death sentences, enforced disappearances, and cases of torture. In its report, Sednaya Prison: Human Slaughterhouse, Amnesty International writes:

 

The first executions related to the Syrian crisis began in September 2011, according to former staff at Sednaya prison, for the first four months, it was usual for between seven and 20 people to be executed every 10-15 days. For the following 11 months, between 20 and 50 people were executed once a week, usually on Monday nights. For the subsequent six months, groups of between 20 and 50 people were executed once or twice a week, usually on Monday and/or Wednesday nights. Witness testimony from detainees suggests that the executions were conducted at a similar—or even higher—rate at least until December 2015. Assuming that the death rate remained the same as the preceding period, Amnesty International estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were extra judicially executed at Saydnaya between September 2011 and December 2015. Amnesty International does not have evidence of executions after December 2015. However, detainees are still being transferred to Saydnaya, “trials” at the Military Field Court have continued, and there is no reason to believe that such extrajudicial executions have stopped. Since December 2015, therefore, thousands more detainees are likely to have been hanged. According to a former prison official and detainees who witnessed the executions, the number of people killed by hanging at Saydnaya increased during the weeks prior to and after the presidential amnesties for detainees issued after September 2011, which were on 10 January 2012, 23 October 2012, 16 April 2013, 30 October 2013 and 9 June 2014.[41]

 

In a report on the trial to which these victims were subject, Amnesty adds:

 

The whole process is done while detainees are handcuffed and blindfolded, although sometimes the gang is removed from their eyes the moment they appear before the judge. One trial takes between one and three minutes, and the judge generally relies on ‘confessions’ extracted under torture to determine the verdict that he will issue. The rulings of this court vary between life imprisonment and execution, and detainees who are tried before the Military Field Court are not allowed to contact the lawyer, or know the details of the ruling issued against them.[42]

 

Despite the human rights violations documented in post-2011 Syria, this killing machine remains inaccessible, with no accurate numbers for the victims. Nonetheless, in July 2018, the Syrian regime announced, indirectly, that it had executed hundreds detained in Sednayahuman rights activists, political opponents, and intellectuals who had been involved in the revolt in 2011, before the popular movement turned into an armed movement—through what is called a family statement (the Family Civil Registration extract). Families can request these from civil registry departments in their area, in which the names and status of family members are mentioned. In the fields of the persons concerned, the families found that what was written was: Deceased.

 

After more than 60 years in power, and after the 2011 revolution that shook its authority, the Syrian government has exerted more violence and sought more laws trying to legalise and legitimise its violence. It was left with nothing except ‘terror in order to maintain hegemony’, as Arendt put it.[43] The Syrian regime decided that execution or brutal detention was the only way to exterminate the ‘enemies of the state’: its own people. As a result, in 2017, Bashar al-Assad declared in an official speech that the country lost a lot of its youth and a lot was destroyed, but they succeeded in creating a homogeneous society.

 

Yara Bader


Yara Bader is a Syrian journalist and a human rights activist. Throughout her career, Yara has worked to expose the conditions inside the detention centres in Syrian and the torture conducted by the Assad regime. In 2012, alongside 15 journalists, she was arrested by the intelligence forces in Syria for her work. Since her escape from Syria, Yara has continued to help victims get their voices heard through her work with the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. In 2015, she was a recipient of Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges Award.

 

[1] See Lars Vinx, ‘Carl Schmitt’ (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 29 August 2019) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/schmitt/> accessed 10 February 2024.

[2] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (first published 1970, Ibrahim al-Ariss tr, second edn, Arabic Print-Dar Al Saqi 2015) 46.

[3] ibid 50.

[4] Max Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’ in HH Gerth and C Wright Mills (eds) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (first published 1919, Oxford University Press 1946) 77­128 <http://fs2.american.edu/dfagel/www/Class%20Readings/Weber/PoliticsAsAVocation.pdf> accessed 10 February 2024.

[5] See Vinx (n 1).

[6] Pierre Bourdieu and Richard Terdman, ‘The Force of Law: Toward a Sociology of the Juridical Field’ (1987) 38 Hastings Law Journal 814.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] See Vinx (n 1).

[10] See ibid.

[11] See ibid.

[12] See ibid.

[13] See ibid.

[14] Bourdieu and Terdman (n 6).

[15] ‘Text of the Syrian Emergency Law of 1962’ (Al Jazeera, 11 August 2011) Available online in Arabic <https://www.aljazeera.net/encyclopedia/events/2011/8/11/%D9%86%D8%B5-%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%88%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B7%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A6-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A-1962> accessed 10 February 2024.

[16] ibid.

[17] See Vinx (n 1).

[18] ‘Ending’ the work of military field courts responsible for ‘executing thousands’ (DW, 3 September 2023)

[19] Weber (n 4).

[20] Syrian Arab Republic's Constitution of 2012 (2021). Generated from the repository of the Comparative Constitutions Project and distributed on constituteproject.org <https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Syria_2012.pdf?lang=en> accessed 10 February 2024.

[21] Bourdieu and Terdman (n 6). 

[22] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published 1951, Antoine Abu Zaid tr, second edn, Arabic Print-Dar Al Saqi 2016) 250.

[23] ‘A new decree protects security personnel accused of torture from prosecution’ (Syrian Human Rights Committee, 12 October 2008). Available online in Arabic <https://www.shrc.org/?p=9298> accessed 10 February 2024.

[24] Arendt (n 22) 192.

[25] Bourdieu and Terdman (n 6).

[26] Haitham Al-Maleh, ‘The nature of the military field courts and the legality of the rulings issued by it’ (Committees for the Defense of Democracy Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria). Available online in Arabic <http://cdf-sy.org/paper/al-maleh.htm> accessed 10 February 2024.

[27] Arendt (n 22) 246.

[28] ibid 252.

[29] ‘Syrian Penal Code 1949’ (25 January 2019). Available online in Arabic <https://learningpartnership.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/Syria-Penal-Cade-1949-Arabic.pdf> accessed 10 February 2024.

[30] ‘Far From Justice – Syria's Supreme State Security Court’ (Human Rights Watch, 24 February 2009) <https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/02/24/far-justice/syrias-supreme-state-security-court> accessed 10 February 2024.

[31] ibid.

[32] Legislative Decree 108 of 2011. Media Law. Available online in Arabic <http://www.parliament.gov.sy/arabic/index.php?node=5578&cat=43> accessed 10 February 2024.

[33] Bourdieu and Terdman (n 6). 

[34] See Vinx (n 1).

[35] ‘تقرير قناة الدنيا عن مجزرة داريا 25/8/2012-من تقديم ميشلين عازر’ (YouTube, 9 September 2015) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRjbLW5uBXk&has_verified=1&ab_channel=HRMonitor> accessed 10 February 2024; ‘2011- تقرير قناة الدنيا حول تلبيسه في حمص 5-10-‘ Al-Dunya TV (YouTube, 6 October 2012) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFdvwvWvWyY&ab_channel=TRUE0TRUE> accessed 10 February 2024.

[36] Krishan Muhammad, ‘The scandalous sentence in Al-Assad’s speech’ Al-Quds Al-Arabi (28 July 2015) <https://www.alquds.co.uk/%EF%BB%BF%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D8%B6%D9%8A%D8%AD%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AE%D8%B7%D8%A7%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AF/> accessed 10 February 2024.

[37] Arendt (n 22) 252.

[38] Al Jazeera (n 15).

[39] Bourdieu and Terdman (n 6). 

[40] ibid.

[41] ‘Syria: Human slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria’ (Amnesty International, 7 February 2017) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde24/5415/2017/en/> accessed 10 February 2024.

[42] ibid.

[43] Arendt (n 2) 49.

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