The “People’s Court” and Asayish Prisons: A Building Block for Self-Rule in Qamishli

Bakhtiyar Hassan*

(Qamishli, Syria) – The People’s Court lies in the middle of the city of Qamishli on the road known as Amouda, occupying the ground floor of a three story building that bustles with residents on weekdays.

The court was established by lawyers and city notables in August 2012 with the support of the Democratic Society Movement, an umbrella group that includes the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). It was formed to fill the gap left by the state courts and to implement the plan set by the PYD to establish autonomous Kurdish institutions. Elections were held in a conference organized by the Democratic Society Movement, resulting in the appointment of Judges Rofind Ali and Hamreen Othman, as well as Public Prosecutor Khounaf Ahmad, who is a former academic.

A request for permission for a demonstration presented to the Asayish forces in Qamishli - The Facebook page of the “Asayish Forces in Western Kurdistan”
A request for permission for a demonstration presented to the Asayish forces in Qamishli – The Facebook page of the “Asayish Forces in Western Kurdistan”

Abdel Somoud Berro, a member of the political office of the Yekiti party, criticized the performance of the Democratic Society Movement. He claimed that it had ignored his party’s nomination of several experienced lawyers for the positions and only considered those it had nominated from within its own ranks and supporters.

Khounaf Ahmad said that lawyer Qahraman Issa, who works as a judge in the court, actively sought the participation of all of Qamishli’s Arab, Kurd and Assyrian lawyers in the establishment of the court, but many of them did not show up.

Ahmad added that the people who currently work in the court are not all supporters of the Democratic Society Movement and many are independents. According to Ahmad, non-political factors also prevented many from participating in the court; many of those who currently work in government institutions fear dismissal and the loss of social security and health benefits.

The People’s Court relies on several bodies of law, including official Syrian law as well as the customs and traditions of the area. Because its decisions are not recognized outside the areas controlled by the PYD, it limits itself to cases such as theft and dispute resolution. Most of the time, disputes are resolved by recourse to dispute resolution committees authorized by the parties involved. Marriage, divorce, and property related cases are still conducted solely through government courts.

The People’s Court does not adjudicate any cases registered with government courts unless the concerned party withdraws their case first.

“This is to avoid conflicting decisions on the same issue,” explained public prosecutor Khalil Sheikhmous.

The Court of Justice, the highest judiciary power which is located in the Hilaliyya neighborhood in Qamishli, oversees the work of all the People’s Courts in Kurdish areas. It also adjudicates on complaints against judges and prosecutors. Similar to the People’s Court, most workers in the Court of Justice are supporters of the Democratic Society Movement, which Kurdish parties such as Al-Parti and Al-Azadi accuse of monopolizing power.

Many residents turn to the People’s Courts due to its executive power, which it exercises via the Asayish Forces in Western Kurdistan, unlike the government courts whose role has been diminished with the loss of state police power.

The People’s Court relies on the Asayish Forces to administer summons, conduct arrests, imprison, and implement its decisions. The Asayish Forces were established at the end of 2012 through a decision by the Kurdish Supreme Committee, which is the highest Kurdish political power representing the most prominent Kurdish political parties.

Asayish Force commanders say they strive to protect civilians and public and private property through patrols in residential and commercial areas. There are no official numbers of the Asayish Forces, but unofficial estimates point to around 20,000 members in most Kurdish areas in the north and north east of Syria controlled by the PYD.

Asayish Forces are usually located in former state police stations in addition to buildings such as the Tobacco Company and the state car garage in Qamishli. Asayish stations are spread all over Qamishli’s neighborhoods except for the Arab-majority Tay neighborhood, where the regime-allied Popular Army is active.

State police have withdrawn from most of the city and now focus on guarding certain important sites that are still under government control, such as the airport and the area’s directorate in Qamishli.

In the past few months, the Asayish Forces established and prisons, such as the small Hilaliya prison west of Qamishli, which is annexed to a police station. Suspects are detained there and interrogated until they are either released or transferred to the Asayish’s prison in Qamishli’s eastern neighbourhood of Suez Canal , which was previously a government building that housed the directorate of agriculture.

The Suez prison currently houses around 20 prisoners, some of whom were already sentenced and others detained pending interrogation and trial. There are reports claiming the Asayish beat some detainees.

A Damascus Bureau correspondent met with some detainees, but was prohibited from talking with them without the presence of security forces.

One detainee, a 24-year-old who gave his name as Hanoush, was arrested after he shot and paralyzed a colleague during an argument.

“I am a fighter with the People’s Protection Units, part of the Democratic Union Party. I returned home for a vacation and was carrying my gun when I got into an argument with a friend. During the fight, I tried to hit him with the butt of my gun and pulled the trigger by accident. The bullet hit his spinal cord,” he said.

Hanoush hopes that the dispute resolution committee of the People’s Court can resolve the matter between his family and his friend’s family.

Qamishli’s residents speak of various errors committed by the Asayish Forces, such as beating detainees or confiscating motorcycles. Government security officer Riyad Abdallah al-Hussein said that an Asayish patrol stopped him at a checkpoint at the end of 2012 and took his motorcycle for reasons he did not understand. He was unable to get it back despite repeated appeals to Asayish leaders in Qamishli.

Riyad’s father went to one of Qamishli’s Asayish stations to retrieve his son’s motorcycle a few months ago, but an official there admonished him sternly, saying that people are losing their lives and homes while he is asking after a motorcycle. Since then, Riyad dropped the issue.

Shiyar Afasheen, the general commander of the Asayish, concedes that some violations do in fact occur in prisons, checkpoints, and during patrols.

“They are individual mistakes that contradict the principles of the Asayish,” he said. Afasheen believes that this is due to inexperience, a lack of training, and the war that Kurdish areas are experiencing.

* A pseudonym for a journalist living in Syria