On Sunday, September 3, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 32 of 2023, which abolishes "Military Field Courts." This is accomplished by terminating Legislative Decree No. 109 of 1968 and its amendments, which were issued following the rise to power of the Ba'ath Party through a military coup.
Decree No. 109 is notable for its comprehensive scope and pervasive influence across various domains, delegating extensive powers to the Minister of Defense. The operations of the military courts, established under this decree, are shrouded in secrecy. Individuals summoned before these tribunals are not permitted to engage legal representation for their defense. Furthermore, the verdicts rendered by these courts are final and not subject to any form of appeal. The composition of these judicial bodies is equally unorthodox, consisting of non-legal specialist military officers and accompanied solely by a military prosecutor. Remarkably, these courts do not adhere to standard legal procedures or protocols as outlined in conventional laws.
In accordance with the new decree, defendants now have the right to appeal decisions within the jurisdiction that will take on cases formerly assigned to the military field courts—specifically, the military judiciary. However, the legislation comes with an array of implications, suggesting that the regime is strategically attempting to leverage the new system for its own benefit, notably :
- The regime aims to showcase its responsiveness to the demands of Arab countries. This is particularly significant given that the issuance of the new decree aligns with ongoing efforts by Arab nations to rehabilitate the Syrian government. These efforts are grounded in a "step-for-step" approach, which encompasses specific demands concerning the treatment of detainees and the repatriation of refugees.
- The regime's insincerity in genuinely dismantling the operational framework of military field courts is evident. Despite the abolition of these courts, similar powers continue to be vested in other institutions and key figures, such as the military judiciary and the Minister of Defense. Cases are typically channeled to these now-abolished military field courts at the request of the Minister of Defense, who acts upon recommendations from either the security branches or the military judiciary. Furthermore, the military judiciary maintains its authority to impose confidentiality on selected cases that it deems unnecessary to disclose, including those that pertain to matters of honor, for instance.
- The regime retains the capacity to direct cases according to its preferences. According to Syrian military trial procedures and penal code, civilian courts can only proceed with a case after the military judiciary has rendered its judgment. This applies particularly in cases where there is a jurisdictional overlap between the two legal systems. As a result, the military judiciary is poised to handle cases referred to it by security agencies in a manner that aligns with the undisclosed objectives of those agencies.
- The regime retains the capability to expunge records pertaining to individuals who have been forcibly disappeared and who were sentenced and executed under the auspices of military field courts. This veils ongoing trials in further obscurity, especially considering the lack of any independent legal or human rights institutions that can monitor the regime's operations.
In summary, the decree to abolish military field courts seems to fall within a broader set of administrative actions that the regime is taking to enhance the material and moral reputation of its military and security institutions. This comes in the form of enacting laws, decisions, and decrees, and aligns with ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the regime. Importantly, some of these new laws, which pertain to the powers vested in military and security agencies, don't fundamentally change the landscape, especially given that other entities continue to perform similar roles.