Syria’s Rebel Judges Promise Sharia Justice With Mercy

In Tal Rifaat, the Assad regime has been replaced by a local tribunal of clerics, guided by Islamic law and the pursuit of political reconciliation

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Men search for bodies under rubble of a house, destroyed by a Syrian Air force air strike, in a village of Tal Rifaat, about 37 km north of Aleppo, Aug. 8, 2012.

Imam Mohammed Drbal had just received a call from his wife. She was panicking and wanted him to come home, he explained. With shells beginning to rain down again, Drbal figured the day’s caseload would be a light one. “People didn’t sleep well because of last night’s shelling,” he said. “Because of today’s, they’ll be afraid to leave their homes.” The artillery barrage was coming from a nearby airbase, the only regime stronghold between Aleppo and the Turkish border not to be overrun by the rebel Free Syrian Army. The bombardment was unlikely to reach this part of town, according to Drbal. And if it did, he deadpanned, “We’re all here together, and in this together.” His fellow imams jiggled inside their beige thobes, struggling to contain their laughter.

Drbal and his fellow clerics comprise the tribunal that has replace the Assad regime as the law in Tal Rifaat, 20 miles north of Aleppo. Two months ago, after the authorities fled, a pair of imams who had led the town’s anti-regime protests founded a council to resolve local disputes and fill the growing security vacuum, and set up shop in a local school. “We couldn’t have double standards and competing interpretations of Islamic law,” said Drbal. “So scholars, locally respected people, decided to meet in a single council.”

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Drbal and his colleagues made no bones about the fact that the post-Assad justice dispensed by their court was based on Islamic sharia law. “We are ruling on the basis of sharia,” explained Seraj al-Halabi, one of the men. “We have lawyers, judges and former army officers,” said al-Halabi, himself a veterinarian, “but all of us are Islamic scholars.” Everyone has the right to have his or her case heard by the council, he added. “We are ruling in every area of the law.”

Still, claimed al-Halabi, theirs was not an ordinary Islamic tribunal; the imams were focused as much on delivering justice as on promoting political reconciliation. “We are not here to practice Islamic law like in Saudi Arabia, cutting off heads and hands, but to help run the city and to restore order,” he said. “Sharia seeks solving problems, not creating them. And we are trying to figure out the best solution, the solution that will be most moderate and merciful.”

Al-Halabi insisted that the court wouldn’t punish anyone for supporting the regime, unless they had blood on their hands, and that they hadn’t ordered a single execution. “We tell FSA fighters, if you are in battle with Bashar’s forces, better kill them than bring them here,” he said. “Because we will not kill them for you, and might set them free. Even if the regime deals with us by killing and torturing, we will not deal with them likewise.”

The new tribunal certainly seems to be a hit with the locals – at least with those that remain in the town. (Most of Tal Rifaat’s population of 25,000 have taken refuge across the border in Turkey.) “We feel safer now, even with the shelling, than we did for the last forty years,” offered Mahmoud, a shopkeeper. Around him, heads nodded in unison. On the question of dealing with Assad loyalists, the locals seemed in tune with their imams. “Pro-regime people are free to think whatever they want,” one man argued. “They should be punished only if they’ve hurt others.”

Back at the school, two prisoners awaited trial in a classroom-cum-jail. One had been accused of shooting at a neighbor during a private dispute, the other charged with spying for the regime, denouncing protesters and FSA fighters alike.

The latter, who wished not to be named, insisted he’d been framed by personal enemies. He had been pro-regime in the past, he claimed, but changed his mind after seeing the atrocities perpetrated by Assad’s forces. He had been well treated since his arrest, he said, both by the council and the FSA rebels who brought him to Tal Rifaat from his home town 40 miles away.

The veracity of the captive’s answers couldn’t be verified, of course, given the fact that Drbal and others remained present during his interview with TIME. “I expect a fair trial,” the man said, sitting cross-legged, our conversation punctuated by the sound of guards playing ping-pong in the next room. “This is an Islamic council. When it’s an Islamic council, that means it will judge the right way, that it will always be on the side of justice.”

Many regime loyalists, of course, never made it to courts like the one in Tal Rifaat. On July 31, in what human rights groups suspect was the latest in a string of summary killings by the anti-Assad rebels, gunmen executed 15 members of the al-Berri clan in Aleppo. Although the FSA leadership has since denounced the killings, that message has yet to hit home with some of its fighters. “In wartime we don’t have courts, and we don’t have time to judge people,” Ahmed al-Ghazaleh, an FSA commander in Azaz, told TIME’s reporter and another journalist last week. The al-Berris had been responsible for hundreds of killings, he argued. “I would have executed them too.”

The imams in Tal Rifaat seem to believe in, and uphold, a different brand of justice. “When someone weak comes to us, we want them to feel protected,” Seraj al-Halabi told me. About a month ago, he said, a group of FSA fighters had brought a shabiha (pro-Assad militia) member before the council. “We knew he was shabiha, but we ruled he was innocent, because we didn’t have enough evidence to convict him.”

If the FSA were caught off guard by the ruling, they had another surprise coming. “The fighters had beaten the shabiha man badly,” said al-Halabi, “so we ruled to throw the FSA group in prison.” The rebels bristled at this, but accepted the imams’ verdict. “Those who have the guns often think that they’re stronger,” said al-Halabi. “But because we had the whole city behind us there was little that they could do.”

The day after TIME left Tal Rifaat, according to local sources, a military airstrike pulverized a two-story building directly next the school, killing eight people. At the time, the imams — their tribunal having perhaps been the intended target — were en route to the Turkish border.

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