Translating Humanitarian Emergency into Medical Aid in Syria

Claire Glasscoe



Mr Ebrahim Al-Hajji, Consultant and former Judge in Syria now in exile.

In his capacity as a Judge, Mr Al-Hajji served as President of the Court in Haleb (Aleppo) for 22 years and now heads the documentation archive of human rights abuses against the Syrian people held at the Orient for Human Relief. He is a mild-mannered man with a jovial sense of humour, reminding me somewhat of the judges presiding at the High Court in London, Family Court Division in the 1990's when I gave evidence for child abuse hearings. His demeanour though is tinged with weariness from witnessing man's perverse inhumanity to man with no end in sight for the suffering of his people.

Feeling a little daunted, I came with a list of questions and asked him to comment on a United Nations independent report on human rights in Syria. It relates to the anti-terrorism laws issued on 2/7/12 effectively criminalising medical aid to the opposition.

(9th Report of Commission of Inquiry on Syria - A/HRC/28/69 - English)
(9th Report of Commission of Inquiry on Syria - A/HRC/28/69 - Arabic)

Firstly, Mr Al-Hajji can you verify these laws (19, 20 & 21) were passed by the Syrian Arab Republic in 2012

What do these laws state?

Thirdly, how do these laws affect the 'Hippocratic Oath' that doctors make - known as 'Kasan Abu Krat' in Arabic

Fourthly, what implications would this have for:

    a.Doctors and allied healthcare staff in their practice

    b.Human rights of civilians

    c.Healthcare services and infrastructure

    d.The Geneva Convention, 1949

Mr Al-Hajji prefaced his reply by saying that he wanted this interview to reflect the real suffering of the Syrian population; he feels it is important that reporters and documenters of this conflict convey the actual picture of the situation in Syria to Britain and the whole world. There is great suffering in the Syrian population that exists right now and he feels it has been badly misrepresented in the media, the TV channels and the Internet.

An early photograph supplied by Mr Al Hajji of him presiding at court in Aleppo


When the revolution started most of the people went out on the streets in a civilised way and they made particular requests, asked for specific rights. No one wanted to bring down the Regime; they didn't want to harm anyone, they just wanted certain basic rights such as a good standard of living and freedom of speech. These were just spontaneous protests, they weren't planned for and there was no external interference. Syrians across a broad spectrum of society wanted this; in the schools they wanted this, University students wanted this and working people in general wanted their rights to fair representation upheld. The mistake that the Regime made at the outset was that they didn't show any willingness to respond to this protest in a civilised way. They didn't meet the people's requests in any way that was respectful. The protesters' requests were not only refused by the Regime from the very beginning but they responded by attacking the protesters and arresting people. Three laws were issued in quick succession in the space of one month, July 2012. In one fell swoop they criminalised everyone who went out on the street to protest. Laws 19, 20, and 21 were issued by the Syrian Council at the direction of Bashar al Assad. With these laws he not only criminalised every single person that decided to go out to the street and protest he also imposed a three-year prison sentence for all protesters who were from that point on considered to be a criminals of the State. Far from yielding and trying to compromise, the Regime compounded this situation further by using intelligence methods to find and arrest 'free [thinking] people,' attacking them and ultimately killing them.

A photocopy of the anti-terrorism laws passed by the Assad Regime on 2nd July 2012 signed by Mr Ebrahim Al-Hajji

Mr Al-Hajji then expanded further on what actually happened when people went out on the street to protest. He said the Regime's strategy was to infiltrate the protesters with their own intelligence members who started shooting at the Regime soldiers. The Regime soldiers were then obliged to retaliate by attacking and shooting the protesters accusing them of creating the problem. So the Regime created the situation in order to blame the protesters. 'Our Syrian population didn't have any weapons' he said. If the authorities saw anything resembling a weapon they would confiscate it and put the person into prison for three years. So no one wanted a weapon in Syria. 'When the Syrian people started to hold weapons in self-defence, where did they get them from?' he asked rhetorically. 'They got them from the Regime, from soldiers who defected from the Regime, and when they fled, took their weapons with them,' he replied. They handed these weapons to the people outside of the Regime, so the weapons themselves came from the Regime.


It seemed to me this bypassed due process of the law that usually involves an arrest, a charge, a hearing and a judgement. Rather, what is being described here is summary arrest, then punishment and killing. And, this would surely compromise anyone responsible for ensuring due process, such as Mr Al-Hajji.

As a Judge, in Syria Mr Al-Hajji was in charge of a department, so 'yes' they used to bring people from the protests to him to deal with. Those people were arrested during the protest, then they were sent to him as a senior Judge for a judgement and according to both the law as he knew it and the newly issued amendments he would interpret the Law in a lenient way. He did this by giving the protester a very slight punishment and let them go after signing a document [accepting responsibility]. But the intelligence agency agents then interfered with his judgements and told him not to do anything; just keep them there and they would deal with them. They generally came at night and interrogated these people; beat them and violated them in order to extract a confession regarding things they didn't do; things that they didn't even know about. This Mr Al-Hajji attested, in truth is what happened but he could not challenge it because a higher intelligence service became involved and he found he had to take orders from them. These agents compromised his authority and his professionalism. A state of affairs then came about where there was no independence for the judiciary in Syria to make judgements. This basic rule of 'law' was compromised.

It seems to me the whole judicial system was compromised.


There is legislation and there are conventions that put the law into practice. Some conventions were cancelled or changed, particularly those that protected an individual's human rights and those that gave certain individuals, such as soldiers, rights to do things that were not part of their job. These conventions were in effect direct instructions to the soldiers or military intelligence.

When the State of Emergency was declared in 2012, the Regime abolished all the former Syrian laws and they started acting according to the conventions. These conventions were insidious because it meant that Assad was framing the population that opposed his views as 'terrorists.' Thus, anyone that went onto the street to protest was arrested and put in prison for three years.


In Syria the President used to assign judges in specific appointments but a minister appointed every other public employee. For example the Minister of Education would offer a job to a teacher or employ one in a school. The Syrian President does not have anything to do with a teacher's appointment. Only judges were assigned to posts and employed by the President himself.

So further to this no one other than the President could fire a judge or retire him or do anything else which would take him away from his position. The President appoints him and the President should dismiss him. However, from 2011/12 the Minister of Law or the Minister of Judgement in Syria began appointing judges and dismissing them even though constitutionally it was not in his power to do so. The principle of protecting judges is global; it is sacrosanct. But in Syria there is nothing resembling judge protection. So since that time the Minister of Law or the Minister of Judgement has the right to assign me or fire me and because of this I cannot go against one of his decisions or one of his orders. 'The repercussions of this change in the appointment procedure are vast and affect a lot of situations, which I had to accept against my will.'

In Syria there was a law that protected judges. It said that anybody who wants to be a judge should be politically neutral, s/he should not belong to any political party. There is a party in Syria called the al-Ba'ath, or the Resurrection Party you could say. Although the law says that anyone who wants to be a judge should not belong to any party a person cannot be a judge in Syria unless s/he belongs to the al-Ba'ath party.

Gosh, really compromised! Is the international community of law establishments aware and supporting of what is happening - the international community of lawyers? Because how you described this, it is going against any other place in the world. For example, is the Law Society in Britain aware of what has been happening in Syria?

Unfortunately the European Community and the American community and any other community views the Syrian case as if it were just a clash between two sects such as Muslims and Allawies. But it is not about that.

No it is not about that. It is about the structure and the infrastructure around the law establishment and how it is managed. There is something very wrong about it.


Even before the revolution started a Syrian citizen would automatically go to the security service with any concern regarding a crime, s/he would not go to the court. This was because the court and its judiciary were only 20% involved with crime-related problems of the people. Any crimes that were committed would be directed towards the security services, which are the police. In normal circumstances, the security services would bring this small proportion of accused people charged with an offense to the judge. The judge would investigate him or her and ask questions and if s/he was found culpable of the crime as charged then the judge would sentence him/her, to prison if found guilty and the offense warranted it. This is the way things were managed despite any misgivings by the judiciary before the revolution but since 2012 this state of affairs has been augmented [further away from upholding human rights]. Mr Al-Hajii asserts that after 2012 patently innocent people were brought to him, not criminals in the eye of the law. Indeed in some cases the security services dispensed altogether with the formality of bringing those people to him to investigate and apply the law. They would bypass him, detain them, interrogate them, torture them, and even kill them without his involvement or knowledge..

So you were saying that the court was 20% responsible for legislating and dealing with criminals. Therefore 80% of the crimes investigated were taken care of by the police before 2011. And you are saying since the revolution even this 20% has gone. Now they are relying totally on intelligence services and the soldiers and the military services to prosecute crimes and there is no court

'Only intelligence - military intelligence and political intelligence.' Furthermore, the security intelligence agents or the military intelligence agents have been given the right to do anything possible to an alleged criminal if they suspected him or her of wrongdoing, even if that involved killing the person. This is because the new law created a shield to protect these agents of the State.

Hence the use of torture

'Yes, they use torture.' 'It reached the point when as a man of law I didn't know who was in custody.' The judges were isolated from the proceedings. 'I was told you have no role here as a judge, just stay away.' Before that he used to go and ask about those who had been arrested and he used to investigate their case. According to the laws in place before the declared State of Emergency he should have an influence in the proceedings as a Judge.

So you had some leeway then before to try and get due process. But after 20[12] these laws were gone

'Yes, they were gone.' Mr Al-Hajii then used his own experience to elucidate a further point where the extended family becomes implicated in the alleged offense.

Personal memorial to Mr Al Hajji's son who was a
student of law in Aleppo

His own son was in a peaceful protest and Mr Al-Hajji didn't know this because he was in another city in Syria at the time. They arrested his son and took him to the prison. They then instructed Mr Al-Hajji to go to the police station where they implicated him in his son's perceived offence. He said: 'What can I do? I am not responsible for his actions.' 'My son is in your hands, what do you want from me?' The whole family became involved in the crime being investigated - his father and his mother. In this case his son was eventually released from prison. Despite pleas from his father to leave Syria, he left his training in law at the university and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA). By that stage Mr Al-Hajji himself was utterly compromised, undermined in his role and dissatisfied with the whole situation he found himself in, so he left Syria. As soon as a doctor or a lawyer or any professional in public office within the Regime controlled areas moved to a liberated area, s/he was automatically dismissed from his/her post immediately and without any recourse to dispute.

This action confirmed Mr Al-Hajji's fate; he was sacked from his job because he was regarded as a terrorist from that point on and he could not go back. His son, to his deep sadness lost his life while fighting for the FSA - he was shot in the head and killed in March 2013 aged 23 years.


Initially in the Free Areas, no 'Law' was applied; these areas were ungoverned. Then came the second phase of the revolution when there were laws in the Free Areas. They were not similar to the laws applied by the Regime and every area adopted laws according to their allegiance or party, for example ISIS follows Sharia law. The next phase of the revolution involved the development of a legislative structure. Areas liberated by the Free Syrian Army applied the old Syrian laws; the law issued in 1949. The Free Army has now liberated several areas or territories and there has been a co-ordinated effort to apply the original law across these areas. Going back to the original law automatically removed all the modifications that were put in place by Hafaz al Assad and Bashar al Assad. They now follow the legislation that was introduced in 1951, by the French.

After Hafaz al Assad took power, he used his influence to shape the legislation in a way that would serve himself [and his family] in building his empire. He and his son Bashar al Assad are both responsible for rephrasing everything according to their own needs. A prime example of this is the legislation relating to accession. This states that in the event of the death of the President, the person nominated to assume power should be 40 years old or more. But when Hafez al Assad died, within just 24 hours they changed this legislation. They wrote instead that the new President should be 34 years of age and Bashar al Assad was 34 years at that time. 'So this is the reason why we are going back to the original laws and the original legislation because we want to start anew.' Free Syria does not want anything that has been adulterated by Hafez al Assad or Bashar al Assad with [self-seeking] modifications.

So now there is the beginning of a new judicial system and maybe it needs updating to the present day [from 1951] but the free areas have gone back to basic principles from which to build up a new beginning.

At this point Mr Al-Hajji is distracted by news reports - he says: 'This is Russia [news report on casualties in Idleb]. It is reporting events in the free area of Idleb yesterday, 55 judges and lawyers and civilians were killed. They were attending a court that was in trial. All the lawyers were there, all the judges. Even the people, the Syrian people were gathering there. There was a trial and a rocket came and 170 were injured and this was yesterday. We have the names of the dead and wounded dead and wounded - two of the dead remain unidentified.'

Image - A courthouse in session and a fruit market in Idleb city were hit by a Russian rocket, killing 50 and injuring 170

Image - A young life lost - Khaled Kurdi shows me a picture on his mobile phone of his nephew Zakaria Kurdi son of Muhammed, aged 17 years [on the left]. This boy was one of 55 people killed when a Russian rocket hit a fruit market, public buildings and the courthouse where Zakaria was doing a small job to support his family in Idleb city 20/12/15


From a legal perspective the Regime separated the medical staff in Syria from the people they serve. The way this played out was that if a person was injured while protesting then he may need to go to the hospital for treatment. But the doctor in the hospital would be afraid of the consequences of treating that person. Bribes would be exchanged to ensure this information was kept quiet so the doctor would lie about the reason for the injury. Alternatively, the doctor may put the patient in a room, lock the door and then call the security services. The effect of this was to disconnect the individual from the medical services that should be his/her by right. These laws criminalized every doctor or healthcare worker who treated a protester and meant they too would be liable to three years imprisonment.

Not only this though but ignorance was not regarded as an excuse, so the doctor was obliged to find out how any injury was caused and pass that information on to the intelligence services. Furthermore, the doctor was obliged to treat the person who was injured during a protest badly; they would certainly not be expected to heal the person. The consequence of this was to partition sections of the community and they found themselves hating each other.


Those in the free areas could no longer go to the main centre for treatment in the Regime controlled areas. Treatments available in the free areas were primitive with largely unqualified staff administering them. Any healthcare worker moving to a free area could not go back to the Regime controlled area and if his or her family was still in the Regime controlled area then they would be arrested. In the world beyond Syria, if a person committed a crime then that person would be held responsible. But in Syria the Regime soldiers would arrest parents and siblings with the aim of getting the 'offender' to give him or herself up. If this didn't work then they would kill the relatives and they have been given the right to do so by the conventions that are like direct instructions to the soldiers and members of the intelligence services.

So in the context of this we can maybe say the Hippocratic Oath is lost. I mean if all of this was happening the Hippocratic Oath is nothing by comparison. It would be a big thing in my country but it is lost in the scheme of things here.

The Hippocratic Oath or its equivalent here 'Kasan Abu Krat,' was cancelled in Syria after the revolution, totally as a consequence of that legislation. Therefore the doctor who does not accept the rules of the Regime either represents the people within Syria or he should flee. He has two options only in Syria, to go to the Regime, work with them and keep quiet or flee to one of the free areas.

Mr Al-Hajii illustrated the medical case scenario with another from his own experience. His mother-in-law is in a city that is free and liberated, 90 kilometres away from Aleppo. She is 70 years old and has a heart condition with blocked veins. She can't get the medication she needs where she lives, only in Aleppo and Aleppo's main hospital is in a Regime area. Because it is his mother-in-law and he is a judge and he was serving there and he fled, he cannot take her to the Regime areas, to Aleppo for example. Even his brother cannot do that for her as her son. In an effort to remedy this situation they sent the neighbour to accompany this elderly woman to the hospital; there is no relationship between them and he is not wanted for any offence. As soon as they arrived at the University Hospital in Aleppo and went to the barrier, the soldiers requested the documents and from her ID they knew she was Mr Al-Hajji's mother.

They arrested the man who was with her, they would have arrested her as well but she was too old at 70 years. They just sent her back to the checkpoint and prevented her from entering the university hospital. This was all because she was his mother-in-law and this only happened last week. The main point here is that the Regime isolated the medical services from the people, which was the most basic service that should be given to all people as a human right. Medical treatment should be available to anybody whether he/she is black or white, whether s/he is Christian or Muslim. It is just medication, it is medical aid. But many people were deprived of this right in Syria.


'Last week there was a meeting of the International Security Council. They were saying that (after Bashar al Assad has now killed 1 million with hundreds of thousands of people displaced; some of them came here to Turkey and some of them went to Europe) they now want a negotiated peace settlement and then we might give Al-Assad a chance to put his conditions and we might accept these conditions. But after he killed as many people as he did, nothing is left actually. And after all this they are asking me to sit down and negotiate with my child's murderer. It is inconceivable.'

A lot of people are saying 'no' that that shouldn't happen. I would like to request to take this forward because I think it is fundamental. If we just look at it on a superficial level then we are ignoring the whole structural problem that actually predates the protests and have carried on and got worse and worse and worse since then and that is a most integral part of the problem. So I would like to follow this through more.

Mr Al-Hajii then showed me photograph taken of what happened to one man - an image taken in 2014 of the fate of a Free Syrian Army soldier who was captured. He was set alight and burned to death pictured here hanging from a pole on the roadside for all to see.

Mr Al-Hajji shows me one image from the Orient Archive of Human Rights abuses depicting the body of a Free Syrian Army soldier hanging from a pole after he had been burnt to death in a summary execution by Regime soldiers

There are other pictures but this one is particularly poignant in its portrayal of brutal injustice.