Syrian state seizes opponents’ property, rights activists say

President Bashar Assad back in control of the biggest cities, there is an increasing focus on how he will handle the areas where the 2011 uprising against him flared. (Reuters)
Updated 12 December 2018
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Syrian state seizes opponents’ property, rights activists say

  • But while Law 10 has not yet been put into effect, the separate anti-terrorism law has already been used to seize property, including from people who had no hand in violence, according to human rights groups

BEIRUT: Syria’s government has been using a little-known anti-terrorism law to seize property from dissidents and their families as it takes back control of areas that were held by rebel groups, rights groups and some of the people affected say.
With Syria’s conflict stabilized, at least for now, and President Bashar Assad back in control of the biggest cities, there is an increasing focus on how he will handle the areas where the 2011 uprising against him flared.
International attention has focused on policies, such as legislation known as Law 10, that could eventually enable the government to dispossess people in the opposition strongholds worst damaged in the war.
But while Law 10 has not yet been put into effect, the separate anti-terrorism law has already been used to seize property, including from people who had no hand in violence, according to human rights groups.
One man, an architect who joined street protests against Assad early in the uprising, and posted anti-government material online, lost his house, office and farmland in Ghouta in southwestern Syria as well as his car, he said.
“I built my house brick by brick. I built it with my bare hands, tended to every corner and to every inch,” the architect said. He now lives in the northwestern province of Idlib after fleeing with many other Ghouta residents after its surrender in April.
As they stand to lose property permanently, and because in many cases they have family members still living under government control, none of the six people who spoke to Reuters after being named in seizure orders wanted to be identified.
Lists circulating online — which rights groups believe to be accurate — show that hundreds of such orders have been made, affecting potentially thousands of people.

Seizure
The architect first knew a government security order had targeted him when the Architects and Engineers Syndicate terminated his membership because of a security order and canceled his pension.
He had joined the protests against Assad early on, but said he never took up arms or played a role in local government in his area of eastern Ghouta, which the army recaptured in April.
In 2016, he tried to sell his car. “The broker in Damascus told me that a seizure for security had been imposed on all the properties owned by me, my partners, my wife and children,” he said via a messaging app.
The family needed money, so he sold the car for parts for 190,000 Syrian pounds — about $580 at that time.
When they left for Idlib along with thousands of others as part of a surrender deal with the government covering eastern Ghouta, the family had to abandon their family home, an office and farm land that is now all forfeit to the state.
“It is hard to describe a house you lived in your whole life and land you planted with trees that you watched grow. I miss the doors, windows and even the doorstep,” the architect’s son said.

Uprising
About a year into the uprising, Assad updated Syria’s anti-terrorism laws, issuing a decree to give courts the power to impose “security seizure” orders against individuals.
Initially, assets are frozen under these orders, preventing owners from selling, or using them commercially. When the seizures are executed, the state will sell the assets by auction.
A doctor from the eastern Ghouta town of Douma who left in April and now lives in Turkey said his house, land, clinic and car had been seized.
“The Syrian regime has labelled all the opposition activists as terrorists, tried them in absentia and seized their properties,” he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said orders to freeze assets were among numerous laws the Syrian government used to punish political dissidents and opponents.
Damascus denies targeting peaceful dissidents with its anti-terrorism laws, or unlawfully dispossessing people. The government did not respond to a Reuters request for further comment.
HRW said it could not verify lists of people affected by the court orders that are circulating online, or the scale of the property freezes. But it said it had confirmed several cases of people whose names it found on one such list.
Two Syrian rights groups, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said they had verified numerous cases.
The network said it had registered at least 327 individuals targeted by property seizures from 2014 to 2018. The observatory said it had registered 93 cases of property seizures targeting opposition activists. It was aware of many other cases, but was not able to verify them because those involved were too scared to speak freely, it said.

Fear
Those affected, already fearing for their lives if they return after being branded terrorists, also face a loss of property that could discourage family members from going home.
“They left the people whose property they seized with nothing to return to, not even hope,” said the architect, who now lives in rebel-held Idlib province with his family.
Paradoxically, it is often the people who left eastern Ghouta who are in most need of the property they left behind. One man left eastern Ghouta for Idlib and now lives in poverty far from home.
He cannot find work there and wants to pay smugglers to cross the border into Turkey. But his once rich parents, who stayed in eastern Ghouta, cannot raise the money by selling or renting land because their assets have been frozen.
They found out about the court order before the government retook eastern Ghouta in April.
“My parents are now guests in their own home. The house they have lived in for their whole lives is now put under seizure by the government because we were opposition activists,” he said.


Iran's foreign minister walks back from remark on missile talks

Updated 13 min 55 sec ago
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Iran's foreign minister walks back from remark on missile talks

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with NBC News that if the US wants to talk about Iran's missiles, it needs "first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region"
  • A compromise deal remains the best way to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday

TEHRAN: Iran's foreign minister said Wednesday that his country has no choice but to manufacture missiles for defense purposes — comments that reflect more backtracking after a remark by the top diplomat suggesting the missiles could be up for negotiations.
Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with NBC News that aired earlier this week that if the US wants to talk about Iran's missiles, it needs "first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region."
Iran has long rejected negotiations over its ballistic missile program, which remains under the control of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard that answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The foreign minister's remarks suggested a possible opening for talks as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington.
But the Iranian mission to the United Nations promptly called Zarif's suggestion purely "hypothetical" and said the Iranian missiles were "absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period."
In Tehran, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, tweeted late on Tuesday that Zarif's comments meant to challenge Washington and "threw the ball into the US court while challenging America's arm sales" to its Mideast allies.
Zarif himself on Wednesday backpedaled on the missiles issue, saying Iran has no choice but to manufacture the missiles for its own defense.
He cited the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and tweeted that, "For 8 YEARS, Saddam (Hussein) showered our cities with missiles & bombs provided by East & West. Meanwhile, NO ONE sold Iran any means of defense. We had no choice but building our own. Now they complain."
"Instead of skirting the issue, US must end arms sales to Saddam's reincarnations," Zarif also said.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have sharply escalated since President Donald Trump unilaterally last year withdrew America from the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into freefall.
America has also rushed thousands of additional troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Mideast amid unspecified threats from Iran.
Mysterious oil tanker blasts near the Strait of Hormuz, attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia and Iran's shooting down of a U.S. military drone in the past months further raised fears of a wider conflict engulfing a region crucial to global energy supplies.

A compromise deal remains the best way to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday.

The UN nuclear watchdog has confirmed that Iran earlier this month violated the 2015 accord, and Iran's supreme leader on Tuesday said Tehran would keep removing restraints on its nuclear activity in the deal.

In her last major speech before stepping down next week, May said the nuclear deal must be protected "whatever its challenges".

"Whether we like it or not a compromise deal remains the best way to get the outcome we all still ultimately seek – to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and to preserve the stability of the region," May said.

Recently, British authorities intercepted the Iranian supertanker Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil, and seized it with the help of British Royal Marines off the coast of Gibraltar.
They believed it to be violating European Union sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to Syria. Spanish authorities said the seizure came at the request of the United States.
This is not the only issue between Iran and Britain.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran following her arrest in April 2016 on charges of plotting against the Iranian government, has been transferred to a hospital mental health facility, her husband said Wednesday.
Her family denies the allegations against her.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said in Britain that his wife has been moved to the mental health ward of Iman Khomeini hospital under the control of the Revolutionary Guard.
"Hopefully her transfer to hospital means that she is getting treatment and care, despite my distrust of just what pressures can happen behind closed doors. It is unnerving when we don't know what is going on," he said.
Iran does not recognize dual nationality.
British officials have urged Iranian officials to let her have contact with her family.