Christians of various sects from northeastern Syria have suffered mass emigration in the years since 2011. Some of those who emigrated from Syria, known as "absentees," left behind real estate and other properties without legal representatives to take care of them. Those properties, especially the ones in city and town centres, have become the targets of seizure through extortion, forgery and fraud.
The Committee for Protection of Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian Absentee Properties
To address the problem of mass emigration, the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) formed the Committee for Protection of Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian Absentee Properties in 2014. Committee members receive their salaries from the AANES and other compensation from funds donated by Christian residents and expats from the area. The committee is a civilian body with branches in various AANES-controlled parts of northeastern Syria, and only intervenes before AANES courts in judicial disputes where one of the parties is an absentee Christian. Members field complaints related to extortion or occupation of absentees' properties and handle requests from tenants of absentee Christians' properties regarding rent, furoogh contracts and evictions.
However, the committee's powers are limited only to the cases that are raised before the AANES courts, as well as any cases of property violation already known to the absentee Christian property owners themselves. At the same time, some property extorters may benefit from the conflict of jurisdiction between AANES courts and regime courts. For example, an extorter can counteract a lawsuit raised against him in the courts belonging to one of the parties to the case by filing a separate lawsuit himself before the courts of the other party. This conflict grants the usurper the opportunity to continue occupying a given property.
Seizure through fraud remains among the most common violations against absentee Christians' properties in northeastern Syria. Such seizures can be done through fake sales contracts that feature forged signatures, as well as by carrying out the ownership transfer process in absentia through courts that are under the Syrian government's judicial authority. This is what happened in the city of Qamishli to the Ephram family; a prominent businessman seized the family's building through fraud.
Oftentimes, perpetrators forge the property owner's signature on a sales contract, then file a case before the Civil Court of First Instance in order to formally document the contract. The claimant also provides proof that the original property owner is currently outside Syria or that their residence is unknown (i.e., that they live in regions of Syria outside of government control). After the court confirms that the property owner is either outside Syria or of unknown residence, it publishes a notification announcement in official newspapers and posts it on the court bulletin board. A month and a half later, the court publishes another notice in official newspapers and on the bulletin board, specifying the date of the upcoming court session, the name of the court, the names of the claimant and defendant and the type of case to be deliberated.
The defendant -- the absentee owner of the property under dispute -- is usually unable to see these locally published notices. That means the official notification procedures may occur without the property owner having ever known they happened.
For the judge to resolve such cases, two witness testimonies are usually sufficient. In cases where there is suspicion of fraud, the judge orders testimony from an expert to confirm the authenticity of any signatures or fingerprints. This process is called "cross-matching for the outstanding contract" and involves comparing the contract in question with any of the original property owner's previous signatures or fingerprints.
Afterwards, the court publishes a summary in official newspapers of its decision to confirm the in absentia sales contract. The court also sets deadlines for appealing and rebuttal.