Regime Wages War of Documents on Syrians
[This article is the outcome of a partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy’s Arab Awakening].
One of the oldest manifestations of the Syrian government’s corruption has always been the blockage and manipulation of official documents. Political dissidents have been too often stripped of their civic rights, professional licenses, and personal properties. Until today, citizens are obliged to pay bribes to civil servants or risk his or her paperwork being delayed endlessly.
Rula[i] used to work in the marketing department of one of the largest retail clothing companies in Syria when Bashar Al-Asad first came to office in 2000. “My post exposed me to the scale of corruption and fraud that controlled the country. For example, if a company paid, let’s say 500,000 SYP [around $10.000 at that time] a year in taxes, it would be paying 5 million in bribes that end up in the pockets of state employees. This is the ratio. And you can do anything you want. Anything, as long as you pay,” Rula told SyriaUntold from Dubai, where she currently lives.
In recent years, just as political oppression has reached new heights, including war crimes and the proliferation of prohibited weapons, corruption has also increased and is used as a tool of war against the opposition, and a massive source of war-generated income at the expense of the population in general.
Life and Death
After the uprising began in 2011, the regime began using grimier tactics to blackmail people. First, for political reasons, then for financial extortion as well. As the regime opened fire on demonstrations, killed detainees under torture, or shelled civilian neighborhoods, the bereaved families faced a double tragedy: In addition to mourning their loved ones, the regime would withhold information about the fate of those arrested, possibly killed in its custody or its hospitals. It would effectively prevent these families from having any certainty of their death.
But even when security forces did decide to inform the families of the death, they often withheld the corpses and the official documents belonging to the victims, until the families signed statements accusing “armed terrorist gangs” of killing their relatives. This occurred as early as 2011, two years before the Islamic State (IS) was formed. As the scale of killing increased, bribes became a routine procedure in return for such documented proof, creating a flourishing parallel industry for the security officials who oversee the systematic killings.
However, since this was occurring extra-judicially, in security dungeons with civilian mediators that handle the bribe payments and orally agree on everything, there were also many cases where the documents provided were manipulated.
The most famous of these cases was that of Zainab al-Hosni, a young woman from Homs. In late July 2011, Zainab went missing and her family believed she had been arrested by security forces. Two months later, the family received a maimed corpse from a state morgue and were told it was their daughter’s, but they were only allowed to take her after signing the usual “armed gangs” accusation. The family was enraged. Opposition and international media quickly spread the news as more proof of regime crimes.
A few days later, a video was aired on Syrian state TV broadcasting an interview with the young woman, stating that she was alive and in good condition, to discredit opposition media despite the evidence given to her family. The identity of the maimed body remains unknown until today.
The manipulation of documents also has many legal implications that prevent families from moving on with their lives. ‘Widows’, for example, don’t know if they are still married or not several years after the arrest of their husbands. They cannot legally divorce or remarry until the courts acknowledge that their husbands went missing, and this process could take up to four years. Receiving this official acknowledgement is often dependent on the women’s ability to fulfill the requests of corrupt judges.
Also, according to Syrian laws a mother cannot issue official documents, such as passports, for her children, even if she holds legal custody of them, or is still married to their father. In the absence of their father, a male member of the father’s family may be able to issue such documents if sufficient reason is provided for the absence of the father. The reason is deemed sufficient by government employees, whose flexibility is also subject to bribery.
Ghada (57) lost her son to regime shelling during the siege of Homs (2012-14). He was already wanted by the regime for his activism. As a result, his family was unable to bury his body in the family cemetery.
But that was not the only problem. “I only have another son, who was due to be drafted to military service if we couldn’t issue a death certificate for his deceased brother,” she explained. According to Syrian draft law, only sons are exempted from obligatory service.
“It took months and months of work until we finally managed to issue a death certificate for him,” a move that cost her several hundreds of dollars back in 2013. Today, the cost often reaches the thousands, depending on the necessity of the document and the financial ability of the blackmailed citizen.
Even school students were not spared from being used as bargaining chips in this war for official documents.
Although the regime continued to pay teacher salaries in public schools in opposition-held territory, it has at times refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of national examinations. This was particularly damaging to 9th and12th grade [lower and upper secondary levels] students that sit nationwide qualifying exams in order to be issued an official graduation certificate that permits them to continue their studies.
The regime peddled the narrative that they were unable to verify the proper procedures were indeed followed to prevent cheating and fraud in opposition-controlled areas. Ironically, such practices are on the rise even in regime-held areas, along with an unprecedented demand for forged academic certificates, which has pushed many countries to reject academic qualifications issued in Syria after 2011.
In some cases, as the result of successful negotiations with the parties in control of each area, the tests were accepted or students were allowed to leave their besieged neighborhoods to sit tests. In other cases, however, the students and their teachers had to endure threats and extra costs to reach the regime-held territories.
Mohammad (32), a 9th grade teacher in besieged Eastern Ghoutah, spoke of the painful trip on which he took his students in the early summer of 2015. “It took us 27 hours to cross the endless checkpoints through the siege into Damascus. This road used to take me 20 minutes before.”
The trip was even more risky for Mohammad himself, who had lost two brothers in the past four years, and has become an ‘unofficial’ only child for his elderly parents. The possibility of being taken away to be drafted is always present.
Where Mohammad has been lucky, Umm Ghyath (50) has not. As a public high school administrative employee from opposition-controlled rural Aleppo, she had escorted 9th grade girls to Aleppo city to sit their exams, but she was searched at a checkpoint on the way back. A large amount of cash was found on her.
“I explained that these were the retirement salaries of fellow teachers who could not embark on a risky trip to Aleppo to collect them. I showed them the legal authorizations I had from them to use their debit cards, but they said that these retired employees were wanted for being Free Syrian Army [FSA] members, and they confiscated the money and arrested me.”
“I told them: How can I know if they are wanted or not? Why do they still get paid their salaries if they are FSA members? These are all retired old people.” She remained incommunicado in a security branch for three weeks, only to be subsequently released without charges. She never got the money back.
In universities, the situation is not better. Ramia Shami had to leave Syria after passing her final exams, but before the graduation attestation was ready to be issued. She gave her mother legal authorisation to follow up the process on her behalf and left the country for good. After nine months of attempts, they finally gave up on obtaining the certificate.
“I couldn’t ask her to keep playing this pointless, tiresome game with them anymore.” Ramia explained that her mother was asked to present her high school diploma in order for her Bachelor’s diploma to be issued, even though she had previously presented it to enroll at university four years ago.
When the mother explained that the original diploma was missing as it had been left in Ramia’s house, now inaccessible in a rebel-controlled area, the Damascus University employees insisted on refusing to issue her graduation attestation without it. Bribes could have solved the situation, but they did not want to pay. “Four years of study wasted just like that!” she lamented.
After almost a third of Syrians have left the country, legal authorizations by citizens living abroad that allow their legal mandates to operate on their behalf have become an essential way to process all their documents and affairs in the country.
As a result, regime corruption seized on this opportunity. A new security clearance was introduced as a prerequisite to issuing many official documents, including legal authorizations promulgated by Syrian embassies, thus blocking Syrians’ rights as citizens living abroad if they are deemed politically unwelcome or they cannot afford (or do not want) to pay bribes.
Nada (36), who has been in Europe studying for her PhD for the past three years, told us about her mother’s struggle to save her house in Homs. Nada had signed up for a public housing project over a decade ago, and had been paying monthly installments for it since then. After several years of delay, in 2016 the house was finally ready.
However, Nada had also been actively involved in speaking publicly about the regime’s atrocities. “My mother is a regime supporter, and she has not spoken to me for almost two years over this.” Still, the irony came when her mother had to confront regime corruption and embezzlement, blocked from acting on behalf of Nada to receive her house because of her daughter’s rejected security clearance.
“We just wanted to make good use of it,” explained the PhD candidate, “there are many homeless people in Homs now that need it. Now I cannot rent it out, nor sell it, nor do anything with it.” She fears the lack of security will lead to regime affiliates seizing her house and using it themselves.
Citizenship and Mobility
To the rest of the world, the most worrying aspect of this ‘bureaucratic despotism’ is related to passports. Passports have always been used by the regime as a tool of control over global mobility. Controlling passports meant controlling who can leave the country and how, who can travel around abroad and who cannot, who is forced to request asylum, and who is effectively stripped off of their citizenship and left stateless.
A large proportion of Syrians that moved to neighboring countries, like Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, did so without their passports, or any form of ID, after they fled their shelled homes where their documents had most likely been destroyed.
This also meant that these Syrians were stuck in whatever country accepted them, unable to legally leave it. A situation that proved very profitable to smugglers, who became these people’s only option for leaving their host countries.
Attempting to issue new passports at Syrian embassies in refugee host countries was not possible for several years. Starting in 2011 and throughout 2012, regime embassies in Jordan, Turkey and many other countries were not regularly functioning. Additionally, since 2013, the regime strengthened the security conditions for issuing passports, implementing checks to verify that applicants are not “accused” of dissidence or requesting they hand in their old, often lost, passports.
During this period, many Syrians were forced to seek asylum in their countries of residence, not for financial reasons or residency permits, but because the lack of valid identification documents rendered their, otherwise legal, residency in those countries impossible.
Black markets for fake or stolen passports emerged as a result, often involving corrupt regime officials. To further complicate things, these markets expanded beyond the needs of Syrians denied their rightful passports by the regime, to include asylum seekers from various countries who wanted to benefit from the humanitarian asylum offered to Syrian citizens.
In Germany, for example, Nader (42) told us of his experience as a volunteer interpreter at a refugee centre in the summer of 2015: “Since many arrived without documents, or with fake ones, some of our German colleagues would ask us to use dialect clues to assess if the person was indeed Syrian or not.” Nader was not happy with this task. “The accent of Syrians from Dayr az-Zawr is very similar to Iraqis,” he explained. Not only was this difficult, but it also felt ethically challenging for Nader, since people on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border could have been fleeing the same IS oppression or the air raids of the US-led coalition.
Finally, under international pressure and financial need for foreign currency, the regime caved in in 2015 and resumed issuing passports for Syrian citizens, including those wanted for activism or conscription. The cost of obtaining an official travel document doubled, and was priced in USD for those applying abroad. This week it doubled once again, to reach $800 for fast track processing, as opposed to less than $100 before 2011
However, this did not mean the end of blackmail against activists, as security checks continue to randomly complicate the process on an individual basis, sometimes causing delays for several months. Applicants are often required to submit their old passports before receiving the new ones, leaving them at the regime’s mercy and forcing them to pay whatever bribes may be demanded in addition to the official costs.
Most recently, a new method is used by the regime, related to international compliance: discrediting passports as either stolen or simply cancelled. This was the case of award-winning journalist and activist Zaina Erhaim, who had her passport confiscated by British authorities at the airport upon arrival in London in September 2016.
After she demanded an explanation, stranded at the airport with her newborn baby girl, the Home Office staff vaguely referred to her passport as “being reported stolen”, with little explanation on the nature of these “reports”.
This response came as a surprise to the journalist, since she was not questioned on whether or not she was actually Zaina Erhaim. The British authorities had accepted the accusation of her stealing her own passport. Commenting on this episode, a Home Office spokesperson told The Guardian: “If a passport is reported as lost or stolen by a foreign government we have no choice but to confiscate it.”
The United States authorities also appear to comply with the regime’s control over official documents, as in the case of Khaled al-Khatib, the cinematographer of the Oscar-winning documentary short, ‘The White Helmets‘. Al-Khatib was granted a visitor visa to the US to attend the Awards ceremony. However, he was denied boarding the airplane in Turkey, last February, and told by Turkish authorities that his visa had been “cancelled”.
The US authorities had the option of waiving the passport requirements to allow him to board the flight, but chose not to do so, despite being well aware of the regime’s record in persecuting dissidents.
The Department of Homeland Security’s official explanation for blocking al-Khatib is that they received “derogatory information” about him, a broad term that could include passport irregularities as well as security concerns. Asked for clarifications, a Syria Desk officer from the Department of State told SyriaUntold that “in order to travel to the United States, travelers from Syria must have a valid visa and passport.” This ‘copy-paste’ response has been the only one given to the media by US authorities.
[Main photo: Embassy of Syria in Prague – Bubeneč, Czechia, Street Českomalínská – 12-4-2008 (Krokodyl/Wikipedia via CC BY 3.0)].
[i] Pseudonyms were used for security reasons with the exception Zaina Erhaim and Khalid al-Khatib.