Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued on Sunday a legislative decree abolishing military field courts that are accused of issuing death sentences without due process.
In a statement published on its social media accounts, the Syrian presidency said the decree ends the work of Legislative Decree No. 109 of 1968 and its amendments, effective immediately. Under the new decree, all active cases at the military field courts will be referred to the military judiciary for prosecution in accordance with Legislative Decree No. 61 of 1950 (Military Penal Code).
The military field courts were established under the 1968 decree. According to Article 1 of the decree, the courts fall under the general command of the army and operate in times of war and military operations. It was intended to prosecute the enemy or soldiers who have deserted. The Syrian regime, however, has resorted to these courts for civilian cases, especially after the 2011 protests and the civil war. The courts are believed to have issued numerous death sentences without a fair trial.
Rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns over the arbitrary sentences issued by these courts over the past years. In a 2017 report, Amnesty International said thousands of people have been executed at the notorious Saydnaya Prison outside the capital, Damascus, after being tried at these so-called courts.
According to Amnesty, the defendants often confess under torture. They are then transferred to these courts without the presence of a lawyer, and the judge renders a verdict within a couple of minutes, without giving the defendants the opportunity to defend themselves.
“These proceedings are so summary and arbitrary that they cannot be considered to constitute a judicial process,” according to the report.
Assad’s latest decision coincides with the return of Syria to the Arab fold after more than a decade of isolation. In May, the Arab League readmitted Syria after suspending its membership at the onset of the civil war in 2011 over the regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that at least 154,398 Syrians arrested between March 2011 and August 2022 remain in detention or are still forcibly disappeared.