Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, lawyers work to support those organizing on-the-ground; to mobilize the legal community; and to bring about systemic change. In Lawyering for Change, TIMEP’s Legal Unit conducts a series of interviews with lawyers, legal practitioners, and academics who explore the role that lawyers have played throughout the region’s protest movements and revolutions over the last decade.
In this Q&A on Syria, the Legal Unit speaks to Syrian lawyer Joumana Seif, who is currently a research fellow in the International Crimes and Accountability program of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) with a particular focus on sexual and gender-based violence.
TIMEP: In March 2011, Syrians peacefully took to the streets as protest movements were ongoing across the MENA region. What role did lawyers play in and around the protests in Syria and/or in support of the protests themselves?
JS: The first protest that I participated in was in Damascus on the 16th of March  at the beginning of the revolution. It was in front of the Ministry of Interior and demanded freedom for political prisoners—it involved participation from the families of prisoners, activists, and politicians. Lawyers including Razan Zeitouneh were among the main organizers and participants of this protest.
During the revolution, lawyers also organized themselves in groups to defend political prisoners. Lawyers would gather daily in the Justice Palace in Damascus waiting for prisoners who were being brought from security branches before they were transferred to civil prisons. Lawyers would be there and they would arrange for shifts to provide legal support to defendants in need of it. The lawyers would represent prisoners before the investigative judge. Additionally, lawyers would also serve a communication and liaison role, gathering information to share with relatives and family members.
The activism of lawyers didn’t start with the revolution; they were active well before. But in 2011, lawyers were on the frontlines of protests, and they started organizing much of the mobilization across the country. You could see lawyers in video footage of demonstrations in cities like Damascus and elsewhere.
A high percentage of lawyers were on the frontlines, and many of them were arrested and tortured. For example, we have the case of Khalil Maatouq, who was arrested and forcibly disappeared and on whom we have no information, even today. Or Borhan Saqqal, a lawyer from Damascus, who was arrested, tortured, and released. After his release, I met him and he told me the whole story of his treatment and how they tortured his wife at their home in front of their children. Later, he was arrested a second time and killed under torture. Lawyers paid a big price. We lost many of them, and some remain forcibly disappeared even today.
TIMEP: After the regime brutally responded to protests with violence, the nature of events on the ground began to change, and eventually, we saw the commission of war crimes, the intervention of foreign powers, and the emergence of extremist militants. As these changes unfolded, how did the role of lawyers change on-the-ground?
JS: Lawyers started to realize that things were changing on the ground, and they started to document the violations that were happening around them. You can take lawyer Razan Zeitouneh and her colleague lawyer Nazem Hamadi as examples. Because they were working on documentation of the violations that armed groups committed, they were kidnapped and disappeared by an armed group. The risks that lawyers faced forced some to withdraw or to work secretly, because they found themselves caught between the regime and armed groups.
Some lawyers also started to work on humanitarian relief as the situation for everyday Syrians became much worse and the violence intensified. The needs of people changed and were massive, so many lawyers began providing relief; for example, they helped provide medical tools, medicine, and bags of blood—particularly for those who were wanted by the regime and could not be admitted to hospitals without being arrested. Lawyers worked with doctors to help save lives. In many areas, that life-saving relief became the priority.
And of course, as the situation on the ground continued to change—and depending on the area of Syria—the role of lawyers continued to evolve as well.
TIMEP: Today, ten years later, what is the situation for lawyers still based in Syria? What challenges, obstacles, and realities do they face depending on which part of Syria they are in?
JS: Inside Syria, we have to differentiate between areas controlled by the regime and the parts in the north of the country outside regime control.
In Damascus and in other cities controlled by the regime, lawyers today cannot do much in response to political arrests. They cannot speak out or criticize the regime or the state. Their role is very limited, and they know that very well. The security branches control everything and it’s really risky for lawyers to be able to work. Lawyers cannot play a political role; they cannot push for change or defend political prisoners. Even if some lawyers are against the regime and against the crimes committed by the regime, they are still unable to do much.
In the very beginning, lawyers in the north started to organize themselves and to establish a bar association. They started their activism in Turkey, and I had the chance to meet with many of them in 2012 and 2013. There were many female lawyers in the bar association, and there were even free elections to elect a committee for the bar association. But certainly the role of lawyers was subject to change as violence escalated and when Islamists monopolized the scene.
Today, there is some space for lawyers to work in the north. Many lawyers are still trying to provide legal services, like marriage, divorce, and property; some are providing these legal services for free. In general, they are playing a good role and providing legal services. Also, they give trainings on human rights for everyday people. They have even given trainings for fighters on international humanitarian law. Some are still working with NGOs, supporting affected persons and providing credible information. They are playing a positive role, though there are certainly still risks and it is not necessarily an entirely free space to act.
TIMEP: More than half of the pre-war population of Syria is now displaced, which has also meant a growing and active exile community. Among those actively engaged abroad have been members of the Syrian legal community. What role have Syrian lawyers abroad played in support of demands on the ground?
JS: In Turkey, some Syrian lawyers still have permission to enter Syria and they give trainings and provide legal support to Syrians inside the country. Other Syrian lawyers are providing services to Syrians inside Turkey; they’ve become experts in and practitioners of Turkish law.
As for Europe, more broadly, I’m very optimistic because I know a lot of Syrian students are studying law in European universities. I think soon we will see Syrian lawyers who will be able to practice law in those countries. Almost all of us Syrian lawyers who were practicing in Syria lack the necessary licenses to practice law in Europe. So in our position, we can be legal advisors or legal research fellows at NGOs, for example. The Syrian legal community is also very active and works hard to get knowledge to improve its skills and awareness of international law—which we never heard of in Syria. International law and things like universal jurisdiction were not even in our university curriculum. Any information about international law in our studies back home was very limited and focused on Israel and Palestine only.
I know a lot of lawyers—many of them women—who are active in European countries, the U.S., and Canada. They are really starting to make an impact. I think that one of the only positive things of being in exile is access to new knowledge and experience that can help support our country when we return one day. As human rights lawyers inside Syria, we were activists, but we weren’t really practicing law before the courts. Now, it is totally different. Our minds have been opened to critical thinking, and we have new knowledge and experience, as well as access to trainings.
In the accountability space today, Syrian lawyers complement the work of lawyers from Europe who have expertise in national and international law. We as Syrian lawyers have the knowledge and background on Syria; and an understanding of the reasons behind and impacts of the crimes committed in Syria, the power dynamics and attitudes of the regime, and the ins and outs of Syrian society. Syrian lawyers are also the link to survivors; they’ve built trust and facilitated opportunities to center those survivors in the justice conversation.
At the end of the day, it’s a puzzle and we all have different things to add toward this fight for justice. But I’m also happy about the new generation that will come that really has the expertise and knowledge to continue the road.
TIMEP: Looking to the future and the next few years ahead, what opportunities do you think exist for lawyers seeking to use the law and legal tools to bring about change for Syria, whether on-the-ground or in exile?
JS: I’m always optimistic in general. I know that Syrians have paid a very high price, but I believe that this is a revolution, and revolutions bring about very deep change that requires a lot of time to succeed. I think that we are on the right track despite everything. Things will never be back to the way they were pre-2011. Now, we know what freedom looks like. All of this awareness among Syrians, including Syrian lawyers, is very important.
Now a lot of legal groups are working on legal reform. Feminist NGOs and lawyers are working to raise gender issues to ensure their inclusion in the constitution. Citizens are more and more aware of their rights; now, no one will accept being governed by the same laws in the future or accept the same violations committed against them. Syrian lawyers and organizations are using universal jurisdiction to bring about accountability. Syrian lawyers continue to give legal advice to NGOs back home in Syria to facilitate an exchange of information and knowledge on human rights. Concerning women’s rights and sexual and gender-based violence, female lawyers are playing very important roles through webinars and collaboration with feminist NGOs to change the stigmatization around these violations—particularly as the regime had been committing crimes against women and their bodies.
Comparing the situation two or three years ago versus now, we as Syrian lawyers have achieved real change. Survivors are no longer isolated, ashamed, and marginalized. These crimes have been documented and are on the table. We have raised so many rights issues in Syrian society that could not be spoken about or discussed previously.