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Memories of a Judge in Assad's Syria: Tales from a Damascus Courtroom

By: Shaza Michel Kilo, a former judge and human rights activist.

On a gloomy winter day in 2012, I arrived early at my workplace in the Justice Palace of rural Damascus, in Zaplatani. The so-called Justice Palace was a two-story old building originally used as a warehouse for goods of the nearby Al-Hall market. As I made my way through the crowd and police on the narrow staircase to reach my office on the third floor, I noticed a significant number of brown-covered case files strewn in a corner of the garage.

Curious, I asked Abu Amjad, the noble driver from Daraya, after exchanging morning greetings, "Why are these case files thrown here, Abu Amjad?" "These are for disposal, Judge," he replied. I offered a curt nod of thanks and entered the palace, navigating through the crowds of people and police to reach my office on the third floor.

A wane smile greeted me from Mohammad, my ever-courteous assistant. Seeking refuge in work, I delved into a file, hoping to drown the heaviness within. As I was reading, a distressed murmur snagged my attention: "He must be freed... release him!" I looked up to see a young man in his twenties, fear painting his emerald eyes in a face sculpted by anguish. Tall and slender, he clutched a brown file. I found it puzzling, as these files were court property, not meant to be carried casually. Suddenly, the image of the discarded files on the garage floor flashed in my mind. "Who needs release?" I asked, “Why are you carrying this?" He set the file before me, eyes pleading. "His papers; he must be released. They're beating him on the head-- on the head!" He clutched his head, his tall frame folding as if shielding from unseen blows.

Stunned, I didn't know what to do. My mind struggled to comprehend that this young man was pleading for his own release from a place no one returned whole, where bodies might leave but souls stayed scarred, eternally reliving the horror. The sudden rap at the door sent a jolt through me. Mohammad entered, his gaze landing on the young man still curled on the floor, head clutched in his hands. "There's a woman..." he began, his voice thick with concern, "looking for her son. A tall young man, and..." I cut him off, the urgency burning in my throat. “Bring her in. Now”.

A woman, her eyes mirroring those of her son, wide but laden with sorrow rather than fear, hurried towards him. In that moment, I pondered the profound eloquence of eyes, capable of articulating emotions beyond spoken words. She reached her son swiftly, helping him up and offering comfort. Then, turning to me, she began, "He was about to finish his last year in the Faculty of Medicine, before..." Her voice trailed off with unspoken sadness.

In an attempt to reassure her, with a voice betraying a hint of uncertainty, I spoke, "Inshallah, he'll be fine and finish his studies." The awkwardness lingered in the air as my words failed to provide comfort in the face of such hardship. The woman's held-back grief broke free in tears. She shared, "Two months ago, at a checkpoint, they stopped us and checked our IDs. Despite my pleas, they took my husband and both my sons. A month later, my elder son came back, but he wasn't himself. My fifteen-year-old son and my husband are still with them. Every day, I wait in the garage, hoping to see the bus of detainees¹, hoping to spot them--just to know if my younger son is alive, even if his fate is as his brother's."

Upon returning home, my two young sons ran towards me, joyful to see me, yet I couldn't muster a smile; I stared into their innocent faces, briefly imagining that both had wide green eyes filled with fear. Holding them close, tears silently streamed down my face.

"We're Indulging Them"

On my way to work the next morning, I pondered over what my colleague had told me the previous day. He returned, his face sombre, after being urgently summoned to a task where he had to sign death certificates for several detainees in the security branches. Even though most of the killed deceased were mere children and young individuals, he was compelled to sign off on the forensic doctor attributing the deaths, in the certificates, to strokes, heart attacks, and jumping from heights.


I also recalled what my other colleague told me about their neighbour. He refused to sign a statement acknowledging that his only thirteen-year-old son had been killed by armed gangs (in reality, he was shot in front of his father’s eyes by security forces while passing by a protest). The family's sole means of sustenance, an old minibus, was callously set ablaze as a punitive measure for purportedly "disobeying orders."


My colleague also recounted how they coerced a taxi driver, with whom she was travelling, to step out of the vehicle. The authorities subjected him to a brutal beating and public humiliation right before her eyes, eventually leading to his arrest. She tearfully recounted how, even in her capacity as a judicial worker, her attempts to intervene were met with further humiliation from the perpetrators.

I pondered our worth as humans and individuals practising a profession of administering justice. I found myself grappling with the essence of justice in Syria under the grip of this criminal regime. In these dire circumstances, the question lingered: was there anyone capable of even approximating a semblance of justice? Suddenly, I snapped back to reality, realising that I stood before the entrance to my workplace. I reminded myself that today is Saturday, and I am the duty judge for the public prosecution. I braced for an impending influx of police reports, detainees, and complaints. The weight of my duties demanded immediate attention. I decided to shelve introspection about my own worth and usefulness in Syria, especially under Assad's rule, for a later time. I entered my office and began working continuously. Mohammad, a reliable presence, aided me in managing the influx of visitors and gathering prison visit applications for my signature, affording me the chance to sift through police reports and expedite the pressing matters at hand.


Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and Abu Al-Ezz entered with his short stature and wide smile. Serving as a liaison for the Political Security Branch in rural Damascus, he had made it a routine to check in with us judges. Always willing to offer his assistance, Abu Al-Ezz inquired about our needs, whether it be gas cylinders, diesel, or petrol vouchers for our cars. He could secure our requests within a mere blink, he assured us, as his position as a liaison in the Political Security granted him the means to provide these requisites effortlessly.

On this occasion, Abu Al-Ezz held back from extending his usual offers of assistance, given my previous refusals. Instead, he produced a cluster of papers from his bag, his grin widening to reveal yellowed teeth. With a genial tone, he addressed me, "Judge Shatha, could you do us the favour of signing these extensions? The public prosecutor hasn't made an appearance yet, and you're aware of the legal limitations—we can't keep detainees for more than sixty days! We do strive to abide by the law, you know!"

A subdued chuckle escaped me at his final remark. I took the papers from him and began flipping through them out of curiosity. Typically, such documents bore the direct signature of the public prosecutor. As I reached the third page, I began to doubt the accuracy of my vision; the detainee in question was merely ten years old. Perplexed, I continued perusing, only to uncover that a considerable number of individuals awaiting an extension to their detention included children. Glancing back at Abu Al-Ezz, I voiced my concern, "There are children among these names." He dismissed it with an unsettling nonchalance, responding, "Oh, it's commonplace, Judge. You know, wickedness often takes root at a young age." Eyes widening, I nearly exclaimed, "But they're just children. Why are they subjected to Political Security?" Unfazed, he retorted with a sly smile, "We're pampering them, Judge”. I asked him to wait outside and called the public prosecutor on his mobile. "No problem, sign them. Just give an extra 24 hours for the children, no more!" he told me.


I gathered the papers and returned them to Abu Al-Ezz without signing, telling him to wait for the public prosecutor, citing work pressure. A little while after the public prosecutor arrived, Abu Al-Ezz returned to my office, saying, " Everything's in order, Judge. The public prosecutor has courteously signed every document, without exception, Judge”.


With a laugh, he departed, leaving me to resume contemplation of the inquiry I had deferred earlier that morning.

¹ The article uses "detainee" instead of "forcibly disappeared person" to align with common usage among the Syrian public, despite the legal distinction.

By: Shaza Michel Kilo, a former judge and human rights activist.



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