More than $1.5billion (£1.2billion) worth of personal belongings, including cars, olive groves, shops, homes, electronics and jewelry, have been claimed by an advocacy group. seized by the Syrian government from citizens accused of participating in anti-government protests.
The Association of Detainees and Disappeared of Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) thinks that almost 40% of those detained after the 2011 Syrian uprising were foreclosed.
He alleges that the Syrian regime tried to circumvent international sanctions with the revenue, while ensuring that former detainees in exile have nothing to return as the country struggles to rebuild.
“The regime did that, they took everything so that we wouldn’t leave,” says Hassan Al Haj, remembering his family’s land in a village near Aleppo. “Before, we had land with olive and pistachio trees. I had built a house there but never moved in. The government took it before I could.
Al Haj and other former detainees interviewed by the Guardian said they were forced to sign blindfolded convictions after being tried on terrorism charges for taking part in protests. This meant that neither they nor their families were aware that they were being forced to give up both their civil rights and everything they owned.
“At first, my family didn’t know there was a decision to seize our property,” he said. “What they knew was that I had been sentenced to 15 years in prison.”
“After my release, when we interviewed the inhabitants of our village, we learned that people associated with the intelligence services are using our land, to plant trees and sell the wood. They tell the people of the village that these lands, these properties belong to terrorists so that no one dares approach or ask questions.
ADMSP describes how Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime perfected legal methods to confiscate property from detainees in a brutal crackdown on protests following the 2011 Syrian uprising.
Those accused of participating in protests or carrying out anti-government activities have been convicted under an anti-terrorism law that allows the state to permanently strip them of all civil rights and choose to seize any property or possession.
“It’s akin to a revenge or scare tactic that the regime uses,” said ADMSP’s Diab Serrih, who pointed out that the seizures have reshaped Syria, as most of the property claimed by the state are in areas previously associated with dissent, such as Daraya in the south, and Homs and Aleppo in the north.
Tarek Ibrahim, whose name has been changed for his safety, described how the government seized 15,000 square meters of his family’s land near Damascus. “I have many fond memories of this place,” he said. The state also seized properties and a hardware store previously operated by his family.
Ibrahim was arrested along with two of his brothers in 2012 for being anti-government media workers in Aleppo. His family later learned that his two brothers had been executed in Sednaya military prison outside Damascus.
It was only after Ibrahim was released from prison in 2020 that he learned he had been stripped of all civil rights, including the right to own property or possessions. The judgments against the three brothers meant that all family property was confiscated, including their parents’ land.
“All our homesteads are now owned by the state. We can’t do anything with them – if we try to sell or rent them, the government will seize them and arrest anyone involved,” he said.
Ibrahim said he decided to leave Syria after being detained and later expelled from a government building for trying to obtain a passport for his young daughter. State bureaucrats saw that his papers bore a stamp indicating that he had been stripped of all his civil rights. They warned him: “If you come back, we will have you arrested.