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Rough justice.

Except for crimes of passion, usually involving family or tribal honour, Syria enjoys a low crime rate. Justice is swift and frequently harsh. If the authorities do not catch up with the villains, the public often will.

Shortly before sunrise on a bitter cold January morning, four young men were hanged in Bab al Faraj Square in downtown Aleppo. Their bodies were left dangling for several hours above the busy square. Once or twice a year in most large Syrian cities, the authorities stage pre-dawn public hangings. In this case the men were sentenced to death for a variety of crimes, all involving murder. Twenty-seven year old Latouf Latouf, a member of a ring of thieves, shot a woman in her car following a botched break-in. Ahmed al Ibrahim, 28 years old, killed a police officer in a personal dispute. The other two, 38-year old Mohamed Badr and 33-year old Mohammed Fatih, made a living from selling hashish, extortion and blackmail until Badr tortured his cousin to death.

There was no prior announcement of the executions, but a story which appeared next day in the local newspaper, Al Jamahir ("The Masses"), provided a lurid account of the crimes committed. The edition carrying the story was sold out within hours, but enterprising kiosk owners and budding entrepreneurs ran off hundreds of photocopies at |pounds~S5 (10 cents) apiece. Street urchins hawked the article all over town, advertising it as "the worst crimes in the history of Aleppo!"

Compared to most Western countries, Syria is virtually crime-free. There are occasional burglaries and instances of petty theft, but muggings and hold-ups at gunpoint are almost unheard of and for good reason. Popular justice can be rough. Recently, a mob chasing a pickpocket down the street, caught the thief and beat him nearly senseless before a policeman showed up to save his life. In most neighbourhoods, there is usually someone on the street working or just sitting, keeping an eye on things. It is mostly in the rich areas, with their villas and high walls, where theft takes places.

Suspects taken for questioning rarely emerge unscathed. Syrian police have no qualms about using physical coercion to make their witnesses talk. For those who are found guilty, an unpleasant fate awaits. Syrian prisons are not agreeable places. Without relatives to bring food and clothing and bribe the guards, prisoners are likely to fare badly.

Aleppo's main prison lies a few kilometres north of the city, and is not a pretty sight. A massive eight storey building, it houses mostly common criminals, with just a sprinkling of political prisoners.

The prison's high concrete walls are topped by a tangle of rusty barbed wire. Hundreds of multi-coloured plastic bags, carried by the wind, have snagged on the wire, giving the walls a ghoulishly festive appearance. The prison is situated in an area with a number of popular outdoor restaurants. On cool summer nights Aleppo's well-to-do flock there to dine on sumptuous meals and dance to ear-splitting Arabic, Armenian and Western music. Before the bands get cranked up occasional bursts of gunfire can be heard coming from the prison. Regular customers and restaurant staff take no notice.

One former prisoner, Mustafa, spent a year in the Aleppo prison for dealing in hashish. He admits conditions on the inside were harsh, but says with a little money life was tolerable. Ahmed, a former inmate and now a poultry dealer in Aleppo, describes the prison with curt understatement: "It certainly wasn't paradise." Convicted of the killing of a rival clan member (a crime he readily admits), he spent time in a number of prisons before ending up in Aleppo. He still bears a long scar on his right cheek, a souvenir from a knife fight on the inside. As he waits for customers, he passes the time drinking arak and regaling teenage boys with tales of life in "your aunt's house" - Syrian slang for prison.

Murder in defence of family honour is considered acceptable in the tribal setting of rural Syria but while crimes of passion are one thing, cold-blooded murder another. "They got what they deserved," was the general reaction in Aleppo to news of the January hangings. The debate over capital punishment has yet to reach Syria. Public hangings may be infrequent, but state executions are not. Human rights organisations have long condemned the Syrian regime for extra-legal executions. There are no official statistics on the subject, but every Syrian knows it is going on. Indeed, it has become an accepted part of Syrian life.

Just down the block from where the impromptu scaffold was set up at Bab al Faraj, Mustafa is doing a brisk business in grilled liver and kidney sandwiches. The hangings down the street distract neither him nor his customers. In fact, says Mustafa, they are good for business.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Mosaic; administration of criminal justice in Syria
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:805
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