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The Crime of Writing

Zouhair Ghazzal

Chapter 5. The death penalty, torture, and due process

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So that they may become a lesson to others: why the death penalty still matters

  • 1 Which was used by the late Ottomans to execute “Syrian nationalists.”
  • 2 It remains unclear how so many people managed the early hours: Were they informed beforehand? Were (...)
  • 3 Reported, among others, by the “independent” Syria–News website, which is “friendly” to the Asad ré (...)

1[C5–1] On 25 October 2007, in Aleppo’s city‑center, five young men were publicly hanged at the Bāb al‑Faraj square1 at daybreak, in the presence of a fairly large crowd;2 two of the men were accused of being “members” in a “gang” that had terrorized the city since summer 2007, prompting the authorities in Damascus and Aleppo for a swift public performance.3 The historical piazza, which was the site in the late Ottoman period for public hangings as well, against “Syrians” who looked forward to “Syria” as autonomous from the Empire, was now crowded with people cheering up the executions. History repeated itself but with an ironic twist: amid the 1979–1982 bloody crisis with the Muslim Brothers, which was initiated with the massacre of Alawis at Aleppo’s artillery school in 1979 and culminated in the Ḥamā massacre in February 1982, the security forces inaugurated their “recapture” of Aleppo back then with a series of indiscriminate public hangings. Significantly, all five men which were executed that morning were born in the 1980s, Aleppo’s most troubling period, hence were in their prime twenties upon their execution. The public performance derived from a military tribunal that was set in the Midan neighborhood in Damascus, to which all five were summoned for brief hearings, only to listen to their impending death sentence at the hands of a military judge.

  • 4 For the law those stood as major crimes for the purpose of pettier crimes, which begs the question (...)

2Notwithstanding that the crimes allegedly committed by all five were for the most part homicides for the purpose of theft and robbery,4 hence were neither political per se, nor touched directly on the security of the state, the fact that in 2007 Aleppo was terrorized by a string of crimes, some allegedly related to the accused, while others were possibly not, and the fact that many of the crimes were multiple homicides portrayed as “gang” related, pushed the authorities towards a military‑style tribunal rather than a civil one. With the 1963 martial law still active (it was formally abolished in May 2011, amid the massive street protests that shook Syria), the accused were charged for acting against “the public security of the state,” thus a military tribunal took hold of their dossiers on that basis. What this unusual public display of authority indicates is that once in a nondemocratic society the symbols of law and order are shuddered by transgressive acts of individualized violence which reach public notoriety, such publicized violence would soon urge a swift action to restore confidence in the security forces and symbols of the state.

  • 5 In reference to president Bashshār al‑Asad who presumably endorsed the event, though not publicly.

3Once the spectacle was over, crowds, which included some victims and their families, were chanting, in reference to what seemed like a direct endorsement of the president to the executions, “With our spirit and our blood we sacrifice ourselves to you, O Bashshār!”5 The irony, therefore, is that all those young men, some acting independently, while others in so‑called “gangs,” which were reported killing and robbing at a rate that alarmed the city and exceeded all acceptable norms, would have gone unnoticed had they simply done it “the proper way”: their cases would have otherwise been at trial at the Jināyāt like all the ones examined in this book. Human‑rights activists complained that all five neither had proper counsel nor appropriate hearings. Moreover, as the military tribunal applied article 535 of the penal code, charging all defendants of premeditated homicides whose sole purpose was to prepare for other lesser crimes, there was little room for maneuver. What is so puzzling is the large disparity of crimes attributed to the accused, even though all their crimes came down to a single determination: indiscriminate killing for the purpose of theft. Thus, the main protagonist was convicted of eight homicides for the purpose of theft, while his “partner” “intervened” in four homicides with the perpetration of robbery; as to their third “partner” his case was transferred to a juvenile court because he was minor at the time, hence his life was saved that morning. The military court listed in its ruling twelve crime‑events of robberies and homicides in May–June 2007 all allegedly related to the “gang.” As to the other three who were hanged that October morning, they were accused of slaying a 62‑year old cab driver in the summer of 2007, prior to stealing his money; but even though only one was charged for the stabbing with a sharp knife, the other two were accused of “intervention” and “partnership.”

4Thus, even though it is fairly obvious that the quantity and quality of crimes were quite uneven, what probably helped at bundling them together in the eyes of military justice was the gang‑nature of the partnership of the first two: having jointly committed several murders in a row in 2007, the city was afflicted with mouth‑to‑ear rumors that a ʿiṣāba was terrorizing the city; the fact that the public state‑controlled media outlets would normally not have reported such crimes, contributed to the disproportionate bloat. But what finally did it for the “public opinion,” which in the absence of open reliable sources was based on hearsay, was the “connection” between a “gang” that had been looming large in the city all summer long, killing and stealing, in conjunction with the killing of an old cab driver for the sole purpose of robbing him. Notwithstanding that preliminary investigations showed that the slaying of the driver was unrelated to the “gang,” it was nonetheless up to the military court to bundle them together, as if to satisfy public outcry to the 2007 events in their totality. Here state authorities intervened on a moral ground, as the big Other that is always there keeping an eye on the disintegration of moral values, that is, on the socio‑symbolic order of society. Seen in this perspective, the public executions would interpellate individuals at the core of their subjectivities, hence the efficiency of such ceremonies: I’m there to take care of you, because I’m entitled for and capable of doing so, no matter how hideous the crimes are.

5Nor were the public hangings limited to Aleppo alone. In effect, the same military court had executed that summer a 30‑year old man who was accused of killing a child and raping him in the town of Miṣyāf (similar in some respects to our case below, C5–2); still that same year, another man was accused of killing a four‑year old girl in the Damascus countryside; both were publicly executed. What the 2007 executions do show is that, once public opinion seems thorny on morality and security, the state may opt for public executions in parallel to the invisible ones performed in the coziness of the prison yard: “security” is indeed more a matter of ideology and symbolisms than a factual matter. Syria‑, one of the few media outlets to have reported the event on 25 October 2007, the same day of the executions, carried two photos: one was a wide‑angle view with the five men lurking in the background, all dressed in white and still hanging at the gallows; in the foreground was a crowd shot from the back; the other photo reframed in close‑up the five men as they were left hanging with nooses tight on their necks. The web‑news agency therefore acts as its own remarked public gaze, an uncanny big Other, a parallel one to the state authorities, appended by voluntary comments delivered by its own web‑users.

When does torture become commonplace?

6The history of public executions and torture in Syria, whether political or not, has been poorly documented, like many other aspects of Syrian history. Should we presume that with the emergence of the Baath, and the following bureaucratization and militarization of society under the first Asad, that torture has been systematized, rendered like a public service for the sake of the nation? In that case, should political torture be distinguished from more mundane acts of torture, like in our case below when three policemen tortured their suspect to death (C5–4). And what about acts of mass torture and killings, like the ones that have plagued the current civil war (2011–14)?

  • 6 Akram Ḥourānī, Mudhakkarāt, Cairo: Maṭbaᶜat Madbūlī, 2000, 4:2737–38; Nāṣir Rabbāṭ, “al‑Mawt taḥta (...)
  • 7 Ḥourānī, Mudhakkarāt, 4:2728–29.

7The beginning of institutionalization of torture and arbitrary political killings is usually associated with the Union with Egypt (1958–61). This does not mean the Syrians were so angelic prior to that, receiving their bad habits from corrupt Egyptian officials. Rather, it was the pervasiveness of the massive Egyptian bureaucracy that got into the Syrian bureaucratic mindset, one that would routinize secretive violence, without, however, holding the perpetrators accountable, and for good reason. A case in point was the infamous arrest and torture of the communist intellectual Farjallah al‑Ḥulu, head of the Lebanese Communist Party when Abdulhamid Sarraj was in command of the intelligence services under president Gamal Abdul Nasser in the late 1950s. The victimization of Ḥulu is usually taken as a landmark case of the fall of innocence of Syrians when it came to abusive political torture. Ḥulu was allegedly severely tortured by Sarraj and his body dumped into a chemical bath.6 Akram Hourani, who was an astute house speaker for a long time, and Nasser’s vice president under the Union, noted in his Mudhakkarāt his consternation to the fact that the Syrian communists were left free to express themselves under the Union, something that the other “progressive” parties, primarily the Baathists, were not allowed to do. But that was apparently one of those “tricks” deployed by Nasser’s dictatorial régime to let the communists come from the underground, only to humiliate them and lock them up.7

8That may have been the price to pay for the end of liberalism and the beginning of tightly controlled authoritarian bureaucracies modeled à la Eastern Bloc. Here the emerging “totalitarian” state under Asad serves as the big Other that ties “national” history together, working as vehicle for a grand narrative of redemption. One of the “attractions” of totalitarianism is that fantasy of a gaze that watches us all, keeps a permanent eye on us, hence we can probe “it” for answers; even “dissidence” would need that kind of phantasm, which often perseveres even when the régime has deteriorated and is not there anymore. Torture in totalitarianism therefore is not so much an inquisitive tool to extract the truth under duress, as much as a “surplus” that inscribes itself within the logic of the grand narrative of the “socialist” nation.

9When I first started my work on crime in the mid‑1990s, I was struck with popular narratives that would portray the agents of the mukhābarāt as “heroic,” as doing what “needs to be done” for the “safety” and wellbeing of the nation. Such an attitude may seem close to the secretive endorsement of torture in liberal societies, whereby “security,” we are told, is paramount. But such reading, however, is too superficial, as it misses the fact that in liberal societies there is no state where the big Other would hold the strings together, for which we continuously probe for answers, and whose role would not be limited to security and economic wellbeing.

  • 8 International Herald Tribune, New York, 24 May 2013.

10Thus, if Guantánamo is an aberration of the law, it has been fought against by foes and detractors on the basis that it fails both on matters of “security” and human rights, while the Bush Administration argued that detention was necessary to enhance security. The point here, however, is that it was a particular Administration which made its case for Guantánamo, only to be revoked by the following one, with vows to permanently close it.8 Hence the Universality of state law remained sanctified, since the case for Guantánamo was promulgated by particulars.

  • 9 There is a tendency to blur the lines between countries where the social and symbolic order functio (...)

11The “socialist” state by contrast provides with a symbolic grand narrative that the liberal state fails to deliver, and to which “particulars”—e.g. torture and public executions—obey. That is why in socialist states the enemy‑figure works better and is more efficient than in liberal societies, precisely because the image of the big Culprit is systematically worked out—through the agencies of the state that permanently interpellate its citizens. That image of the big Culprit is the point of reference through which my subjective position acquires its consistency.9 Thus, even though torture is formally concealed and secretive, it joins ranks with public executions in that both jointly display the symbolic might of the socialist state, as they would both deter from the enemy‑figure. It is not that the socialist state aims at “mastering” crime, and when it fails it masks its presumed failure by denying the very existence of crime. We should rather think of the state in terms of its relation with the law in general. The “state of exception” which characterizes the very essence of the law, as Carl Schmitt and others have pointed out, is taken literally by the socialist authoritarian state, as it continuously trespasses on the limits of the law by enacting new laws that ultimately would invalidate established practices. We have noted that kind of behavior in Chapter 1 in relation to economic laws. As Syria follows the tradition of civil law, its codes protect the sanctity of private property; but in wake of Asad’s “rectification movement,” various decrees and laws cunningly place limitations on free exchange and private property, without, however, revising core articles in the civil code. Plaintiffs and defendants alike are lost in the maze of procedures that either do not make much sense, or else are supposed to “protect the socialist economy” (C1–1, 1–2 and 1–3). More importantly, the state of exception comes through in the routinized tortures and public executions, which, again, take place without much place for judicial review and appeal. All of this signals a continuous transgression of the law.

  • 10 Or what used to be the major industrial city, prior to massive destructions in 2012–13.

12An authoritarian state like Syria would therefore in all likelihood not display much in public about private crimes. We will see, however, in the course of this chapter, that Syria still maintains the death penalty, generally for persons who committed individual homicides, though the rate of executions seems reasonably low (official statistics are unsurprisingly unavailable on this), maybe on average three to five a year for Aleppo, Syria’s major industrial city.10 Yet, in this instance, it is the very secrecy of executions, as described below, that remains the most puzzling element.

13One should therefore avoid common explanations of the kind that the state bears no interest at divulging the criminal side of a society which it claims it has pacified, bringing equality and fairness among groups, classes, and ethnicities. As the socialist state continuously transgresses the law, it does not want to see individual “private” criminals in that dubious role of transgression. In liberal societies by contrast the transgressors of the law (most notoriously mass and serial killers) would receive their daily dose of media attention, precisely because the law is here to be taken as the state of exception that the state cannot trespass. Only individuals violate the law, because the law‑as‑universal is only violated by particular crimes.

The death penalty is too little for people like that

  • 11 Abbreviation for short message (or messaging) service, a system that enables cellular phone users t (...)
  • 12 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, expanded ed., Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007, (...)

14Like many Arabic news media outlets that also serve on the web (e.g. al‑Jazira and al‑ʿArabiyya), the Syria–News website, which was quick to report the executions, leaves plenty of room for its readers’ comments (taʿlīqāt al‑qurrāʾ); and comments there were, spanning from 25 October 2007 to 5 November 2010 in reverse order, with the latest first. Compared to comments on American or European websites, which could be edited, flagged, marked as inflammatory, reported as abusive or racist, or simply deleted by the editors because they could represent a legal risk for the publication in question, the ones on the Arab websites tend to be raw in comparison, that is, usually left with no censorship in sight, and, in the absence of the law, no legal risks are at stake, hence all kinds of messages that could be demeaning, vulgar, or racist, are left there for the eye of the beholder. Most messages, however, even when thoughtful (e.g. apropos the righteousness of the death penalty or the legality of the military court), were one‑liners that looked like Tweets where the message had to be delivered with the smallest amount of words possible, with its unique punch. The anonymity of the postings gives that impression of a never ending flow of virtual SMS‑texts,11 some explicitly responding to a previous posting, while most were oblivious to what others had stated; the obliviousness is, however, only formal: the language game is always established in a triadic contract between the single user, others who had already posted a comment, and all potential users–readers (like myself) who would not “participate” in the debate for good, but which act as a virtual Third Gaze anonymous audience. But was it really a debate? The users were thus supposed to “comment” on the article that reported the execution, but by posting messages and responding to one another, the postings in their totality have that uncanny feeling of a collectivity working hand‑in‑hand together, as if subjectivization was placed on hold. Moreover, as the users’ base was not limited to Syria, even though the motherland detained a crisp majority, with messages flowing from Europe, Australia, the Americas, and the rest of the Arab world, universal participation transforms the phenomenon of public executions from a sui generis problem rooted in the politics of the authoritarian state, to outright endorsement. It is as if the false intimacy of the authoritarian state, which represents executions as the enforcement of the will of the people, is even more felt and applauded from the outside: that is, from the very fringes of all those depoliticized liberal democracies where collective participation is often reduced to a voice in the ballot box.12

Figure 5–1. Bloggers commenting on the 2007 public executions at <Syria‑>; even a year later, comments were still pouring in.

Figure 5–1. Bloggers commenting on the 2007 public executions at <Syria‑>; even a year later, comments were still pouring in.
  • 13 Names or nicknames were signed either in the Arabic or Latin scripts.
  • 14 Or another way of framing the question, Is a civil tribunal possible under such circumstances?
  • 15 Most messages are without proper punctuation; we’ve added whatever necessary for the sake of clarit (...)

15One commentator, signing under the nickname of “Umar Abu‑Samr,” wrote a congratulatory message to the “Syrian people”: “My compliments to my brothers the Syrians. The death penalty is too little for people like that. Let’s hope that they’ll suffer more in the day of judgment.” Another commentator under the nickname of “Abdulrahman” (in English13) wrote, referring to another user: “He said a civil tribunal!!!14 In a civil tribunal with a strong lawyer and corrupt judge they would have been all acquitted[.] Forget about the victims[.] We’re a people that only needs a field military tribunal[.]”15 A third user under the nickname of “the broken the broken,” writes

who has the solution[?] First[,] we should only have mercy for the dead[,] second[,] the young are increasingly into a process of deviation[,] who is responsible[:] is it poverty[,] unemployment or class struggle[?] The responsibility goes 40% on the parents 20% on unemployment 20% on inflation 20% on poverty[.] Those [who were executed] got what they deserved[,] but we need a solution for the future generation[.] What is surprising is that they’re from the class (ṭabaqa) of teenagers and I’m from the same age group[.] I know that all this is pure talk and there’s no one responsible[,] so if you’ve got a solution to all this let us know with all due respect to your religion.…

16The majority of messages, however, were not that thoughtful, with thank you messages to the president of the republic and his security officers all over, some even daringly boasting that “hanging [only once] is not enough,” “as they should be hanged a hundred times.” With the full anonymity of each user fueling the debate even further, which places us‑as‑readers as the de facto third‑party recipients, the messages could become embarrassingly nasty: “What difference does it make if the tribunal was civil or military?”; “they should have been crucified!”; “We love you, O Bashshār!”

17In retrospect, now that the young and vulnerable “Bashshār” is at the center of an insurgency which may prove fatal to his survival and that of his clan, the odes of joy seem a bit convoluted. What is at stake here is how individual exercises of support would turn years later into strategies of insurgency that would undermine the very roots of political order and stability. The authoritative roots of power, which were interpellating subjects prior to 2011, have become all of a sudden inoperative, at least in large chunks of Syrian territory which now looks like a patchwork of opposition guerillas versus régime supporters: Is that due to a shift of power relations or to strategies of interpellation which are more or less the same except that the big Other of moral and political order has now shifted in other undetermined horizons? Whether régime change would introduce new disciplinary loyalties is up for grabs. Suffice it to say that the moral and political big Other is always at play: once the unifying Master‑Signifier is challenged, other more complex figures in‑the‑name of the Other come into the picture. The feeling of guilt for being all too loyal to the ancien régime would find its supplement in the excitement for the inauguration of the new political order.

  • 16 See my Grammars of Adjudication, Chapter 11.
  • 17 Avi Rubin, Ottoman Nizamiye Courts: Law and Modernity, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

18In the Western tradition which goes back to the eighteenth‑nineteenth centuries Enlightenment, and which Syria has inherited via the Ottoman Tanẓīmāt through its adoption of the Napoleonic civil and penal codes, public executions which were an exercise of sovereign power were skewed in favor of the rule of law and just punishment. Such a change of metaphor comes in conjunction with a new grammar, discursive practices, and forms of life. Such metaphors and practices represent for a country like Syria “legal transplants” whose origins are Western, and whose actualization in the host country may take alternative forms of life than in the society of origin, even though the contamination is always there. We have in this book emphasized the narrativization of the case‑file in order to underscore the importance of recipiency: it is not the codes themselves that matter—which only act as metaphors for new tropes—but how a case articulates its narrative logic within the confines of a particular social space—that is to say, the public to whom it is destined in the first place. By and large, our analysis of cases points to an undeniable truth, namely, that a major paradigmatic shift did materialize since Ottoman times16—through the nizami courts (which still have not received the attention they deserve)—17 and modernity: now each case is thoroughly investigated by means of accounts of witnesses and court experts, in addition to forensic evidence. Even though, as we have pointed out, much is left to be desired in the way the Syrian judiciary handles some of its cases, the paradigmatic shift remains plainly visible. What is more intriguing, however, is that necessity to incessantly operate at two levels. On the one hand, the judiciary operates through a meticulous processing of cases, as best as it can, but on the other, state intervention, whether in the form of public executions or in secretive (political) arrests, proceeds as if the Sovereign is still there operating either in an open space or behind closed doors. We want to argue, based on the sample cases in this chapter, that strategies of interpellation of the crudest type (involving executions, torture, or the death penalty) would come to the rescue whenever disciplinary practices reach their limit, fail to materialize, or are simply not enough.

Figure 5–2. Still more bloggers in 2008; one of them, under the name of “the broken” (al‑muḥaṭṭam) relates the perverseness of the young (inḥirāf al‑shabāb) to various social and economic prejudices: 40 percent on the elderly parents, 20 percent on unemployment, 20 percent on the high rents, and 20 percent on poverty.

Figure 5–2. Still more bloggers in 2008; one of them, under the name of “the broken” (al‑muḥaṭṭam) relates the perverseness of the young (inḥirāf al‑shabāb) to various social and economic prejudices: 40 percent on the elderly parents, 20 percent on unemployment, 20 percent on the high rents, and 20 percent on poverty.

Let’s keep everything in secret

  • 18 Based on my own investigations in 2003–05; since prison executions tend to be secretive, I was unab (...)
  • 19 Syrian Arab Republic, The Statistical Abstracts, published yearly in Damascus.
  • 20 In the United States, since the federal death penalty was reinstated, in 1988, attorneys general ha (...)

19In 2002 Aleppo had only two inmates—both males—whose death sentences were implemented; while another one was executed in 2003, no one was in 2004,18 but those years do nevertheless set the general trend, namely, that capital punishment does exist, but in very low doses, to the point that the official criminal statistics19 fail to even mention them. The only crimes for which capital punishment is statutory are homicide and treason, but unlike the public hangings in Bāb al‑Faraj in 2007, which involved multiple homicides, capital punishment is usually inflicted on individuals who may have committed only a single crime all their life.20

20Since all three inmates were serving their sentences at Aleppo’s main prison house, located further north in the suburb of Muslimiyyah, the hangings took place in the early mornings. As prisons do not host special detention centers for death row inmates, executions were carried out by hanging at the prison’s main yard. The timings were kept secret, with few officials invited to witness the events, and no one besides that closely knitted circle of the happy few could sneak in. The Jināyāt scribe who recorded the prison hanging in 2003 told me that “at one after midnight one rainy cold night, I woke up at the knock of our front door, where a policeman was waiting for me at the stairs: ‘Dress up quickly, and come with us, a police car is waiting below; there’s an inmate to be executed.’” Not that this was the scribe’s first experience ever: there were at the time three Jināyāt scribes (one for each court), and one was picked up at the last moment for a ceremony like this. The original decision for the death penalty obviously emanates from the Jināyāt itself, and unless it is revoked on appeal by the Damascus Naqḍ, it could sit for years waiting for an exclusively devoted presidential decree for the execution to proceed. But once the presidential decree, citing specifically the case at hand and its concomitant Jināyāt ruling, drops in the hands of the “prime attorney” of the palace of justice (the real boss of the Qaṣr), things would proceed swiftly in the last few days of the inmate’s life, as if time all of a sudden mattered. To come back to our Jināyāt scribe, he told me on a quiet summer evening in 2004, a year amid the execution he attended, that

  • 21 When a Christian is executed, a priest would replace the shaykh.

we reached the prison at 2:00 in the morning; the “prime attorney” was there together with a doctor and a shaykh (religious person).21 They took us to the prison’s courtyard where everything was set for the execution; the convict was fetched from his cell, and apparently he was told that he’ll be executed only before he went to bed last night. The attorney read the presidential decree confirming the president’s approval of the death penalty; the shaykh asked the inmate if he had any final thoughts, a confession to deliver, or a message for his relatives; soon after he read the Fātiḥa, we were all set for the final moments. My job was to record everything, words and gestures, including messages that the inmate wanted to deliver to his relatives, which were not present, because everything was done at the last moment, in complete rush. The inmate, having said that he regretted his crime, was then hanged, and the doctor officially declared his death minutes later. I was back home to bed by 4:00, and delivered my report to the Jināyāt chief first thing in the morning.

  • 22 Iran is alleged to have the second highest execution rate in the world after China, but supplies no (...)
  • 23 If publications are any indication of the general interest, the paucity of printed sources on the d (...)

21Unlike neighboring Lebanon, where death executions tend to be advertised, made public, attended by the press—and carefully monitored along sectarian lines—contributing to the plethora of opinions and demonstrations with or against the death penalty, Syria keeps its executions secret, and reporters in particular are definitely not welcome.22 But even though the Jināyāt’s convictions are made public and anyone (at least in principle) could attend the hearings, newspapers rarely report on crimes, and reporters tend to lack the curiosity towards the judiciary. More importantly, and considering that all three official newspapers and the mass media at large are fully controlled by the state, the moribund media fails to attract public attention on any subject worth mentioning. But even though there are no public debates on capital punishment, it would be safe to admit, however, that the majority would shamelessly approve the death penalty, primarily on grounds of deterrence, or else that it is fully justified to execute someone who committed such an abhorrent crime, showing no remorse, while posing a threat to the moral integrity of society.23

  • 24 Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford: Stanford Universit (...)

22A further scrutinizing of capital punishment, however, reveals that beneath the most common perceptions lie deeper layers of religious and secular values regarding death, the body, sexuality, crime, and the judiciary.24 There might be concerns from the authorities that, for a country like Syria which does not particularly pride itself on human rights and civic values, the death penalty might be used by pacifists and activists around the world against the Syrian state and its abusive monopoly over violence (even though the death penalty is active in some democratic societies, such as the United States and Japan). The prime concerns, however, for the secretiveness of the death executions must be internal. Since everyone is aware that the state’s prisons contain thousands of political activists (some are non‑Syrians), some of which never had a just trial, the fear would be to use those civil depoliticized cases for political purpose. The state, therefore, is not that much fearful of open protests—which were anyhow extremely rare in Syria (until the inauguration of the “Syrian revolt” in March 2011)—and would rather contemplate the symbolic significance of the death sentence for civil prisoners.

  • 25 Which stands for first‑degree murder in Anglo‑American penal law.
  • 26 Except for honor killings, see, Chapter 6.
  • 27 Chapter 6 on honor killings.

23Capital punishment for serious offenders is typically activated by the Jināyāt, then approved or revoked by the Damascus Naqḍ once appealed, which is fairly common for cases of that caliber. In light of the crime the Jināyāt makes its final decision as to whether the offender should be kept permanently in jail (life imprisonment), with or without parole, or whether the death penalty ought to be applied. In either case, the offender must have committed a ʿamd crime, that is, that he or she performed his or her crime with premeditation and careful planning.25 In many of the deliberations that are presented in this book the most crucial decision turns into that ability to distinguish between a ʿamd and qaṣd crime, since the latter is limited to fifteen years of imprisonment. Lawyers for the young man who raped a boy, and in the meantime asphyxiated him when he started screaming, would argue that the prime motivation was sexual gratification not murder (C8–2). By placing rape as the prime motive, lawyers prevented de justesse the death penalty for their client: the asphyxiation took place inadvertently and without prior planning. Most of the ʿamd crimes, however, have their culprits incarcerated in jail for long periods, up to life imprisonment, with presidential pardons (ʿafū) every once in a while considerably shortening the detention periods. Only a tiny fraction, however, of the ʿamd crimes would go for the death penalty. On what basis is the choice for capital punishment made? The limited number of cases at our disposal does not probe for easy answers. To begin with, a homicide26 would be construed as ʿamd (premeditated killing) only if “beyond any reasonable doubt.” Even though such a terminology, originating from Anglo‑American law, is non‑pervasive in Syria, it is safe to assume that some of those incarcerated for life had their cases classified as ʿamd without, however, the “required” hard evidence. Because evidence is confusing, obscure, and at times inconclusive, and since the limited role of counsels at court hearings is even murkier, what gives a crime the consensus of premeditation becomes a question of customary practice. Some judges would go for the death penalty for no other reason than that they beheld the homicide as disconcerting, beyond what the mores of society would tolerate, such as the killing of a child to hide deviant sexual behavior (C5–2), or the killing of a spouse for inheritance purposes, or else because of a lover lurking in the background (see, “swingers” case, C6–327). The fact that most ʿamd killings would proceed without the death penalty poses the question as to whether capital punishment has mainly that symbolic aura attached to it—not necessarily as a tool of deterrence, but more so for what sticks out as vicious. Even though guidelines on capital punishment or discussions on its usefulness in law books and lay publications crucially lack, I would venture with the following nine points as an unofficial guideline:

  1. Degree of viciousness.
  2. Motive or the niyya of the accused: was there any indication of premeditation or ʿamd?
  3. How the crime was committed; especially the manner in which the victim was killed.
  4. Outcome of the crime; especially the number of victims and their age category; children who may have been killed for a sexual motive may create a strong incentive for the court to opt for capital punishment (C5–2 infra).
  5. Sentiments of the bereaved family members, in particular the parents of a murdered child.
  6. Impact of the crime on society: the authoritarian nature of the Syrian state may prompt for speedy executions like the ones described above (C5–1), whenever it feels that the impact of crime on society is making the state look impotent.
  7. Defendant’s age (full responsibility implies being a major above 18; minors are relegated to juvenile courts, hence subject to lesser sentences): it is common for families to send one of their minors for an honor killing, or at least staged as such, hence avoiding the criminal courts altogether in favor of the more lenient juvenile courts.
  8. Defendant’s previous criminal record.
  9. Degree of remorse shown by the defendant.

24[C5–2] Each death sentence is approved in a separate presidential decree (marsūm jumhūrī), signed by the president of the republic. Basim al‑Saleh b. Bakri (b. 1965) was convicted by the Jināyāt for premeditatedly killing a little girl prior to attempting a forced sexual act on her. Once the Jināyāt sentencing was concluded in 1995, which recommended the death penalty, it was ratified a year later by the Naqḍ, and the presidential decree was signed on 18 July 2002, only to be followed by the execution in the early morning of 22 July 2002. Such an uneven chronology is fairly common: as many years pass between the crime itself and the conviction, the presidential decree elongates the wait even further, but the execution is secretively scheduled barely a week after the president’s endorsement. Jumʿa b. ʿIsa al‑Matar (b. 1969) was on the death row for the premeditated killing of Jasim al‑Muhammad, and the non‑intentional killing of another person, and for non‑intentionally hurting a third person. The presidential decree was signed on 10 October 2002, based on the Jināyāt ruling of October 1997, and his execution took place in the courtyard of Aleppo’s prison on 15  October 2002. Shaʿban b. Sulayman Salu (b. 1974) was on the death row with the other two for premeditated killing in preparation for a robbery. The presidential decree was signed on 16 April 2003, based on the Jināyāt ruling on December 2001, and his execution took place on 27 April 2003.

25I was told that the executed had neither been informed beforehand of the presidential decree endorsing their execution, nor of the exact date and time—until the last moment. The fact that only a couple of days separate the presidential decree from the execution is an indication of how much it is important to maintain secrecy. Executions are conducted in secrecy in the early morning hours, at one or two after midnight, and in the presence of the advocate general (al‑muḥāmi al‑ʿāmm al‑awwal) or a representative of his; a Jināyāt consultant; a bidāya first‑instance judge; the police chief of Aleppo province (muḥāfaẓa); the prison’s director (who is generally from the police and carries the title of ʿamīd); the prisoner’s counsel, or another attorney in case the latter is absent; an official doctor (ṭabīb sharʿī); and a shaykh, or a priest in case the prisoner is Christian. All the spectacle is recorded by one of the two (previously three) Jināyāt scribes. Once the presidential decree is signed and passed to the advocate general, precautions are taken at the Muslimiyyah prison, and the prisoner in question is isolated on his own: for instance, a fight is artificially created, and some of the prisoners are placed in isolation as punishment. Several years therefore precede—in our case here, six—the presidential decree. In the meantime, the prisoners on death row wait for the Jināyāt ruling to be overruled by the Naqḍ; or for the special pardon committee to lesser the punishment to permanent incarceration; or else to receive a presidential pardon. “Death‑row inmates reach the point when they instinctively know they’ll be executed,” one of my informants told me, “as they can feel it coming.” Whatever they may have felt in the long years amid the Jināyāt conviction, or in the few hours prior to their execution, we will never know. I am not aware of inmates on death row who wrote memoirs or gave interviews, or of someone writing on their behalf, a friend, family member, or fellow inmate. They all died incognito in silence, exactly as they lived, in a society that does not place much virtue in the writing of personal confessions. Consequently, the only things we know of them are their mute “voices” in the austere Jināyāt files.

26After enumerating the official authorities that were present that night, the handwritten report on its second page proceeds with a description of the hanging:

After the bidāya first‑instance judge solicited the sentenced [to death] to deliver his last statements [aqwāli‑hi al‑akhīra], which were recorded separately, Shaykh Muhammad Jamal al‑Hut reminded the convict to read the two shahādas, demanding from God forgiveness for what his two hands had committed. The convict was taken by the police to the hanging podium, where a rope was placed around his neck, the chair was slid below his feet, his body swung motionless up in the air, breathing its last moments.”

The doctor said after examining him: “The convict Basim b. Bakri has been diagnosed, and is now certain to be dead as a result of the execution of the death penalty by hanging until he died.”

27A brief addendum notes that the convict demanded, upon uttering his last words, to fetch if possible the father of the little girl he had murdered so that he would ask his forgiveness. He also wished not to deliver his body to his parents (who apparently were neither informed of the date of the execution nor authorized to attend), and to give it instead to a scientific institution that would benefit from it.

28Basim was accused of a murder he allegedly committed on 29 March 1994, and whose Jināyāt ruling was concluded in August 1995, which is speedy by Syrian standards. From the eight‑page typewritten Jināyāt final ruling, we learn that Basim was a policeman who was fired because of his “bad manners” (no further details provided). Upon his dismissal he went back to his village of Tall‑Rifʿat, divorced his wife, and lived with his mother and sisters, close to the plaintiff’s home, whose little girl was eventually found dead. On 29 March 1994, the report claims that Basim took the ten‑year old Nuʿayma for a tour on his motorcycle. He allegedly drove her two kilometers outside the village, approximately 300 meters from the main highway that links the village to Aleppo. The assailant apparently took his victim to an agrarian no‑man’s‑land where they could not be seen, and when the little girl started crying and urged him to drive her back home, he repeatedly slapped her on the face. The girl attempted to run away, but he managed to hit her with a one‑kilogram stone, which was enough, according to the postmortem, to have her fall on the ground. He seized that opportunity to hit her two more times, and once he realized that she was still breathing he stabbed her twice with a knife on her shoulder. When he was certain that she died, he hid the body between three large stones, prior to returning to the village. Based on a tip from someone who saw them together, the police arrested Basim and accused him of murder. He apparently did not resist, immediately confessed, and was escorted by the police to the murder scene. In his confession to a Tall‑Rifʿat judge, Basim was quoted saying that his main motivation was to retaliate against his victim’s sister Ghada, which he claimed was “exposing” his own sisters to young men. He then reiterated his confessions in the presence of another judge in Aleppo. The victim’s mother, however, maintained all along that the real motive was the perpetrator’s desire to rape her daughter. The victim’s father, for his part, had posed himself as an individual plaintiff (muddaʿi shakhṣī), demanding compensation.

29The verdict in its section entitled “adilla” (evidence), pinpoints to several reports indicating that the assailant might have had a sexual liaison with the victim’s sister Ghada. The Jināyāt tends to describe an “illicit sexual act/relation” either as zinā (the “Islamic” term for an illicit act/relation), or else as a fiʿl munāfi li‑l‑ḥishma (“an act that is contrary to decency”), or that someone was caught with another in a waḍʿ muhīb (“a dreadful situation”). The Jināyāt report, in Basim’s case, uses all these terms interchangeably, depending on their original location in various reports, from the police, to the investigating and referral judges. When we sum up all reports, three alternative scenarios become possible (even though the Jināyāt did not present them in the form outlined below):

  1. Basim and Ghada were having an affair, and the day of the murder, the little sister saw her older sister with Basim in “a dreadful situation.” Basim decided to get rid of the little girl and dragged her out for a ride, then killed her exactly as described in the Jināyāt report. With such a scenario, the prime motive for killing was not rape of a minor, but getting rid of a potential witness. The doctor’s autopsy confirmed that no penetration took place, while Ghada for her part denied allegations of an affair.
  2. Basim was annoyed that Ghada was trying to set up his two sisters with other men, which the latter denied: “I used to visit the offender’s two sisters because they work on wool machines, and our relationship was commanded by work only,” said Ghada in her examination at the Jināyāt on April 1994. One of the sisters for her part also denied such allegations: “My brother’s allegation that the victim’s sister used to bring men to us is totally unfounded,” said Ibtisam to the investigating judge on March 1994. Be that as it may, in this scenario Basim’s “annoyance” would have translated into anger, first towards Ghada, but because he was unable to harm her, he turned against her little sister. In his original deposition to the police on March, right after the murder, Basim confessed for having had planned to rape Ghada, but was unable to do it, retaliating instead against her sister. However, in his deposition a month later to the investigating judge, he once more confessed his killing of the little girl, but denied, on the basis that earlier statements to the police were extracted under torture, that he ever committed his crime as retaliation against Ghada, or for the purpose of rape. That leaves everyone with the obvious question: Why did Basim commit the crime he confessed he did if there is no motive? In sum, a confirmed criminal, but without motive.
  3. A final possibility is that the original intent was indeed rape—and only rape, meaning that neither Ghada nor the perpetrator’s sisters had anything to do with it. Basim was simply interested in the little girl, and that was it. There is not much evidence to support such a hypothesis, except for a statement made by a retired policeman claiming that he saw the accused the second day of the murder at the police station wearing only his underwear (culotte), noticing what looked liked dried sperm of six‑centimeter diameter inside the frontal part of the underwear. For its part the Jināyāt interpreted the sperm incident as an indication that there was an unsuccessful rape attempt prior to the killing: “It would have been impossible that [the accused’s] sexual feelings (ʿawāṭifa‑hu al‑jinsiyya) would have been aroused after [my emphasis] the killing of the victim, and upon returning to the village.” The ex‑policeman’s testimony, however, was enough evidence for the Jināyāt that the prime intent was indeed rape, shunning other scenarios that would have placed Ghada as femme fatale, which would have placed Basim on the abyss of a hideous act because of his impotent gaze—to “perform” what he had in mind. In other words, Basim’s inability to consummate his sexual lust for Ghada turned into sexual violence against her sister.28 Never mind that sex and violence do often mix, contrary to the Jināyāt’s interpretations, and that evidence here did run very thin. Of course, since Basim confessed of the murder, the Jināyāt probably felt that it had what it wanted, even if motive was not there. But besides the fact that confession is never enough, and that confessing is sometimes a way to hide something at the margins of the crime that is even more morbid than the killing itself, the lack of a convincing motive should have given a hard time for the Jināyāt to decide between a ʿamd or qaṣd motive. The Jināyāt could have, for instance, adopted the position of the defendant’s counsel which pleaded non‑guilty on the basis of insanity, along the lines we have debated in the two cases on insanity in Chapter 3:
  • 29 Note how the counsel uses the combination of “image” and “thought” to clear his client from any pre (...)
  • 30 Because there was no prior “mental image” of the killing, which would have signaled premeditation, (...)

My client is affected by a defect (khalal) in his brain and thought, consequently his actions are an outcome of an insane (mukhtall: “unbalanced”) will and consciousness, which justifies why he committed the crime in the way he did—without any prior image in his mind, without any thought about it29—but once he did hit his victim, the thought of killing came to his mind at that very moment.30

30Which led the counsel to represent the crime as an unpremeditated killing: “the thought of the crime was the outcome of its moment (walīdat al‑sāʿa) in which he [my emphasis] was situated.” That hypothesis, however, did not modify the Jināyāt’s mind regarding the intent of the killing, as the plea for insanity went nowhere. As a matter of fact, the Jināyāt had no clues as to what really happened, or why the murder was committed, stumbling as usual on “demonstrative evidence.” But the killing of a small girl for what looked—in appearance at least—a sexual motive, in the peculiar setting of a small town, where secrets are common knowledge, gave the Jināyāt enough confidence in itself and mission, enabling it to rush towards a sentencing in an amazing speed, while bargaining for no less than the death penalty. Allegations of an affair between Basim and Ghada, which were denied by everyone, including the defendant himself, must have caused quite a stir. Similar allegations that Ghada might have acted as a “set‑up girl” for Basim’s sisters fostered in all probability a great deal of controversy. But by habit the Jināyāt operates and sentences with little plausible evidence. Most of its reasoning subtly combines common sense and guesswork. It therefore opted not to go for the possibility of an affair between Basim and Ghada, which would have required messing people’s lives even further, and on the investigative side, that would have required thorough and tough examination skills. The Jināyāt opted for the hypothesis of a culprit acting on his own, solely to satisfy his sexual perversions (even though there was no effort to show them as perversions), but when that failed to materialize, he killed his victim, more in shame than revenge. The other alternative would have portrayed Ghada as a femme XE "sexuality:femme fatale" fatale, whose charms pushed her lover and admirer towards the killing of her little sister, in a murderous act that transferred revenge from the older to the much younger sister.

31The lay discourse plays it safe when it comes to interpreting the fate of individuals. Either the socio‑symbolic order and its machinery predominate, hence are posited as objectified artifacts analyzed as such by an external observer, or else all evidence for interpretation must be backed with hard facts, receiving acknowledged dues from peer review—the big Other of professionalism and authorial sanctity. In similar vein, the juridical discourse, as witnessed above, opts for the safest route, eschewing alternative possibilities which have nonetheless been explored and duly noted in writing, eo ipso in the verdict itself, which even though had accounted for possible deadlocks, only opted in the final analysis for sexual deviancy against a minor.

  • 31 Robert Pippin, Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy, Richmond : University of (...)

32Should we therefore accuse the juridical discourse of oversimplification, in order to expedite its ruling in order to receive approval from the Damascus Naqḍ and third‑party audiences of sorts? What such discourse does is enumerate all possible scenarios, only to filter the one that it sees best for the purposes of a final ruling. The problem, however, is more serious than it may first appear. In effect, what the juridical discourse does is to narrate events from a first‑person perspective, which eo ipso implies a narration based on the rationality of individual action. To operate a paradigmatic shift, which is the very purpose of this book, we need to think of actors as operating within multiple‑worlds of action, hence the transparency of what they do and think would not be available to them as firsthand experience. In other words, the agentive causality which we require as agents from the first‑person perspective is simply not available.31 Such an illusion of perspective is at the cornerstone of viewpoints elaborated by both prosecution and defense. Thus, while the court’s verdict, which closely mastered that of the prosecution, reasoned in terms of an assailant hungry for sex to the point of assaulting a little girl who was incapable of understanding his sexual lust, the defense for its part reasoned in terms of an assailant who was insane and incapable of “imaging” what he was doing. Hence both sides reasoned in terms of a first‑person “self” that was either there (premeditated act) or not there (insanity), which precipitated the death penalty and its execution.

  • 32 Pippin, Fatalism, introduction.

33To bypass such deadlock, we need to think of the subjective “self” as a fragile entity which receives its recognition from an external gaze. To achieve such potential we need not go further than the Jināyāt’s own verdict, which elaborates on possible scenarios. That is to say, all the above three rationalizations must be simultaneously, in all their manifest contradictions, taken into consideration, as if emanating from a single system of truth, but with different layers. If Ghada was at the center of action, as femme fatale, then she must be accounted for to understand Basim’s tragic act. In other words, there is no need to separate, as the court unsurprisingly did, Basim’s killing of Ghada’s sister from Basim’s lust for his beloved Ghada. Once we accept that Basim developed a sexual lust for Ghada, only to be rejected, prior to developing an urge to rape her, Basim’s final act would retroactively look like a bold attempt to place Ghada as a third‑party “witness” for his hideous act against her little sister. In other words, the younger sister was sacrificed for the Third Party gaze of the older one: it was, indeed, the murder itself that transformed the mysterious and inaccessible Ghada as third‑party addressee, inflicting her with a feeling of guilt that she may have not accepted, not even acknowledging her role as recipient of her sister’s murder. In his groundbreaking study of American film noir, Robert Pippin notes that “the femme fatale entrances in noirs often suggest the extreme view of a magical spell or mysterious erotic power that can render the male forever afterward a mere dupe, a passive victim of such power, a nonagent. [my emphasis]”32 Notwithstanding whether Ghada would fit in such role of femme fatale, what is of interest here is the retroactive side of agency: it is only in retrospect—which in noir is insinuated by means of the flashback and voice‑over techniques—that the agent looks at his life as a complete loss—one deprived of a conscious agency. Let us imagine for a moment Basim on death row for few years, not knowing if and when he will be executed, and probably indifferent to the possibility of execution and his fate altogether: he realized back then that he was the passive victim of the Object of his desire; his fate was in somewhere else’s hands; and the presidential decree would only come as a final relief, in continuation of the fate of a lost agency. The court (and the presidential decree) supplements that non‑agency by acting as the big Other which makes decisions on behalf of the lost agent—for his absent voice. Even though Basim may have developed a sexual lust for Ghada, then transferred it to her little sister by murdering her, he died executed on a podium and completely desexualized: the murder itself places a sudden end to the tormented sexual (death) drive.

34Let us reappraise the court’s verdict. Even though it outlined all possible scenarios, the court, as is customary, finally opted for the one that was the most “plausible” in the eyes of justice, which briefly runs as follows: Basim developed a perverse lust for the little girl, whom he knew from her elder sister Ghada; he managed to trick her into a ride on his motorcycle, and once he found himself on a terrain where no one would see them, he attempted to rape her, then killed her out of fear that she would become an unbearable witness. In such scenario, it was sexual lust that stood as the main culprit, with the attempt to consummate it that led to the murder. Hence premeditation stood only for the desire to rape, not for the murder itself. Still, within the court’s understanding of premeditation, that was enough evidence to charge the assailant with first‑degree murder and the death penalty. The assumption here is twofold: first, there is an agentive causality at work, namely the availability of first‑person perspective fully aware of its desires and actions; second, such causality could be traced to the act of murder itself; thus, even though the murder may not have been premeditated, the rape was. To elaborate, the court worked with premeditation as a tool for just punishment: the assailant premeditated his crime of rape, and only then murder became as a supplemental option to conceal the primordial premeditation. The court therefore rationalized premeditation within the confines of a discourse commonly offered by prosecutors and councils alike, as an act that was deliberate, well thought, prepared beforehand, and executed with a “calm spirit” and willingness to harm. All such rationalizations presume the first‑person perspective which is fully conscious of its actions. On the one hand, premeditation, as defined in article 535 of the penal code, receives its benediction from a concrete positivity, the murder itself, which once looked upon retroactively, looks understandable—the desire to rape and humiliate. On the other hand, premeditation is no more than an empty signifier, as it receives its substance only from the cases at works. What is at stake is that the issue of agency is presented against a backdrop of other contingencies that would represent the criminal act in alternative perspectives.

35What we opted for was to take account of alternative scenarios, as documented in the dossier, and bring them together into a grand exercise of hermeneutics that may have proved anathema for the Jināyāt. Are we therefore justified in doing so? The interplay in each case in this book is that of the difference between what actually happened, the court’s rationalizations of such events, and the distinct point of view of the participant narrator (the researcher and reader) alerted to the way the narration and the action, as documented in various memos and rulings, can come apart as it were, if we are sufficiently attentive and willing to bypass the conformism of the university discourse.

You must become independent

36 [C5–3] When I was offered in the late 1990s the case below, regarding a young man who murdered a senior citizen to rob him of his motorbike, I was told that the youngster would surely be at least permanently incarcerated, but I then lost track of the file, as it was impossible to get back to my original sources and check the final ruling. Notwithstanding the uncertainty on the verdict, the case probes similarities with the previous ones where the death penalty was applied. For one thing, the total self‑absorption of the youngster in his act, as if nothing else mattered but the motorbike that would have granted him “independence” from his family milieu, makes it morally repulsive. It was, indeed, the murderous act itself that would finally untie father and son: it is as if to prove himself as man, the son had to become a murderer at the image of his father, only to dissociate himself from the name‑of‑the‑father.

  • 33 Aleppo Jināyāt 229/2/1998; the murder and motorbike theft occurred on the road to Minbij; final rul (...)

37In Minbij, a major city in Aleppo’s province, a youngster found an old man sitting by his Honda motorbike.33 He politely asked him for a ride to a nearby village where he lived with his family. They made a deal, and the ride would cost the young man 150 liras ($3 at the time). On the road the youngster asked his driver to stop for a while at a road juncture, where he said his brother lived, to check if he was home. But as soon as the driver turned his motorbike off, the young man pulled a gun under his shirt and shot his driver from the back right in the neck, killing him on the spot. He then took all papers and identifications he found in his victim’s pockets, in addition to various banknotes amounting to no more than 300 liras ($12), burned the body with kerosene from the bike’s tank (using for that purpose one of the victim’s shoes), and returned to his parents’ home with the motorbike, where he allegedly told them that he had just purchased it at Minbij for cheap. A couple of days later, when he was interrogated by the Minbij police soon after his arrest, he told his interrogators in a cold voice that his father was pushing him for employment so that he would get independent, but he was unable to find a job, and as he always needed cash, he bought lottery tickets without luck. His decision to steal a motorbike came, in his own words, from deprivation and need. The motorbike, for young men and people in such rural region, was the only affordable, albeit expensive, option for transport, whenever a car was out of question, as it was, and still is, in the majority of cases. For the young man it must have symbolized independence and freedom, and the ability to ride for hours in the countryside, to seduce girls, while outside his parents’ reach.

38There is presumably something “culturally” foreseeable in a murderer who was raised in a home where the father had years before committed himself a murder, and was sentenced for several years in prison: tel père, tel fils. Yet, there’s neither anything predictable in such an attitude, nor is motivation clearer. The case reveals all the ambiguities of young men who grow up under harsh conditions, and who come of age in circumstances that reveal in their persona curious shortcomings.

39ʿAbdul‑Karim Ahmad (b. 1979) was only 19 when he committed his crime in January 1998. His victim (b. 1934), which he shot point‑blank for the sole purpose of stealing his motorbike, must have been his father’s age. From his own testimony, when he left his parental home at Jrablus (his birthplace) that cold morning of January 13, he was determined to steal and kill, if necessary. Witnesses within his age category claimed that he proposed to them on several occasions to set up small gangs that would swiftly move on the road between Jrablus and Minbij to steal motorbikes. Having been raised in a family with criminal precedents, always short on cash, with incessant feuds with other local families, a gun, albeit unauthorized, was always hidden somewhere at home; ʿAbdul‑Karim did not seem that much perturbed that morning when he picked up the 7mm gun, allegedly without his parents’ knowledge, which was possibly the defendant’s uncle’s property, but was hidden in ʿAbdul‑Karim’s parental home with his father’s benediction.

  • 34 The mandatory military service, which lasts for two years and a half, and which involves every male (...)
  • 35 An acknowledgment of this kind could be interpreted as a blunt pre‑determination, punishable as dea (...)

My father used to preach me to rely on myself, and work to save money for the military service.34 As I wanted a rapid way out for some cash, I purchased a lottery ticket hoping that I would win, but didn’t. I therefore got that idea of stealing a two‑wheel motorbike, and began preparing for it. I told my mother and sister that I have a two‑wheel motorbike hidden in Minbij, and they urged me to bring it here. I told them that it was smuggled. My mother handled the matter by fabricating that I had purchased a motorbike several months ago—that was on Sunday, two days before the murder. I know there’s a gun hidden in our home, under one of the mattresses in the room where I sleep. I took it on Tuesday morning, and checked that it was loaded with three shots. I had hidden it under my shirt, and that day of 13 January 1998 I took a seat in a minivan to Minbij for 500 liras. I went to the motorbike bazaar in Minbij searching for my victim, but found no one. I headed towards the Minbij market, and started looking between the Saray and the Aleppo road for anyone with a motorbike who was willing to give me a ride. I would then kill him and steal his bike.35 I noticed an old man at the southern entrance of the market standing on the pavement with his motorbike. I made a deal with him for a ride for 150 liras. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. I also told him that I have a brother who works at the vineyards north‑east of Minbij, and that I need to see him. He agreed to stop there. We took the Jrablus road, and after we crossed approximately 5–6 km, upon reaching a low bridge, I asked my driver to head east, towards a steady agrarian road. Once we passed 1 km on that road, and reached some trees on the vineyard, I asked my driver to stop and wait for me for a while to check whether my brother was there. When I headed towards the trees he had already turned the engine off. Without noticing me, I took my gun from under my shirt, held it with both hands in his direction, and went towards him. At that precise moment, he turned the engine on and positioned the bike in a direction opposite to mine. When I was right behind the bike and within a meter’s range from the driver, I held the gun with my two hands and pointed it in the direction of the driver’s neck and head. I pulled the trigger once in his direction and hit him point‑blank in the neck. He was sitting on his bike and immediately fell on the ground with his bike. I adjusted the bike back to its standing position, while the body was a meter’s away towards the east. Blood was coming out of the body, and I think that the driver‑victim must have died instantaneously once he received the bullet behind his neck.

40ʿAbdul‑Karim went on to describe how he altered the motorbike’s appearance. He took off some of the metal parts protecting both the back and front wheels, threw them away, searched the body for the bike’s license and other identifications but could not find them. Instead, he found 300 liras in one of the victim’s pockets, prior to burning the body. He took the victim’s shoes, filled them with the bike’s gasoline, which he spilled over the body, picked a lighter from his pocket and set the body ablaze. Prior to leaving the place, he made sure that none of the bike’s parts were left behind, dropping them under a bridge close to Minbij. Remarkably, and in what in hindsight looks like his biggest error, he headed back to Minbij and went to a shop that did some minor repairs on the bike. Now he was finally ready to go back home after a long day of labor.

When I came back I did not find my dad at home, and told them [mother and sister] that the motorbike I told you about, which was hidden, is now parked outside. My mother believed my story, I went inside and put the gun back in its place without anyone noticing me. When my dad came home, he began talking with my mum, and heard him say that he does not believe a word of what I said, that this motorbike is not mine, that most probably I stole it or killed its owner, or else took it by force. I told my dad that I purchased it from an incognito person in Minbij, without its registration papers, for a price of SP25,000. He then told me that we should do our best to get its authorized papers.

41The following day, after many hesitations, ʿAbdul‑Karim decided otherwise. He went back to Minbij and left the motorbike near the Saray, practically at the same location where he picked up his victim. A week later he was arrested by the Minbij police and accused of premeditated murder (ʿamd).

42When on January 13 1998, ʿAbdul‑Karim left his Jrablus parental home in the morning, only to pick up his victim near the Minbij market in the early afternoon, he did not know his victim: he had never met the old man before; he probably did not know that his victim was a father to four minors; that in order to feed and shelter them he was using his motorbike as a cab, for 125 liras a ride, between Minbij and neighboring villages—rides that in the cold days of January must have been harsh. But along the Jrablus–Minbij axis, in all those small towns and villages, areas where land disputes are common, and where honor killings and feuds are no less common, the atmosphere is one of total calm and peace, a peace symbolized best by the beauty and quietness of nature itself, its olive trees and the dark brownish earth that feeds them. When ʿAbdul‑Karim left his home, he had no one particularly in mind. He was, indeed, attracted to the very idea of an anonymous encounter, someone that he would murder not on any prior knowledge, feud, persona, looks, or body, but for the sake of a motorcycle. In many ways, therefore, ʿAbdul‑Karim drifted away from the usual family feuds, predominant in the Syrian countryside, and in many of the cities’ suburbs, where people are typically targeted based on their kin affiliation, the nisba. In such environments it does not make much sense to target someone anonymously, betraying one’s family’s honor for the price of an old motorbike.

43A crucial aspect of such cases is the father–son relationship, which stands in contrast to that of the mother: first, the intergenerational relation; second, the kin alliances; finally, the autonomy of the young. When interviewed by the investigating judge the day his son was arrested and accused of murder, the father claimed that his possession of an illegal firearm at home, allegedly the tool of the murder, was in self‑defense.

The gun that was found in my house is without permit. It was brought by my son ʿAbdul‑Karim [the accused], alleging that he had picked it up from his uncle, i.e. my brother, because we were wanted for an affair of retaliation (qaḍiyyat thaʾr). I said I do not mind having that gun in my house, because we might need it one day. But we have not used it in any criminal act, and I do not know whether my son has used it to kill someone. To your knowledge, I left prison two years ago, where I was incarcerated for four years for killing someone. As to my son ʿAbdul‑Karim, he does not have any work, and even though I have attempted to guide him, I have failed. On Tuesday 13 January 1998 I was out of my home for the evening, and upon returning at 11:00 at night I found that my son had brought a two‑wheeled Honda motorbike. When I inquired about it, he said he bought it for SP25,000, and that it had been smuggled. He purchased it from someone he did not know. As I was suspicious of his claims, I said to him and his mother that this motorbike will bring lots of damage to us, and I am afraid that behind this bike there is a theft or homicide, and I summoned him to give it back to its owner next morning. We do not want any headache. As to the money, he claimed that it was in his possession, but I do not know if that is true.

44The father’s statements were enunciated in such a way as if he knew all along the trouble to come: he had the strong feeling that behind that motorbike was perhaps a crime, if not a homicide; his most intense hunch was regarding his own son, namely that his son was like him, someone ready to commit murder, and be jailed for it.

45The rivalry between father and son was contained by an acquiescent female gaze—that of the mother (and sister). Thus, while the mother believed and protected, the father was suspicious, seeing a son crafted in his own image, that of a criminal who “does not have any work,” and whose only talent was to imitate his father’s gross failures. The father was with his brother embroiled in an affair of retaliation, and guns were within reach in the household for “protection.” The son therefore came of age in a household where on his father’s side criminality was normative: his crime, against someone “he did not know,” was a quintessential mimetic act to assume his father’s mantle, a mimesis that we will encounter elsewhere (C9–2), and which was unconsciously pursued as a gesture of independence. The father’s acknowledgment to the investigating judge that “I have attempted to guide my child, but failed,” leaving the son without any work, came in parallel to the son’s confession to the same judge that he always wanted to “rely on himself,” and that the way out of his family’s entrapment was to get some cash on his own.

  • 36 Young men who are the only males in the family (waḥīd) have the right to avoid the military service (...)

46The son must have been called for military service when he was 18, and it was barely a year later that he committed his crime, even though there is no record of him serving in the military36 when he committed his crime; there is no record either for having had completed a high‑school degree, or for showing any inclination for a technical school or hand occupation. In other words, he did fit within a typical profile of youngsters among the popular classes with no particular professional inclination or talent by the time they have reached the age of maturity and been summoned for military service. To prove to himself that he reached maturity, he targeted someone of his father’s generation, but only anonymously: the crime itself doubles as a rite of passage from childhood to maturity, and at the same time as a mimetic act towards the father. In the triangle that we’ve set as norm for homicides, what matters is not the relation between criminal and victim (which was unknown to the assailant), but that between criminal and addressee, which in this instance was no one else but the father. In his interview with the judge, however, the father only partially accepted the guilt: by acknowledging the poor education of his son and the latter’s inability to manifest any talent, he admitted his son’s “failure,” but not the crime. That is to say, he did not want to see himself as recipient of the crime, as that Third Gaze of an external audience, refusing to accept the reception of his son’s guilt on his own behalf. (One of the Jināyāt’s scribes told me that the death penalty was still pending regarding ʿAbdul‑Karim, but I was unable to verify it on paper.)

47Whatever ʿAbdul‑Karim’s fate may have been, the resonances with Basim of the previous case (C5–2) are quite striking. In both instances, a person was sacrificed for the sake of another third‑person addressee. For ʿAbdul‑Karim the motorbike must have played in his imagination such a preponderant role as a fetish object of desire to the point that it transformed his victim, a father of four, into a mere object. “Property” in the form of a bike becomes even more important than its original holder, hence it is transferable through a criminal act. The boundaries that separate individuals and things into authorized users and outsiders are transgressed in the criminal act itself: it is as if the sacredness of bourgeois property must be transgressed in order to reverse the original violence of acquisition, as sanctioned by the Law and the shared values of society. Through murder I transfer a property that was his to me. Such an unconcern for human life, followed by a lack of remorse, is what pushes the public at large for the death penalty.

  • 37 G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Chapter 4.

48As in the previous case of Basim, what ought to be underscored is that difference between what actually happened and the distinct point of view of the narrators. The court itself is one such narrator, which has the luxury to opt for one possible scenario—the big Other of moral and juridical order. What proves more revealing, however, is the point of view of the main protagonists themselves, which tend to be oblivious towards their victims. If as Hegel has reasoned, “self‑consciousness is desire itself,” it attains its “satisfaction” only in another self‑consciousness.37 Hence in a homicide what the murderer’s self‑consciousness desires is the self‑consciousness of the addressee, not the victim; the murderer being eo ipso unconscious of the external gaze that traverses his criminal action, which obfuscates the murder into a relation between assailant and victim, the murderer merely treats his or her victim as an object. What we therefore require as agents from the first‑person perspective, as the courts normally do in their rulings, proves a sheer impossibility, as the very logic of crime relate the events from something close to a third‑person point of view—that of the third‑party addressee—namely, that of the beloved object Ghada in the previous crime, or that of ʿAbdul‑Karim’s father. Hence the uncanny burden placed on the shoulders of such addressees.

Torture and its limits

49[C5–4] The case was strong and unusual enough to have incited a news blurb in al‑Ḥayāt, the Arab world’s prime international newspaper.

Damascus—The first criminal court in Aleppo has issued a verdict to imprison for 10 years with hard labor three policemen for having deliberately harmed and provoked the death of Ahmad Farawati while being interrogated.

  • 38 A neighborhood known since Ottoman times to have been at the periphery of the city, serving as hub (...)

This case is looked upon as an important precedent in the annals of Syrian criminal law. Ahmad (50 years old) was arrested by a police patrol composed of first assistant Jamil Qadahnun, and the two policemen Nazih al‑Shaʿar and Saleh ʿIsa to the police station located in Bāb al‑Nayrab,38 based on allegations that Farawati was selling heroin. At the station he was tortured until death.

The [state‑owned] newspaper Tishrīne [October] wrote that the autopsy report had indicated that Farawati had received many blows on his left hip that caused a hemorrhage, which in turn stopped his left kidney from functioning; in addition to completely damaged tenth and eleventh ribs, which led to another hemorrhage causing death.

  • 39 A copy of the newspaper clip was appended to the dossier I consulted when the hearings were in prog (...)

Farawati’s family had initiated a legal lawsuit against assistant Jamil and his companions, and upon investigation it turned out that the allegations [for selling heroin] proved inaccurate; in addition to reports claiming that first assistant Jamil had demanded from Farawati, few days prior to his arrest, a sum of money exceeding SP50,000, for the purpose of trading it as diya [blood money] to the father of the youngster Muhammad ʿArabsh, who also died as an outcome of torture while being arrested and tortured at the same police station for charges of theft. [al‑Ḥayāt, May 11, 1998]39

50When I inspected the completed dossier a year later in 1999, I realized that it was pretty much detailed on torture, and on admitting death as an outcome of torture, but there was no mention of the quid pro quo between the police and Farawati on the alleged SP50,000–diya. If that were to be true, then the police were trading one murder for another: you killed our son under torture, therefore you owe us SP50,000 as blood money; and to get that kind of money, the police had to torture and kill yet another mid‑aged man with allegations that he was selling heroin, and let him pay the vulnerable diya—in cash.

51Where does this unusual case on abusive torture by the police which led to the death of the interviewee stand in relation to the other cases in this chapter on the death penalty? After extensive research, the court opted for manslaughter over first‑degree murder, which meant eschewing the death penalty or permanent incarceration. Hence what we have here is a unique case of torture and death where the death penalty was avoided and traded‑off in juridical jargon between the central authorities in Damascus and their regional counterparts in Aleppo. It is such standoff that is worthy of our attention in this section.

  • 40 Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, 84: “In histo (...)

52In this study, we argued that it was abnormally legitimate for witnesses and defendants alike to allege, once done with the police investigation, and in the presence of a more hospitable investigating judge, that their original statements, as reported in police memos (which dubiously serve as an inauguration to the case‑file), were extracted under inhospitable conditions, either under duress, intimidation or torture—hence should only stand as unproven allegations. Such allegations were, however, only reported in the dossier, usually by lawyers acting on behalf of defendants, but left as such without further investigation, as though they were meant as routine operations that did not matter. If reported at all in the verdict, the judge would simply weigh such statements in relation to other evidence, prior to making up his mind as to whether there was any merit in them. In other words, allegations of misbehavior and torture were textually processed, and traded as such with counter‑allegations in the case‑file.40

53The only matter that would ultimately turn around such routines was the death of a suspect–defendant, hence the significance of the Farawati case. In its “facts” section, the verdict in April 1998 of the criminal court in Aleppo documented the events that would eventually lead to Farawati’s arrest and death.

  • 41 Even though in civil‑law systems the criminal courts do offer cash compensations, albeit low in val (...)

The accused [policemen arrested for manslaughter], consisting of elements from the Bāb al‑Nayrab police station, and based on reports they had received that the [deceased] victim Ahmad Farawati was trading heroin, went to his home to arrest him, but did not find him, and found instead his wife the witness Aysha Shehade. They escorted her to the police station and investigated her with violence, while managing to extract from her information regarding the whereabouts of her husband and wounded son. The two were eventually whisked to the police station, and an investigation began, while they were kept isolated from one another. Violence was exercised on both: the victim was hit with a stick 200 times on his feet, and his son received a similar treatment. The son apparently revealed the location of the heroin, and was accompanied by the two assistants in a car to the alleged place. At the station, first assistant Jamil and the two policemen Nazih Shaʿar and Saleh ʿIsa pursued their exercise of violence on the victim, hitting him with a stick on his feet repeatedly, kicking him with their feet all over his body. One of the blows apparently damaged two of his chest ribs, the tenth and eleventh, creating a severe blood hemorrhage that eventually led to the victim’s death, in spite of the hospitalization that took place at 9:00 in the morning, which was ordered by the head of the station, as soon as he came to his office and realized the emergency of the situation. The accused alleged that they did not beat the victim, who asked permission to use the toilet, and while there fell on the floor, which caused his broken ribs. However, the facts do not match such allegations, pointing to acts of abusive violence exercised against the victim by the accused. For her part, the victim’s wife filed a civil lawsuit against the accused.41

54In the “evidence” section the verdict accounted for 17 items consisting mostly of statements provided by witnesses, including ones furnished by other inmates who were under arrest that same fatal night, in addition to the early police and postmortem reports.

55Before pursuing evidence, let us first look at the logic of the verdict itself. The three accused policemen, Jamil Qadahnun (b. 1962), Nazih Shaʿar (b. 1962), and Saleh ʿIsa (b. 1957), were found guilty of torturing the victim Ahmad Farawati in one afternoon, causing his death in the early morning, which led to their conviction for manslaughter (qatl qaṣd), on the ground that there was no premeditation for murder, for 5 years of imprisonment with hard labor, but extended to 10 years, considering the severity of the circumstances. The verdict cited article 536 of the penal code for a harmful act that caused death without premeditation (that is, the crime fell short of murder); articles 367–247 for the fact that the accused were policemen who misused their official authority; and article 541 for inflicting harm on the victim’s wife ʿAysha upon her interrogation.

56It remains puzzling why it took so long to reach a verdict on April 23, 1998, considering that Farawati’s death must have occurred in the night–morning of August 2, 1991. Even though such long delays were not unusual (e.g. Sabiha Dalʿun, executed in Idlib’s prison in 2003, in the aftermath of a 20‑year long wait for the verdict, C5–5 infra), this one raises additional concerns: considering that much of the evidence was ready by 1992, and that the autopsy and medical reports were in favor of the victim, and that every witness, safe the policemen, confirmed an excessive use of violence, why did it then drag for so long? The delay was already visible early on, as it took almost two years to come up with the referral judge report and the first synthesis of the crime. Soon after its publication on March 4, 1993, it was appealed by the two lawyers on behalf of the three policemen, which the judge had officially charged of manslaughter (qatl qaṣd). By December 14, 1993, the Damascus Naqḍ had rejected the appeal, approving the judge’s findings on the ground that he got his “facts” right, and that accordingly he made the right conclusions. All this points that at least by the end of 1993, the case was moving on a fast track, possibly ready for its verdict; so why five more long years, with no new evidence in sight?

  • 42 See, supra Chapter 3, C3–1.
  • 43 The Lebanese newspaper al‑Nahār has reported on June 16, 2010, that “The Egyptian judiciary has ord (...)

57This unusual case, on the death of an arrested man under torture, seems to have alienated the judges of Aleppo and Damascus, on one hand, from the officials at the Ministry of Justice in Damascus on the other. For a country known to routinely arrest its citizens for political reasons (“national state security concerns” in the official jargon), while imprisoning and torturing them without in most instances any right to lawyers, journalists, family visitations, appeals, and judicial reviews, with some of those “political prisoners” vanishing forever in their prison cells, judges seem to have drawn a thin red line between their “civil” cases, which they routinely handle on a daily basis, and the other “political” cases over which they have no access. Another aspect of the controversy is the routine intimidation and torture that “civil” suspects and witnesses are subject to in criminal (and at times civil) cases by the police, and which are reported by witnesses to investigating judges; even though such complaints do not seem “enough” per se to have spurred investigations by the Jināyāt. For its part, the Damascus Naqḍ has repeatedly stated in various rulings in the last decades that a statement uttered to the police, whether peacefully or under duress, should not constitute per se any valid evidence, unless reiterated publicly in a court of law;42 but the courts notoriously fall short at forcing out investigations for an abusive use of torture. In short, judges seem to have willy‑nilly approved the random use of torture, as long as it brings the needed “evidence,” and as long as—hence the novelty in this case at hand—it would not cause the death of the accused–witness. Judges seem to be operating under a two‑sided red line: one that detaches “civil” cases from their “political” counterpart, and another separating “legitimate” from “illegitimate” civil torture, the latter leading to death due to excessive violence.43

58From Aleppo to Damascus, judges seem to have interiorized such in‑between border lines, without, however, formulating them explicitly, without ever publicizing them, skirting off the use of torture by the police in nonpolitical criminal investigations. Because judges seem to have made up their minds, receiving the benediction of the Damascus Naqḍ by the end of 1993, which endorsed the findings of the referral judge, one would have expected that the case would have moved rather swiftly by early 1994, with a speedy trial that would have sealed the file by the end of that year. Resistance to the policemen’s guilt and their possible conviction on grounds of manslaughter, assuming there was any, came mostly from state officials, in particular the Ministry of Justice. Thus, in 1997 the Minister of Justice addressed in person an appeal to the Damascus Naqḍ grouching that the referral report in 1993 did not enough scrutinize the medical reports, which, from his viewpoint, did not thoroughly construct the “causal link” between the various blows that the victim was subject to, on one hand, and his addiction to heroin and asthma illness on the other. In other words, was the death caused by police violence per se, which the minister’s memo seems to grudgingly admit, or was it an outcome of a combination of heroin addiction and chronic asthma (which is what the minister was hoping for)? The minister chastises the referral judge for not having done enough to explore this route. The other contentious issue, according to the minister, was apropos the policemen who appealed the referral report, which demanded a reviving of the investigation and its broadening to other witnesses, even offering to be reexamined themselves, but were not taken seriously by the Naqḍ in its revocation of the appeal, which the minister argues, was unbalanced and premature in its judgment. To underscore his position, the minister forwarded his appeal as a “written order” (amr khaṭṭī), obligating the Damascus supreme court to handle the matter for a second round no matter what. In its response on April 28, 1997, the Naqḍ stated that the issue of a “written order” was not warranted in the code of criminal procedures (article 366), considering that the case already received a review in 1993; moreover, the new appeal failed to indicate which “evidence” needed to be specifically addressed by the Aleppo judges, hence there were no grounds for a reevaluation. By revoking the second appeal in  1997, the Naqḍ finally cleared the way for the final verdict that was to be passed by the Aleppo Jināyāt the following year.

  • 44 Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, New York: Harper, 2010, (...)

59A dividing line therefore de facto established itself between the judges in Aleppo, who received a full endorsement from their upper colleagues in Damascus, on one hand, and the politicization of the case through the Ministry of Justice on the other, even though the minister’s appeal was supposed to have kept matters within the confines of legal reasoning. What is noticeably more visible here, compared to other cases in this book, are various levels of discrepancies between what witnesses had stated in different circumstances. If in our other cases, the police reports were generally taken as sacrosanct and as bearers of the truth, by contrast the August 2, 1991 report for the killing of Ahmad Farawati, drafted the night of his death, which systematically denied any wrongdoing, was a source of suspicion from day one. One way to handle the numerous discrepancies between what the police alleged that the witnesses had stated that night, and later statements delivered the following week to the investigating judge by those same witnesses, denying previous statements in toto, is, for our part, to compare and contrast. Even though we’ve gone through such denials in our previous cases, the tragic death of Ahmad Farawati had prompted the judicial authorities to question the possibility of a deliberate “murder” rather than simply “manslaughter” (it eventually opted for manslaughter against murder). More importantly, police torture was not in this instance a source for revealing the truth, and nothing but the truth. At least judges were highly skeptical, and their skepticism was disclosed in every memo they had delivered, beginning with the referral report, skepticisms that considerably delayed the resolution of the case. The judges reasoned that the red line had been crossed, and that they needed to avoid a politicization of the case, hence every step had to be measured for its own sake to avoid a possible “political” backlash from the top.44

60The police report that initially triggered the affair was drafted on August 2, 1991, presumably the night Ahmad Farawati tragically died. It indicates in its “summary” section that

Husayn Farawati, an Aleppo resident, was brought to justice, having been put into custody for selling heroin; his father Ahmad died while under investigation for trading heroin. It was found that he was hiding in his stomach a sample of heroin sealed in cellophane paper. Was kept [in custody] by the judge. The body was delivered to his family. Three were arrested from our station, pursuant to arrest warrants: [officers] Jamil Qadahnun, Nazih Shaʿar, and Saleh ʿIsa.

61The introduction to the eight‑page handwritten report states that

We were informed of the existence of a kilogram of heroin in the possession of Ahmad Farawati, which jointly belongs to his son Abdulrazzaq, who is now in custody in Aleppo’s prison; the drug was prior to that stolen by the two thieves Mustafa Aqil and Umar Idris, an information that was provided to us by the thief Mustafa, which led to an arrest warrant number 784 on August 1, 1991. His son Husayn Farawati was also a suspect and an arrest warrant was issued for that purpose and for trafficking heroin. We therefore went to search for the father and son in the Midan neighborhood in Khān al‑Zaytūn. As we saw the door open, we knocked, the owner greeted us and told us to come in. Once we told her what we came for, we’ve arrested the two aforementioned suspects, and escorted them to our station here, then proceeded with investigating the owner of the place Aysha Hamawi (b. 1938), which has stated the following:

I inform you that this morning at around 5:00 a.m., you came to my home in Khān al‑Zaytūn and found the door open. You’ve knocked and informed me of your mission: to arrest my brother Ahmad Farawati and his son Husayn, which were wanted on your part. You’ve arrested them; they’ve had been around for half an hour prior to your visit, but they never informed me of the purpose of their visit. There was no physical or moral damage (ḍarar maʿnawī) as a result of your visit, and everything was within the boundaries of the rules of law.

62Before we compare statements, let us recollect what Farawati’s wife (b. 1936, then widowed, which eventually filed a civil lawsuit for material compensation) had to say:

I inform you that this morning you came to the house of my daughter Fatima in the Bāb al‑Nayrab neighborhood while we were sleeping. You asked me the whereabouts of my husband Ahmad and son Husayn, and told you that they were staying in the home of my husband’s sister Aysha in Khān al‑Zaytūn. It was Aysha’s son Muhammad Ali Farawati who had informed me that my husband and son were staying the night in their home. I accompanied you to the house, where you arrested my husband and son and took us all to your station. I have no idea why we were all arrested.

63One reader, who apparently had reviewed the file for the defense, wrote in the margin where it was stated that “she came with us to show us the home’s location”: “contradiction.” The possible element of contradiction consists in the distinct (and conflicting) versions of the events that Farawati’s wife recounted to two different authorities, first to the police and then to an investigating judge that same evening, presumably following her husband’s death. First, in the police report all allegations of torture were omitted; second, the same report alleges that Aysha accompanied the policemen from her daughter’s home to the location where her husband and son were eventually arrested. It is precisely such claims that her statements to the investigating judge would contest. That the two statements were “signed” the same day is remarkable, an indication that the source of interrogation proves more relevant than its bearer: who is interrogating, and for what purpose? What is the format (or procedures) of investigation? How are they inscribed on paper, and is it solely for purposes of examination by the upper Jināyāt court? What are the procedures for recording on paper?

I was in Damascus, and came to Aleppo on Thursday, August 1, 1991. I reached Aleppo at 10:00 p.m. to my daughter’s home, Fatima Farawati, who urged me to stay the night with her. I accepted her invitation, and by 3:00 this morning a police patrol from Bāb al‑Nayrab came to our home, and drove me to their station. While there, two policemen started beating me up on my legs, asking me to locate where my husband Ahmad and son Husayn were hiding. I volunteered to be taken there, and once we got to my husband’s home around 5:00 a.m. they seized him with my son Husayn and got us all to the station. Once there, I was isolated from my husband and son, and placed in an adjacent room where I was hearing my husband screaming in a loud voice. I overheard them say that my husband defecated in his clothes, and that he had to be hospitalized. I do not know who did the beating among the police.

64Such discrepancies among testimonies from the same person, or testimonies furnished by different persons, would turn out to be a common feature of this affair, and it is not hard to understand why. The police obviously wanted to scrap off evidence of violence exerted on a lone mid‑aged woman, so they redacted in its entirety the episode of fetching her to the station, torturing her, until providing information on the whereabouts of husband and son. In the sanitized police draft, she would accompany them directly to her husband’s location, with the station intermedius completely deleted. The prosecution would construct its case entirely based on such discrepancies, what was euphemistically dubbed as “contradictions,” tanāquḍ.

65How did Ahmad Farawati die? Since torture had been admitted early on, as there was no way of eschewing it (the autopsy report was in itself badly damaging, see infra), questions abounded on its severity, on one hand, and, on the other, whether Farawati’s own health problems, in particular his alleged heroin addiction and asthma, did contribute to his fatal death. In other words, was it mainly a question of severe torture methods, or was torture “reasonable,” but had to be factored in with Farawati’s shaky health, which the policemen had no knowledge of?

66Let us note here that for some reason the police memo on August 2, 1991, which inaugurates the case‑file, did not carry any statements by the three suspects of the killing. As the report indicates that they were under arrest since Farawati’s death, their only statements would be delivered to an investigating judge within the coming 24 hours. It may well be that, as policemen, they should not be interrogated by fellow policemen, but only by judges and prosecutors from the public prosecution office. For its part, the eight‑page handwritten police memo only carried the first two witnessing accounts above, by Farawati’s sister and his wife, while investigating additional witnesses, among them the head of the police station; a policeman present at the station when Farawati and his son were under investigation; three males who were under custody at the station that day; a man who was arrested that same day on charges of heroin trafficking; and two males who witnessed Farawati’s heroin addiction.

67Instead of going through such testimonies right now, I want to break the order of exposition, and concentrate first on the three suspects’ statements to the prosecution. Such statements would serve as the prime template for what effectively took place within the 24 hours since Farawati’s arrest and death.

68The first suspect was officer Jamil Qadahnun (b. 1962), and was examined by the prosecution on August 2.

Q1. You have been accused of manslaughter (qatl qaṣd)?

  • 45 Notice that the name(s) remain unrevealed, and, based on the case‑file, no “informer” has been ques (...)
  • 46 This little detail on outfits could indicate that the police unit was not there for a personal vend (...)
  • 47 Once more, the alleged torture episode is suppressed.

A1. There is no truth to what has been attributed to me; the truth is that the head of the department had asked me to meet with one of the informers (mukhbirīn, s. mukhbir),45 who had apparently provided information that Ahmad Farawati was trafficking heroin, and that he was in possession of one kilogram. I met with the informer as planned, who notified me that the victim Ahmad Farawati was sleeping at his daughter’s home, and that his wife was helping him in the heroin trafficking. I formed a small unit composed of Husayn Haddad as our head, myself as an assistant, policeman Saleh ʿIsa and the van’s driver. We headed towards the home of Farawati’s daughter, and we were with the same outfits that we usually wear at the station.46 Once there, we were unable to find the victim Ahmad, but his wife was present, so we took her to the station. She informed us of the Khān al‑Zaytūn home,47 and at 5:00 in the morning we headed to the location. As the door was open, we went in and found there Ahmad Farawati and his son, both of which were under a customary arrest warrant (mudhakkarat tawqīf ʿurfī) issued against them in absentia. Since we did not find any drugs, we took them to the station for investigation, and we separated husband, wife and son from one another, each in a room. When we pressured them on drug claims, they were in full denial. When I was investigating the victim, and I do not recall who was in the room, because the door was left open and people were coming in and out all the time, I felt that he was ill at ease, and he pointed to something he was carrying in his pocket. It was a small thing that he was using for his asthma relief, which was recommended to him by prescription. It was at this moment that saliva came out of his mouth; so I held him and helped him stand up, but he could not, and dropped on the floor. I took him out of the room, and once I sprayed his face with water, he looked better. I took him back to the lockup room, as he was able to walk his way through on his own. Ten minutes later I heard a knock at his door, and one of my colleagues told me that the victim was asking permission to use the bathroom. It was policeman Mustafa ʿUbayd who opened the door for him, and when I asked the victim to stand up, he could not; so I asked one of the inmates, ʿAbd al‑ʿAyn Qirqanawi, to help him get through to the restroom, and with the help of another inmate by the name of Khalid Kurba, they both helped him stand up, dragging him out. The restroom had two edges, each with a 30‑cm height, and when they had him sit, he accidentally fell on the edges. We took him back to the lockup room, took off his clothes, washed him with cold water. When ʿAbd al‑ʿAyn managed to wake him up, he was in pain, we wrapped him with a blanket, then took him back to the lockup room. He pleaded for a second visit to the bathroom, we authorized him to do so, but he kept feeling unwell. Which alerted the department head who demanded that we take him out of the lockup room and have him hospitalized, considering his poor health condition.

Q2. The investigation alleged that you kept hitting the victim on his two legs, and that he was subjected to roughly 50 stick‑blows. You and two other colleagues, Abu ʿImad and Abu Ibrahim, had inflicted the victim to many severe blows.

A2. That’s absolutely not true. Neither me nor my colleagues had inflicted any physical harm on the victim.

Q3. When the victim’s son was called upon, who was under arrest at the same station, he was seen with blood on his feet, more precisely under his nails, as an outcome to the violence that he and his father were subjected to.

A3. We neither tortured the victim nor his son, and what was seen as blood on the son’s feet was due to the fact that he was barefooted and was not wearing any shoes.

69It is such total denial of any torture that would eventually play badly for all three defendants. Already “public opinion” was not in their favor, and the fact that they were arrested and became suspects from day one, did not play well either. Why then such stubbornness? The restroom “accident,” where allegedly the victim had fallen accidentally on a salient edge, was rapidly rebuked by autopsy reports, in conjunction with the released photographs, all of which pointed to an undeniable excessive torture. To understand the behavior of all three policemen, a simple truth must be stated, namely, that they were not used to such scrutiny; those are people that torture inmates and suspects routinely, while constantly denying it, and all of a sudden one of those suspects dies the same day he was taken into custody for investigation, creating havoc, with those same denials that worked in the past as apology losing their charm. The unexpected twist was indeed in the attitude of judges and prosecutors, as they had come to realize that a red line was crossed, and that the policemen, whom they relied so much upon in the past for their diligent torture methods, lost their ground defense. Indeed, all benchmarks all of a sudden shifted; something had to be done.

70What may have surprised the three policemen and their cohorts at the Bāb al‑Nayrab station was how fast the indictment moved against them from the early weeks of the investigation. Thus, by August 22, a public suit had already targeted the actions of the Bāb al‑Nayrab station and its departmental head, and by October 22, an investigating judge had drafted a two‑page memo to the head of Aleppo’s palace of justice restricting the culprits to only three policemen who exercised the violence that caused Farawati’s premature death, while recommending that a fourth be vindicated from any wrongdoing for lack of firm evidence. He also recommended that all three be tried for manslaughter under articles 536–212 of the penal code. So, even though everything was set in rapid motion since 1991, the verdict would have to wait until 1998: prosecutors, who were eager to bring all three to trial, may have underestimated the power of mores and the routinization of “acceptable” torture, which was invariably met with deaf ears. Thus, the investigating judge in his early report argued that all three policemen had no intent to kill, but only “to annoy [izʿāj] the victim in order to extract statements from him upon investigation,” adding that such acts represent “an abuse of a public office in the way an individual was threatened and killed.” It was that thin borderline between “annoying” a suspect under interrogation for purposes of “extracting valuable information,” and pushing that “annoyance” to the point of no return, that was left unquestioned. Moreover, having de facto approved such “annoyances” for long periods, prosecutors must have had underestimated how much the routinization of torture would give them a hard time to nail down suspects on any wrongdoing. If that not‑to‑be‑exceeded borderline is the act of killing, while torture is unofficially “approved,” as long as no one dies, then would those policemen at work know where to stop? Why not ban torture altogether, and prosecute those who exercise it? In sum, if prosecutors had a long way to go to criminalize the behavior of the three officers, it is because they did not realize firsthand how much the routinization of torture had to be reappraised, because those who were not in favor of a criminal verdict (for instance, at the department of justice) played that “approved torture” motto, constantly delaying the verdict up to 1998 with appeals and counter‑appeals.

  • 48 Note that even at this early stage, once the initial police investigation has been completed and su (...)

71Let us move to the early deposition of the second convicted policeman Nazih Shaʿar (b. 1962) on August 2.48

Q1. You have been accused of participating in a homicidal crime?

  • 49 A reader marked this sentence in parentheses.

A1. From about 4:00 to 5:00 this morning I accompanied first assistant Husayn Haddad, first assistant Jamil Qadahnun, and the policemen Saleh ʿIsa and Nayif Lakhmuri to the home of the victim’s daughter. The victim was not there, but only his wife, whom we escorted to the station on charges of drug trafficking. My colleagues headed to where victim and son were supposed to be. I did not accompany them, as I had to bring the wife to the station. I kept an eye on the victim’s daughter home for a while, so that no one would know about us, and no one would tell the victim about our search. I returned to the station in one of the police cars, and once there I was told that the victim and his son had been arrested. I did not beat up the victim Ahmad Farawati, nor did I see any of my colleagues perform such acts. I noticed the assistant Jamil Qadahnun proceeding with an interrogation of the victim, but I was not present in the same room, as I went out for my morning prayer. As soon as I came back from the mosque, I saw the victim in a sick state, as he was having breathing problems. I was only looking at him from a distance, and did not mingle with him, because I am not a member of those who interrogate, and only an assistant.49 I did not even come close to him. The guard of the lockup room and its manager were taking him in and out all the time. It was at this time that I left to bring some breakfast, then sat with my colleagues and had breakfast. The guard of the lockup room, Mustafa ʿUbayd, was telling us that the condition of the victim was good; I saw them taking the victim in and out of the lockup room on a couple of occasions.

Q2. The investigations point out that you and first assistant Jamil, with a policeman known as Abu Ibrahim, had violently kicked with your feet the victim on several occasions, and this after he was beaten up with a stick by the aforementioned Jamil Qadahnun on his legs, so what do you have to say?

A2. That is not true. I neither kicked the victim with my legs, nor did I see my colleagues harm him.

72The emphasis here is on distance: I was not there, I did not see a thing, I was not in the room where Farawati was being interrogated (and tortured), I had to leave for the morning prayer, then I went out to buy breakfast; and also the full denial of torture for himself and his colleagues, with a twist of inescapable contradiction: I deny totally torture for myself and others, even though I was not there most of the time.

  • 50 This is the only sentence in the handwritten autopsy report that has been underlined, possibly by a (...)

73The first forensic doctor to examine Farawati’s body was on August 2. The report notes several deep bruises on the body, which indicate that violence and force have been exercised, even though there was no indication to exact timing, which must have been alarming: “There is a first deep bruise on the left side of the head, 2‑cm by 1‑cm in depth roughly. Three more show up below on the same side with similar qualifications, which may have been the result of kicks inflicted on the face.” In the following section, “the opening up of the body,” the autopsy indicates that when with the help of a scalpel the skull was dissected beneath the areas that showed deep bruises, “there is no indication of violence or force, or broken bones in the skull, and when the brain area was dissected, there was no indication of a blood hemorrhage in the mouth and ear areas.” It was only in the lung and its thoracic cavity (thorax and chest) that indications of a blood hemorrhage were perceived. It is at this stage that the report documents the two broken bones in the chest—the tenth and eleventh on the left side—one of those “facts” that would stick in subsequent prosecution reports, and in the final 1998 verdict. The two broken ribs have apparently damaged small and larger arteries, inflicting a hemorrhage in the thoracic cavity. After examining the heart and the kidneys, the autopsy grapples with another “fact” that would push for further scrutiny by both prosecution and defense: “once we reached the stomach, we proceeded with a dissection, and found a foreign body (jism ajnabī) the size of a suppository,50 which was wrapped in a cellophane material normally used for wrapping chocolate, one of its edges had been damaged; as to the rest of the stomach and the intestines there is no sign of damage.” The postmortem concludes that the victim had “in his lifetime” been subjected to several blows and kicks which in themselves would not cause death. What caused death, however, were the two broken ribs and the damage that they inflicted on blood arteries and other sections of the thorax.

  • 51 The five‑panel report on October 3, 1991, mentions that its predecessor three‑panel report included (...)

74As always, the autopsy was signed by the certified medical doctor who drafted it. As it was a one‑man job, there could be, in some problematic instances, as was the case here, further medical scrutiny. A three‑panel committee of doctors was called to re‑examine the body that same evening of August 2, and an investigating judge interviewed them and recorded their “collective statements” once they were done with their postmortem. As this case is unique in both facts and outcome, particularly that three policemen were under custody since August 2, with possible murder charges, it is hard to tell if the speed of such reports was an indication of the police attempting to formulate its innocence, or whether the public prosecution office was already aware of the seriousness of the charges, hence setting the record straight as early as possible, knowing that the condition of the body would constitute the most damaging evidence. With the postmortem of the victim’s body, the dossier included gruesome pictures of the corpse after its dissection on August 2. Ordered by the investigating judge, the four pictures were shot only few hours amid the completion of the autopsy, and were wrapped together as a “photographic report of a killing incident.” While the first and third pictures clearly show considerable autopsy work on the intestines and thoracic cavity, presumably to locate the “foreign body” mystery, the fourth one shows a rope loosely tied to the victim’s legs, without, however, pointing to its source. Surprisingly, however, the dossier, at least the photocopied version I received in 1999, did not include any photos of the corpse prior to the autopsy. Such pictures, however, in particular had they been performed with a micro‑lens, would have been more relevant than the post‑autopsy ones that were included.51 The latter seem to have been relevant for the work of later medical committees, such as the five‑panel committee, which was summoned on October 3, 1991, by an investigating judge to reexamine the body. The committee, which met with the judge in Aleppo’s main university hospital, fully endorsed the work of its predecessor, the three‑doctor panel on August 2, which in turn, had endorsed the coronary report. The crux of the matter resolved around a couple of factual interpretations, namely, that the death did not occur as an outcome to a damage to the skull and brain, but to blows on the thoracic area that damaged two ribs and blood vessels, resulting in a severe blood hemorrhage; all reports endorsed the existence of the cellophane foreign body, said to have been discovered in the stomach, and “whose content remains unknown,” according to the three‑panel committee. The five‑doctor panel approved all such evidence, even though in this instance the body had apparently not been kept in a fridge for two months, nor accessible, hence all evidence was based on textual (2 medical reports) and photographic materials (18 post‑autopsy photos).

75The two‑page report of the five‑panel committee, which begins with an introduction fully endorsing previous medical reports, was mostly composed of a question‑and‑answer session at the hospital, conducted by an investigating judge.

  • 52 The committee did not identify the “foreign object” as heroin, nor was there any lab examination th (...)
  • 53 That is another assumption that has never been proved. The possibility that this substance, assumin (...)

Q1. To professor Zakkur: Apropos the heroin that was found in the stomach, in the form that was described in the three‑panel report committee,52 which was wrapped in cellophane paper damaged on its parts, and which was consumed prior to the arrest,53 would it lead to the breakdown that witnesses described and that was documented in police reports, when the victim went to the restroom?

A1. We will have to assume for our part that what those witnesses have stated is exact, even though there is no analysis that would point that this substance is heroin. Moreover, the effect of heroin is through breathing, and not on the intestinal system; and the report points out that the foreign body was almost intact and did not lose much of its shape.

Q2. To professor Zakkur: Would the fall of the body in the restroom, in the way described in the original report, and which took place on the two 30‑cm edges of the room, would that lead to the two broken ribs as described in the three‑panel report, or was that caused by the heavy foot kicks the victim was subjected to on his chest?

A2. When the victim was transferred from the investigation room to the restroom, he was in such a dire situation that he was unable to walk, and needed help. This shows that he was already in poor shape before falling in the restroom, as he was repeatedly losing consciousness, which was due to the hemorrhage that was described in the three‑panel report, in addition to the accompanying photographs. That is why the fall in the restroom would neither provoke that kind of loss of consciousness nor two broken ribs for that matter nor a severe hemorrhage. As to the various kicks, it is impossible to speculate on their force and the kind of damage that they may have created.

Q3. Would the old cardiac infraction in conjunction with heroin use generate the loss of consciousness?

A3. The described infraction was in a stable condition, in the sense that its duration was no less than six months, and in six months the situation of the heart would go stable. Moreover, as the infraction was on the left valve, which would not have any effect from the physiological point of view in conjunction with the contracting of the heart.

Q4. Would the asthma condition of the victim, as described in the report, have contributed to the loss of consciousness?

A4. The asthma pump that was found with the victim is no indication that he had asthma, and even if he did, that would not have mixed with the other factors that were unrelated to this illness, considering that the heart was quasi‑normal. As we have repeatedly stated, the hemorrhage, which led to death, was the outcome of the two broken ribs.

Figure 5–3. Pictures of the deceased Farawati that were taken in the aftermath of the autopsy report, in the layout of the forensic photography department of the Jināyāt, which make it impossible to assess the extent of the alleged torture.

Figure 5–3. Pictures of the deceased Farawati that were taken in the aftermath of the autopsy report, in the layout of the forensic photography department of the Jināyāt, which make it impossible to assess the extent of the alleged torture.

76Since all medical reports were more or less conclusive at isolating the alleged asthma condition from the alleged heroin use on one hand, and the reported fall in the restroom from the internal thoracic hemorrhage on the other, evidence in this respect was narrowed to one factor only, namely the two broken ribs which, since they were not an outcome of the bathroom fall, must have been caused by violent beating. In sum, the broken ribs caused the bleeding, which in turn led to death. The prosecution would carry this fact in the seven years that it took the case to conclude, constituting a major cornerstone of the dossier. The other cornerstone would unexpectedly come from the damning evidence furnished by the inmates themselves who were into custody at the station that day of August 2. That the public prosecutor would take inmates seriously is an important precedent, but in the final analysis, the prosecution had no other witnesses, besides the policemen who tortured the victim (and who proved less reliable than the inmates), and the various doctors who conducted the autopsy and commented on the condition of the body. However, the testimony of one of the inmates, that of Khalid Husayn (b. 1956), would prove the most damning, as it will be quoted in every report and memo by prosecution and judges. Khalid would furnish two depositions on August 2 and 3, one to the police and the other to an investigating judge, and like the other witnesses that we have encountered earlier, the double‑witnessing would come at price, as the torture scenes would be only revealed to the judge.

  • 54 Did the wife accompany the policemen to the location of her husband?
  • 55 In parenthesis in the original Arabic.
  • 56 A reader underlined this last sentence.
  • 57 This is the second underlined sentence, probably by the same reader as above.

I was under custody at the Bāb al‑Nayrab police station, and that Friday morning [August 2] at around 2:30 the wife of the victim was fetched and they hit her with a stick 40 to 50 times, and she was screaming and asking for help, and all that was taking place in the room adjacent to us. I heard Jamil Qadahnun telling her that you have got only two choices, either the merchandise, or else [the location of] your husband and son. They left the station, and half an hour later the same policemen came back in the company of the victim and his son Husayn and his wife,54 and started hitting the son Husayn on his feet 201 times with a stick. He was screaming and asking for help; I was counting each one of those hits, as I was receiving their sounds in the other room. Jamil was telling him, I want the merchandise from you (that is, the drugs).55 They then placed him in the lockup room, while the victim was in the investigation room, and we were able to watch all action from the little window in our cell. He was screaming all the time, but after a while his voice all of a sudden vanished. They managed to have him stand up; I think it was the assistant Jamil who helped him stand up for several minutes, after which they placed him in our cell, and we heard the victim asking permission to leave to the restroom.…When I knocked at the door and told Jamil that the victim needs to go to the restroom and cannot stand on his own, he replied, “Leave him die on his own here.”56 It was then that they asked me and another inmate, ʿAbul‑ayn Qirqanawi, to carry him to the restroom; and once we did, we had to hold him to finish his task, but he was unable to pee. It is not true that he fell on the restroom’s floor,57 as the two of us were holding him all the time. We then took him back to the cell, and after a while we knocked the door asking permission to take him one more time to the restroom to clean him up. Jamil came to open the door for us with two more policemen. In the restroom we took his clothes off, cleaned him, and I gave him a pajama that was mine. Once back into the cell, I knocked the door one more time, and told the guards in the corridor, “This man seems to be dying,” to which they replied, “Let him die, let this dog die.” They finally opened the door for us once I told them that there’s saliva coming from his mouth. I was told that they took him to the closest hospital.

77It was on October 23, 1991, that an investigating judge delivered a first preliminary synthesis of the dossier, which would serve as template to the other memos, up to the 1998 verdict. The centerpiece of the judge’s argument was that “there was no intent to kill,” “even though there were visible signs of violence and force exercised on the victim to extract a confession (intizāʿ iʿtirāf) apropos the drug substances that were the subject of the investigation.” The use of “confession” in this context rather than “evidence” or “statement” in the sense of an “acknowledgment” (iqrār), points to an understanding of a “factual evidence” that would be fully delivered by the tortured victim as a “full confession” that would not even need an interpretation (from the hearer) as an act of guilt. Moreover, a “confession” is “extracted,” hence the need for torture, because the confession would emanate from the body through torture. The judge went on with his argument as follows:

In terms of results, their actions constitute a participation in harm that would lead to death (al‑ishtirāk bi‑l‑idhāʾ al‑mufḍi li‑l‑mawt), based on articles 212–536 of the penal code, specifically article 534…due to the fact that what they did does not point to an intention to kill (niyyat qatl) the victim Ahmad Farawati, because intention is an internal hidden matter (al‑niyya hiya mina al‑umūr al‑bāṭiniyya) in homicidal crimes, but could only be manifested through external conditions and material acts, which would point to the intention of the doer, in that it aims at killing. However, based on the facts of this case and the evidence that came through, there is no absolute indication that would point to the fact that when all defendants, when they were harming the victim, and practiced violence and force on him, had the intention to kill him, considering that all what they wanted was to extract a XE "Index:confession" confession from him. Moreover, there is no evidence that the defendants were in any way enemies to the victim. For all those reasons the components of manslaughter (jarīmat al‑qatl al‑qaṣd) are not there in this suit.

78By the time the referral judge report followed suit nearly two years later on March 4, 1993, this reasoning does not seem to have abated, as the manslaughter charge would be avoided one more time in favor of a lesser one of an inflicted harm that would involuntarily lead to death.

79It is indeed in such instances that time, which we have probed earlier, would factor decisively. Let us say beforehand that in the long five‑year 1993–1998 interlude, which led to manslaughter charges in the final verdict, no new evidence has enhanced the file, and based on the dossier itself, there is no palpable evidence either of a shift in narrative logic. To begin with, there were two sets of court hearings, the first took place in the summer of 1994 and lasted until the end of the year, and then after the appeals that reached the Damascus Naqḍ, another set of hearings were conducted between November 1997 and May 1998, both of which kept reshuffling the evidence that we have documented earlier. There seems to have been behind‑the‑scenes negotiations and quid pro quos that may have led to the shift to the manslaughter charge in the verdict, and which is what gave this case its unique character.

Torture as the obscene supplement of Law

  • 58 Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999, 77–83, on “the exa (...)

80In various political and cultural studies of torture that would relate the state or a régime of power to individuals, or the torturer to his or her victim, or a power relation as lived through the subjugated body and the pain inflicted upon it, the consensus is either that such dynamic allows the régime in power to consolidate its grip over the individual lives of its subjects, hence the purpose of afflicting such agonizing pain over the body would be to destroy the person’s sense of self (the state manifesting its limitless sense of power), or else that torture has less to do with the subjugated body as it acts more as an allegorical system deployed by the state as a means of representation of itself.58 In other words, torture would be devoid of its own physicality—as if pain and pleasure did not matter in their own finitude, for the contingent bodies that carry them—as it would only serve as a tool of representation for the state’s omnipotent mighty power.

81If we were to finesse such reasoning within an historical perspective, which must take Europe as the mark of transition to modernity, there was a paradigmatic shift between an ancien régime representation of torture, which implied public representations of executions at the sovereign’s whim preceded by acts of violence and torture aimed at the sinful body of the lawbreaker: the sovereign, acting on behalf of the state, was at the same time displaying his will and acting as agent for the amputation of evil in the sinful body of the offender. In a public display of sovereign violence, therefore, torture did not exhibit itself as an individualized process of subjection—between torturer and recipient—but framed within the wider process of political power: individuals were targeted as inscribed within wider collectivities, the clan, the family, or the territory. In the modern transition to modernity that marked the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, institutionalized disciplinary power made the public display of violence redundant, if not shameful, hence secretive, still exercised, but not admitted as such. Even though Foucault portrayed anonymous disciplinary power as the dark side of the Enlightenment, it nonetheless produces the individualities of subjects qua subjects. The subject is caught within a web of discursive formations as autonomous, self‑sufficient systems of truth and practices, the functioning of which could be explained without reference to any generative principle of socio‑symbolic formations. In other words, discourse has that aura to it as a non‑subjective power relation, as it only aims at depicting the positive unconscious of knowledge, or the historical a priori that made possible the very existence of such discourses.

82To elaborate, the Foucauldian approach, while successful at portraying individuals caught in a web of normative discursive practices towards which they would resist subjugation, it creates confusion regarding the assimilated empirical contents of those subjects who have been subjugated to disciplinary power relations. What if we are already alienated in the socio‑symbolic order as the condition of possibility for our existence as subjects? Put more bluntly, what is it that really happens when “I” as a subject am tortured at the hands of a policeman? What is at stake here is the very gap between the discursive space, which receives its genesis from an historical a priori of knowledge, and the positive content that fills out. The juridico–discursive model of power fills that gap by claiming that violence and torture may prove “useful” from extracting the truth from the mouth of the lawbreaker. Notice how in our case of the three indicted policemen, all rulings acknowledged torture as a “useful” means for accessing the truth. Thus, when the court bluntly stated that all the policemen “wanted was only to extract a XE "Index:confession" confession from the defendant,” the implication was that torture was fine as long as we are in a confessional mood which would ultimately deliver the truth from the tortured mouth of the offender. But the court was acting within a hypocritical double bind: on the one hand, the court behaved as if torture was officially sanctioned, while no item in the penal code officially sanctions such practices; on the other hand, the court only implicitly sanctioned shared values that are normally taken for granted as if they were situated within the juridico–discursive model of power. It therefore all amounts to understanding such disparity between the juridical discourse of power, on one hand, and practices of torture on the other which are not discursively accounted for, but only acknowledged at face value “for their own merit.” Even if in newly formed nation‑states like Syria torture would prove more common than democracies in Europe and North America, where disciplinary practices share a deeper longue durée common history, what needs to be accounted in both instances is the modus operandi of torture as a process of self‑subjectivation that dispenses with any reference to the socio‑symbolic norms of society.

83It is such a thematic abyss that traverses the core of this book and its excess of cases and practices. Once we accept that social reality was constituted in discourse, which could be historically traced and documented, how can we then account for practices that are publicly denied, such as torture, only to be acknowledged as residues of the legal system in the uncanny role of unlawful but “socially useful”? The discrepancy must be situated in the suspension of the disciplinary efficacy of the relationship that situates individual subjects caught in a web of discursive practices, by bringing to light the obscene supplement—e.g. torture—which secretly cements it. That is to say, torturer and recipient are predictably caught in a power mechanism which is inevitably eroticized, sustained by a disavowed pleasure.

84To elaborate, what is at stake here is the masochistic libidinal attachment of the master–servant relationship, which in the annals of police torture translates as a relationship staged between a torturer seeking the truth and a recipient delivering the truth, but which must be acknowledged as a private bodily performance where the subjectivities on both sides are liberated, but disavowed. Which points, in the final analysis, to the law’s obscene addendum of torture as an enjoyment (jouissance) qua practices of domination. If the law needs such surplus of enjoyment via torture then it must be inherently imbalanced: its abstract code stands as an empty signifier which receives its content only through the transgression of crime, to which torture comes in parallel as a supplementary jouissance.

  • 59 Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner, Žižek: Beyond XE "Index:Foucault, Michel" Foucault, New York: Palgr (...)

85Rather than limit ourselves to the historical genealogy of power which asks, How is power practiced?, one should aim for a different perspective: What is power and where does it come from? Such a shift in perspective translates a concern with the subjectivities of individuals: How does a human psyche “really” work? Or how does the psyche work in conjunction with the socio‑symbolic order, which at the same time is “external” to it, yet inscribed within its gaze?59

There is something wrong with my wife’s sexuality

  • 60 Idlib Jināyāt ruling 24/1994, the crime occurred in Miʿatmisrin (Idlib province) in 1983, final rul (...)

86[C5–5] Sabiha Dalʿun (b. 1952) was a schoolteacher at the small town of Miʿatmisrin in the vicinity of Idlib (north of Syria, close to the Turkish border).60 The year before she married Muhammad Fulfulah (unknown birth date), a mechanical engineer who was employed at Idlib’s water facility. Being a conscientious consumer he used to wake up early in the morning to pick up the cheap 7:30 microbus to Idlib. They both were graduates of Aleppo University, Sabiha as an arts major, while Muhammad graduated from the school of engineering. Sabiha’s attorney describes the Dalʿuns and Fulfulahs as “cousins,” and Sabiha, at least in her early depositions, insisted that her marriage was “a very happy one.”

87On the morning of 18 April 1983 Sabiha went to school as usual for her 8:00 class. By 9:30 a policeman came to fetch her because of a suspicious fire that broke in an empty home, which belonged to her parents, and which was located right next door to hers. The policeman must have told her that a body was burning in that empty home, which they thought was that of her husband. When the burned body was later identified as that of Muhammad, Sabiha claimed that in the last week prior to his death her husband had been unusually worried about problems in his workspace: apparently, higher than average quantities of fuel oil were consummated at Idlib’s water facility in March, which could neither be solely attributed to possible leaks nor to cold weather. Muhammad became presumably a suspect, prompting him to summon his supervisors that an investigation be opened, hoping to clear his name. Sabiha went on alleging that her husband’s depressing condition, which everyone else in the family must have noticed, pushed him towards suicide. But can someone commit suicide by burning himself in an oil tank, as if, in his last moments, Muhammad was sending a weird message to his supervisors? The police remained skeptical. Further postmortem examinations revealed that the body was subject prior to the burning to cuts from a sharp metallic object, which must have led to his killing prior to burning the dead body in an oil tank.

  • 61 Having worked on the case in 2004–05, a year after Sabiha’s execution, there was at the time uncert (...)

88Eventually the whole case was soon to be construed against Sabiha as prime suspect, with one of her brothers, her nephew, and mother as direct “participants.” After 11 long years, and by the time the Idlib Jināyāt criminal court issued its final ruling in 1994, the circle of suspects had narrowed down to only Sabiha and her brother. They were both sentenced to death and summoned to compensate the victim’s family for SP400,000 ($8,000). It took ten more years for Sabiha’s (and her brother’s?) death sentence to become effective. She was in effect hanged in Idlib’s prison courtyard at the very end of 2003.61

89Considering that the case spanned for two decades, the crime received several conflicting narratives, which we need not get into here. Since Sabiha and her brother Ahmad were from the very beginning the prime targets, and a decade later were the only two left, I will stick to their stories, beginning with the more credible ones, namely the ones that the Jināyāt, based on medical and eyewitness reports, thought were the most reliable.

90Several months after her husband’s murder (or alleged suicide), Sabiha, now a prime suspect, was on November 1983 incarcerated in Idlib’s prison. That day a prosecutor visited her in prison for a prime interrogation. Judging from the large amount of documentation that this case sprawled, the interview the day of incarceration offered probably more clues than anything else in the file. The other crucial deposition was that of Sabiha’s brother Ahmad, both of which, in tandem, furnished the grand narrative that served as template to the ones provided by the referral judge in 1987 and the Jināyāt in  1994. We will therefore begin the exposé with those two accounts.

91On November 1983 Sabiha finally settled on a different narrative, prior to denying in toto all her imputed statements, alleging that she was beaten up and humiliated by her interrogators. She told the prosecutor who visited her that day in prison that when she was 14 she and her maternal cousin had a short sexual liaison which eventually led to losing her virginity. Marriage came as a possibility to conceal the matter.

  • 62 Syrian criminal literature, a fortiori that of the courts, commonly use the epithet “al‑maghdūr,” w (...)

My cousin promised that he would marry me, and once we were ready my parents claimed that I was his sister through breastfeeding. For that reason he married roughly six years before me. In spite of his marriage he would drop by my parents’ home frequently, and at times several times a day. I would feel that he was looking at me in such a way that he loves me, without ever talking to me. After his marriage I fancied the victim62 Muhammad Fulfulah. He was a quiet person, moral, and without experience with women. What encouraged me going for him, I think, was that due to his simplicity it would be difficult for him to discover my [loss of] virginity; my feeling was that had he discovered it, he would not reveal it to anyone. As to the timing of our marriage, I had it timed in such a way that it coincided with my menstruation cycle, so that things would get confusing to him—and in effect he got confused. When he began having doubts he talked about it to his uncle ʿAbdul‑Rahman, but it all ended there.

After our marriage I noticed that the victim [my husband] had a very strange and extremely weak sexual desire. He used to approach me only once every 7–8 days, even though we were newlywed at the time. I used to hear some stories at school, in particular those coming from Layla ʿAla‑ul‑Din, who has been married for 5 years, that her husband has lots of sex with her, and at times more than once in a single day. For that reason I used to constantly ask from the victim Muhammad to cure himself. He used to reply that he would be ashamed doing such a thing, but I retorted: ‘If you’re ashamed going to a doctor in Idlib, then go for medical advice in Aleppo or Damascus.’…

Roughly 5 to 6 days prior to the incident, which is the subject of this suit, between 12:00 and 12:15 pm, someone knocked at our home’s door. Once I opened I noticed my maternal cousin ʿAbdul‑Qadir standing there at the door, with his car parked nearby. As I thought that his wife was in the car, I invited him in. Once in, I asked him about his wife, and he replied that she was not there. He held my hand and pulled me strongly towards him. I first resisted, but then gave up in order to compensate for my husband’s deficiency (naqṣ). We had sex on the bed, we lied there for a while talking to one another. We began exchanging love statements (aḥādith gharāmiyya), and I told him about my husband’s sexual weakness. Without even realizing, when it was close to 2:30 in the afternoon, we were surprised with my husband suddenly popping in. ʿAbdul‑Qadir immediately stood up and wore his pants, then left our home. I begged my husband not to get angry, telling him that it was the first and last time. I even proposed to divorce him, promising that I will give him back my golden jewelry, in addition to the premium and late dowry (muqaddam and muʾakhkhar of the mahr). I would even give him the house we were living in, and which my father had transferred under my name [as dowry]. All this so that he would hide the matter. But Muhammad refused all that, bragging that he would create a scandal.

92Sabiha then went on to describe how for days her husband refused to talk to her, and how she and her brother Ahmad (b. 1939, state employee) planned for the killing. Since from that point on Ahmad seems to have been the main instigator, with his sister acting as close accomplice, we are leaving the description of the crime scene to him. (We will come back to Sabiha later.) The two interviews were in fact conducted in Idlib’s prison under the same prosecutor, in two consecutive days. Ahmad was to come first.

In the days prior to the incident, which is the subject of this suit, whenever I visited my parents, my mother would come to me on her own and tell me, “My son, your sister’s husband is going to create a scandal for us. He is going to damage our honor (ʿirḍ). Your father is 80‑years old and he is a respected person, and we are a known people (jamāʿa) with our honor (sharaf) and good reputation.” When I urged her for a clarification, she added: “Sabiha’s husband has detected something moral (akhlāqi) regarding your sister, but she never gave me any details.” Whenever I would repeat my question to her, she would say, “It is a question of honor (ʿirḍ). You will have to find the solution for it. Once the news spreads among the people, we will be exposed and a lot of harm will come our way.” For that reason, and for my mum’s words, I began thinking about it, and a day or two prior to the incident, I began thinking of getting rid of the victim (maghdūr, the betrayed) Muhammad Fulfulah.

At about 9:00 or 10:00 the morning of 17 April 1983, I went to my parents’ home and found there my brother Muhammad who was on vacation at the time, and my son Mustafa. I cannot remember anymore whether I met them together or each one on his own, but I told them, “Be ready, I have a matter (mawḍūʿ) in mind.” When they asked me what kind of problem it was, I did not furnish any details, but said, “It is a question of honor.” I then urged them that we all meet in our sister’s home Sabiha at 2:00 after midnight.…

It was raining that night…and once I reached my sister’s home I noticed that the door was left slightly open. We entered the house and saw Sabiha sitting in the living room. She took us to the room where the victim was sleeping; I recall she stood at the door and did not enter the room. We saw the victim sleeping in his bed. I immediately placed a pillow on the victim’s face, and I cannot remember whether it was rectangular or squared, or what color it was. I strongly pressed over his head with it, and then my son Mustafa picked up a pick which Sabiha had supplied, and hit with it the victim on his hand. My brother Muhammad did also hit the victim on his chest with the same pick….

93Ahmad went at recounting how they wrapped the body with a cloth and moved it to the empty house next door, placing it in an oil tank, burning it “as a cover up, so that people would say that he burned himself on his own in a suicidal act.” The prosecutor was, however, after a long line of questioning, still puzzled by one thing. Considering that it was the sister who was adulterous and not her husband, why not punish the sister? After all, since it was a question of “honor,” as the accused purposely claimed, Syrian law de facto “protects” all those (males) involved in honor killings. Had Ahmad killed his sister for her adulterous liaison with her cousin, he would have received no more than a year of imprisonment—instead of the now pending death penalty. Not only does society dislike that innocent people like Muhammad Fulfulah be punished for not doing anything wrong, but it lives in the hope that their assailants receive the maximum penalty. Moreover, since an adulterous woman represents the highest dishonor that someone could imagine to a family, the prosecutor did not shy from asking his accused, “Why didn’t you think of killing your sister Sabiha?” And Ahmad replied, “I did not think of killing my sister Sabiha because killing her would have provoked lots of big questions. Consequently, [her husband] the victim would have spoken, he would have said what he knew, which would have brought shame (ʿār) on us.” Even the referral judge, who drafted his 45‑page report fairly late on January 1987, was still puzzled by the same question as the prosecutor:

The four defendants Ahmad, Sabiha, Mustafa, and Fatima [the mother], have decided to destroy the soul of the victim Muhammad in order to hide a scandal (faḍīḥa) that would have come upon them and their families, because the defendant Sabiha was caught in a dreadful state (ḥāla murība) with her cousin ʿAbdul‑Qadir. So instead of killing the defendant Sabiha, they’ve sacrificed an innocent person.

That which we dare not speak about

94What is important for our purposes is that Sabiha’s alleged “immoral act” remained the biggest secret taboo within her family, so that we are led to believe, based on Ahmad’s statements above to the prosecutor, that even his mother allegedly did not dare describe what the “problem” with his sister really was, endlessly repeating that “it is a question of honor.” Ahmad’s brother and son were in turn not informed of the “problem,” because apparently Ahmad, like his mother, would not speak the unspeakable. Which again led to a more than puzzled prosecutor inquiring specifically about that unspeakable: “Did you not enquire from your sister Sabiha regarding the subject matter of the statements (mawḍūʿ al‑aqwāl) that your mother had told you about?” Ahmad coldly retorted: “What happened happened, and what took place took place. That kind of talk will not help in anything. I swear to God that I never asked her anything.”

95If we were to believe the accused’s claims, he allegedly went that night to his sister’s home in the company of his brother and son in order to “protect” their honor, not knowing, however, what was exactly “wrong” with his sister in the first place. All four then conspired and killed the husband, which allegedly was the only one with his wife and mother‑in‑law to know what the “problem” was. What was then that “thing” that no one dared to talk about, and for which the murder was committed? What was that “thing” whose only denotation was the word “honor,” but which otherwise remained indescribable? That “thing” was so horrific that it not only had to be kept a secret, but it was what no speech could bear—and the only person who could have found the language for “it” had to be eliminated. So it is as if the assailants’ dictum was: “Let us eliminate that person who had the ability to document what effectively happened, and which we are unable to utter ourselves.” In effect, among family members the assailants had lost that ability to say to one another what the problem was, what was the honor issue that tormented the sister, mother, and finally the sons. And were it not for the sister’s own utterances to the prosecutor, a day after her brother was interrogated, the court and judges, as well as “we”—as outsiders—would have been permanently locked out of the alleged secret.

96Knowledge of Sabiha’s alleged infatuations with her maternal cousin were taken even more seriously than the crime itself, thus accorded a higher status. It was not so much the act itself that shocked, but “knowledge” about it, and its possible reverberations within a community. “Knowledge” ought to be taken here in the strong sense of the term: as something that rests on factual evidence that could be linguistically formulated, interpreted, and passed around through intersubjective communication. That kind of knowledge, which the assailants feared that their victim would pass around within the community, was what they feared most, dwarfing the crime itself. It all coalesced around notions of shame and honor, which in effect are practical interpretations of factual evidence. Thus, whatever Sabiha and her maternal cousin might have done as teenagers, then after their respective marriages, interpretations of such acts are what matters most, since it is at this level that individual acts, which in principle should be of no concern but to those who practiced them, achieve that communal status. They simply transgress individual wills while binding family and community in a fateful encounter. That kind of knowledge—upon which a family’s honor is very much at stake—reverberates more easily outside the clan than in its inside. The assailants were thus abhorred by the idea of communicating to one another Sabiha’s “sinful” behavior, and allegedly went out of their way committing their crime without prior knowledge as to what was Sabiha’s secret was all about. Only Sabiha was finally able to talk about it after the crime—but only to a prosecutor, which to her must represent some kind of an external authority—the big Other. She did so only after long hesitations and incompatible accounts of her marriage and husband’s killing (or alleged suicide). Sabiha’s “sinful” behavior—or rather, its linguistic component, which describes such behavior and interprets it as something “shameful”—was among assailants their biggest repression, something that they failed to talk about, and mentioned only obliquely, as if its mere revealing would contribute to its reiteration.

97When asked by the prosecutor, “Why do you think that your mother did not mention to you the information (maʿlūmāt) that she had?,” Ahmad replied:

  • 63 The term gharīm traditionally stands for opponent, adversary, antagonist, or rival; it also comes i (...)
  • 64 The sister’s daughter was not mentioned anywhere else in the case‑file, hence it remains unclear wh (...)
  • 65 When one or more of the suspects either has a military record, or else is/are serving in the army a (...)

Last Tuesday at 12:30 in the morning of Wednesday, I received a convocation from the men at the military security agency who were investigating. I was told by the investigator that my maternal cousin ʿAbdul‑Qadir was in effect my sister Sabiha’s lover (gharīm).63 That is why I now believe that my mother did not provide me with the details of the matter (mawḍūʿ) precisely so that she would cover up (taghṭiya) for her sister’s son. I also think that she is still covering up for her sister’s daughter.64 And according to the information I received from the military security folks,65 I can say that my mother, and for the past 19 years, has been covering up what she knew about her sister’s son. In his reply to the following question, “Did your mother summon you to kill the victim Muhammad?,” he unhesitatingly replied with a no, adding that even his father knew nothing about the whole matter.

98Regrettably, the prosecutor failed to ask him that, Had you known beforehand what the military security folks later told you, would you still have acted in the same way? Would you still have killed your brother‑in‑law? Would you have gone after your cousin?

99If we were to therefore believe Ahmad’s replies to the prosecutor, the assailants were presumably the only ones in town not to have known what was Sabiha’s “problem,” namely the mawḍūʿ that everyone repeatedly referred to, not knowing exactly what it was. Now that confidence in his mother, which hitherto had blindly pushed him towards the crime, was finally given a critical appraisal. Knowledge of his sister’s infidelities, however, now finally admitted to the prosecutor, did not come from inside the clan, but ironic as it may sound, from military intelligence.

100Ahmad’s accusation that his mother had been “protective” of his maternal cousin, even if unsubstantiated, nevertheless sheds some light on the role of women and their relation to truth and honor. If we were to believe Ahmad, his mother never documented him his sister’s “problem,” which he only learned about much later en passant from military intelligence amid his incarceration, but she nevertheless insisted that it was a question of honor, implying that something must be done with the husband. The mother was hence protective of her own lineage, preferring not to denounce her sister’s son, in the same way that she was protective of her own daughter, opting for a “solution” against the husband—who at any time might reveal that awful “truth”—sparing her daughter from an honor killing at the hands of her brothers (or father for that matter). In sum, what did spare Sabiha’s life from her own clan—but failed to spare her from the death row—was that her alleged infidelities took place with her maternal cousin. Had it been with a man from the “outside” her own mother would in all likelihood have turned against her.

101Based on witness accounts, the husband began in turn revealing his marital agonies in bits and pieces to close relatives. Thus, for instance, the husband’s maternal uncle presumably acted as his confidant for some time prior to his abrupt killing. Even though he did not reach the point of revealing his discovering of his wife with her cousin in his own marital bed, he apparently had doubts about his wife’s virginity. He allegedly voiced such concerns to his maternal uncle ʿAbdul‑Rahman (b. 1949), who in turn reiterated them in his deposition to the prosecutor. When questioned in court on April 1988 by the chief judge as to why he thinks the victim Muhammad confided to him personally, the witness Muhammad stated that “the victim told me that his wife was the one who had summoned him to talk to me about the issue of the loss of virginity, and when they came to visit me for the last time, I noticed that they were not doing well. The victim did not mention anything to me regarding an incident that may have occurred to him at work.” Five years earlier, towards the end of 1983, when witnesses were being interviewed by an investigating judge, the same witness had stated the following:

The day following the marriage of the victim Muhammad, he came to me—considering that I was his mother’s brother—and was in an unusual state: “disturbed” (muḍṭarib). We left my home and took a walk west of the road that passes in front of our house, and by the time we were outside town [Miʿatmisrin], he told me, “O my uncle, how does one get married?” And I replied: “What did you do?” He then said: “I stood over my wife’s legs, and threw myself over her.” He did not mention whether he repeated this operation (ʿamaliyya) or not: “My wife told me to lie down over her and penetrate my penis into her vagina, which I did.” When I asked him whether his wife felt any pain, he replied: “She didn’t feel any pain.” I then asked him of the number of times they had sex that night, and he replied: ‘I had sex with her four times.’ But it was unclear whether he meant four times during the first time or throughout the past period as‑a‑whole. I then inquired as to why he was asking me those questions, but he replied that “there is nothing in my mind.” I suspected, however, that there was something he was hiding from me. The following day, late in the afternoon, he came to me and we took the same walk. When we were outside town, he said: “My wife is not convinced that she had lost her virginity, saying that she was supposed to bleed a bowl of blood (ṭāsat dam).” I said to him: “A woman is not supposed to bleed that much when she loses her virginity. In any case, I will send her my wife, who, as a woman, will know how to deal with her.” The same day, before the call to prayers in the evening, I went with my wife to the victim’s home Muhammad. I left my wife with Sabiha, and went with the victim to his bedroom with the pretext that I was going to check out the new furniture. When in the bedroom, I asked Muhammad, “Do you still have the blood‑tainted handkerchiefs from the night your wife lost her virginity?” He went looking for them, and showed me two sheets of Kleenex, and I noticed that the quantity of blood was large, and the color of blood dark red, resembling a woman’s blood towards the end of her period…The following day I went to my sister’s home, the mother of the victim Muhammad, and told her, “I slept the night of the marriage in the house of your son Muhammad, who does not seem to know where God is placing him. He does not even know whether his wife has lost her virginity or not.” I then asked her to inquire about the matter and bring to me all relevant information.

102One needs only bring in parallel the concluding statements that Muhammad’s wife uttered to the prosecution to understand the scope of the problem:

My husband the victim Muhammad had a weak personality, was sexually weak, and he refused medical treatment…I told you all the truth, but would like to add that the following day right after my husband saw me with my cousin ʿAbdul‑Qadir, I informed my mother, and she told me that my brother Ahmad will take care of it. But I never told her about losing my virginity [as a teenage girl], and I never told that to anyone, neither before nor after my marriage. My husband threatened me that he would tell everyone—my parents, husbands of my colleagues at school, and all the persons that he knew—about my liaison with my cousin. I was personally convinced that he would do it, because he had such a weak personality, and didn’t know how to keep a secret—in particular when it came to his maternal uncle ʿAbdul‑Rahman…

103In a classical honor killing framework, as the prosecutor and referral judge reminded the defendants, and as the Idlib Jināyāt years later in its final sentencing reminded the public at large, the family would have opted to punish the promiscuous wife—not the loving husband, who was innocent from any wrongdoing. Why did the Dalʿuns reverse that strategy, and opt for safeguarding their woman rather than punishing her?

Strong mother, weak son‑in‑law

104A recurring theme in all the depositions that we have encountered thus far, and in many others included in the case’s folder, was an alleged “weakness” in the husband’s character. The Dalʿuns in particular did not spare, even after the murder, their own victim and son‑in‑law from harsh critiques: he was so weak a character that he could not figure out whether his wife was still a virgin or not (a claim reiterated by his maternal uncle); he had no experience with women; he was unsure of himself, to the point that he would go after his uncle for anything that troubled him, rather than seek professional medical advice; his personality traits even erupted in the workplace; and he was someone who looked at every penny in his pocket. To be sure, a character’s perceived “weakness” is no judicial category, but the defendants attempted to use it as much as they could, without success. More importantly, Muhammad’s “weakness” was cynically used by both sides. In effect, in a society that punishes an adulterous woman, but spares an adulterous man, Muhammad’s “weakness” might have prevented him from exercising his quasi‑legal right of killing his promiscuous wife: the courts would have doubtlessly cleared him within one year. But, having instead preferred to suffer one humiliation after another on his own, the Dalʿuns, in their own words, and out of fear that that their son‑in‑law might talk (an outcome of his weak personality), preferred to eliminate him rather than punish their woman.

105Another recurring theme is that of an omnipotent Dalʿun mother, apparently someone who used to coordinate all major decision‑making within the household. Rather than opting for her daughter’s punishment, hence saving a son‑in‑law she did not care much about, and leaving a nephew practically “widowed”—rumors circulated that he was the true father of Sabiha’s only baby—the mother preferred to eliminate the only source that could break the imposed silence and bring the truth to the wider public—the source that would have dishonored the family.

The semantics of love and sexuality

106Sabiha’s tragic fate and her incarceration led her to reveal to the “public” of the judiciary not only details about her private life, but more importantly, provide a picture of her sexual life since her alleged liaison with her maternal cousin—the semantics of love, courtship and sexuality within a small rural community. When, for instance, Sabiha stated to the prosecution that her defunct husband was “sexually weak,” as if sitting on a psychoanalytic couch and revealing her life to an authority big Other figure, such statement is part of the “semantics” of a specific society, but in itself it has no legal value unless “translated” or “coded” into a legal terminology.

107Consider Sabiha’s various descriptions of her husband’s alleged “impotence”:

  • [he was] without experience with women
  • simplicity
  • difficult for him to discover my virginity
  • he would not reveal [my lack of virginity] to anyone
  • strange [character]
  • weak sexual desire
  • [my neighbor and her husband were having] lots of sex
  • seek medical advice
  • When it came to her cousin‑lover‑sexual‑partner, she had nicer words:
  • I first resisted [my cousin], but then gave up in order to compensate for my husband’s deficiency
  • [I and my cousin] began exchanging love statements, and told him about my husband’s sexual weakness
  • My husband said he would create a scandal

108The husband’s “character weakness,” as portrayed by his wife, was therefore only to be surpassed by his “sexual weakness.” If, however, the “character weakness” was, still according to the wife‑defendant, “visible” to family and friends, or even for that matter to his colleagues at work (as evidenced by the fact that he was taken as bouc émissaire as soon as the fuel leaks were revealed), by contrast his “sexual impotence” was only known to his wife, hence by revealing it for the first time to the prosecutor she was de facto transforming it into the motif du crime. Which is precisely what the prosecution will do: the motive would indeed become that invisible “sexual” element, albeit twisted in the other direction: it is the wife which had an excessive “sexual lust” (while the husband was apparently “normal”), which pushed her to sacrifice him—both figuratively and literally—in favor of the cousin.

109Sabiha’s statements represent some of the normative values of her community, creating a particular semantics for the couple love/sexuality. Males are thus represented as either sexually “normal” or “deficient,” “experienced” or “inexperienced,” with “weak” or “strong” sexual desires. A male with a sexual “problem” should seek “medical advice” (medical is here used for ṭubbi, which is not specifically psychiatric consultation), preferably in a big city like Aleppo or Damascus, for the sake of anonymity, and to avoid the gaze of a small rural community. For women virginity and its loss prove as essential elements at creating that atmosphere of “trust” and “honor” among a newlywed couple. It is up to the man to “discover” and “confirm” his wife’s virginity, while a “failure” in this respect, or the realization that the wife was no virgin, could be scandalous, with an honor killing looming in the horizon.

110The “honor” factor was indeed the hub in Sabiha’s brother statements. In its double meaning as ʿirḍ and sharaf, honor becomes, at least from the brother‑defendant perspective, that other motive of the crime. In effect, while the sister provides the prosecution (and later the court) with a hidden prime motive—the husband’s impotence—the brother offers the other more social motive—honor. Again, here, as before, the prosecution will twist around that second motive, arguing that it should have been Sabiha that should have been sacrificed for dishonoring her family in her sexual liaisons—not her husband. The prosecution will therefore construct its case to the very end through a double‑motive lens, motives provided by the two defendants, but twisted in a different direction by prosecution and court. In short, in the decade‑long period in which the case took to complete, not to mention the decade‑long wait for capital punishment, only “motive” mattered, at least much more than forensic evidence.

  • 66 Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies(...)

111For sociologists like Anthony Giddens and Niklas Luhmann, love, passion, eroticism, and sexuality, are among the quintessential processes of individualization of modernity.66 While they exist “for their own sake,” they create socializing practices that tend to damage old communal values, favoring the individual subject over the community, family, and clan. While Sabiha’s statements to the prosecution should definitely be read with such lens, from the viewpoint of law they are no more than shared values. As law treats norms as statements of what one ought to do, it differentiates itself from the factualities of social norms by declaring what is legal and illegal, and it does this through a process of 1. selection of specific statements from witnesses, 2. a codification of those statements in the normative language of the law, and 3. a condensation of all codified statements into memos, reports, and verdicts.

They spoke too much, or too little

  • 67 In the first column are the attorney’s statements, and in the second are my comments.

112The counsel’s memo, addressed to the three‑panel Jināyāt court on February 1993, begins with an unspecified Qurʾanic verse:67

“Do not kill a soul that God has forbidden you except when it is just (ḥaqq), and the one who is treacherously killed, we provided his custodian (wālī) a power check (sulṭān), so he does not exceed in violence, as if he is victorious.” The Qurʾanic verse, in particular when it serves as an opening to the memo, not only acts as a source of wisdom and inspiration, but, due to the ambiguity of its meaning, opens new frontiers of interpretation. The “power check” in this instance is supposed to be the authority of the state through its various institutions, chief among them is the judiciary.
Contemplate, my dear fellows, the body of the betrayed engineer Muhammad Fulfulah lying on the floor after he has been asphyxiated, then burned, and ask yourself whether any guilt has been associated with his killing. Imagine then his deceived family (ahl), prior to answering my question: why should the blood of the killers be dearer to society than the blood of the victim? The attorney is trying to persuade his audience that the defendants committed their act without shame or guilt—with total indifference to the victim and the consequences of their act.
Any human being would be surprised at how much this crime has affected our society, first in its causes and motives, then in the style of its execution, and also in the fact that one of the criminals is an educated woman whose job was a teacher forming a new generation of students, while the other is also educated (muthaqqaf), and worked until recently as an employee in medical services. The second emphasis, besides guilt, is “style,” which by all accounts was horrific—in cold blood.The emphasis on education, and the fact that the wife was a schoolteacher and an alumna of Aleppo University, is an attempt to discredit the necessity of the crime even further, considering that most criminal acts are committed by individuals from the lower classes of society. It could also be to underscore “the cold blood” character of the crime. Because the affluent and more educated tend to be materially more at ease, their crimes become even more impenetrable.
The defendant Sabiha Dalʿun, which you have come to know, has proven that she is a true viper, acting behind her instincts, who marries to protect herself, then to protect herself even further pushes her brothers, chief among them the accused Ahmad, and her mother, to participate with her at finishing off her husband the victim Muhammad, who was known in his own town, among his colleagues and friends, as a very decent fellow with high moral principles. The reason is that he had caught her in the criminal act itself (jurm mashhūd), while enjoying herself in sin and desire, on that same legal marital bed (sarir zawājiha al‑sharʿi). She had participated with the others in her crime, with such cool nerves, in such a way that one feels bewildered. We should not forget that when your respectful court had decided to go for the death penalty,a she was stone faced, as if she did not care for less. Muhammad has been portrayed throughout the case‑file, including by his wife, as a low‑key decent fellow, who could not have harmed anyone. His total inexperience with women made him a true victim of a vampiric woman like his wife Sabiha. But while Muhammad was mocked by his wife and relatives for his low‑key allure, those same qualities are portrayed here as those of someone who could be “trusted.”
As to the accused Muhammad Dalʿun, whom you have known, he was the one who had planned for the crime. He was indeed, with his sister Sabiha, the main organizer and executioner. But it would have been preferable that, for someone like him, so much concerned with honor and pride, to have killed his own sister instead, considering that she was into illicit sexual liaisons, rather than putting an end to the life of the victim and young engineer who did nothing wrong, except for having seen his wife with her lover and relative (qarīb) Abdul‑Qadir Shaʿshaʿa on his own marital bed. Notice the use of “relative” rather than the more common “cousin,” as if to emphasize the “closeness” even further.
The facts of this case show that the accused Sabiha Dalʿun gave herself up to her relative Abdul‑Qadir Shaʿshaʿa who took her virginity when she was still a teenager. But when she became an adult and received her education degree, her marriage to him was impossible—both having shared the same breast—she therefore threw herself at our victim Muhammad and married him. Muhammad is known to have pursued a moral life, who never before had gone out with a girl or woman, which made him an easy target for our accused Sabiha, having married him in the fall of 1982. The night of her marriage, when she was into her menstrual period, she threw herself at him from the top and had sex with him, and chose that timing precisely in order to confuse him, so that everything would remain messed up in his mind, thinking that he was the one to have forced her out of her virginity. “…gave herself up” to her cousin: the term does suggest some kind of passivity on the part of the teenage girl. The act is seen in parallel to “threw herself at our victim,” when the possibility of marrying her cousin had no issue in sight.The virginity—and its loss at an early age—are indeed the main ingredients of the prosecution arguments. Sabiha was indeed a woman preoccupied with shame, for the simple reason that she had sinned as a teenager, lost her virginity, and kept pursuing her cousin.The theme of virginity is then pursued even further, as it is customarily the husband who has the exclusive right to deflower his wife—not a relative or someone else. A woman is “forced out” of virginity.
But our victim nonetheless suspected something, having confided to his maternal uncle that there was something wrong in his wife’s behavior—and sexuality.bFor her part, the accused Sabiha, once she settled into her marriage with the victim, freely pursued her sexual lust, going back to her lover Abdul‑Qadir who got into the habit of seeing her in her marital home in the morning hours, when the husband was in his job at the electricity company, while the accused’s teaching hours were usually in the afternoon. It is common to see defendants as sources of all evils. In this case, the root of all evils is the defendant’s sexual lust, which is what led to her virginity loss in the first place, and to her pursuance of more sexual pleasures after her ill‑fated marriage. In other words, the sexual lust would have led the defendant from one state of agony to the next, ultimately destroying her husband’s life—and her own—in addition to having thrown her brothers and mother with her into the mud.
Fate had it that the husband came back home in the morning of a day in early April 1983, and that soon as he entered the bedroom he found his accused wife in her transparent sleeping outfit, with her lover lying naked besides her. He hastily put on his clothes and left the room. The promiscuous (infidel) wife (al‑zawja al‑zāniya) was in panic, and begged her husband to forget what he had just seen, alleging that it was the first and last time.…The victim, having seen his wife in such a situation, told her mother about it, making it clear that he would tell the truth to his parents whatever the cost. The mother, however, was afraid of scandal, and instead of telling the truth to her kids, in particular the eldest the accused Ahmad, in order to finish off (qaḍā’) with this infidel whore (al‑zāniya al‑ʿāhira), she informed the husband that what matters here is honor and custom, thus it would be better for him to conceal the whole matter to avoid scandal. She insisted on that.… The defendant is only portrayed negatively through slurs: she is manipulative, cold blooded, lusty, promiscuous, and a whore (the logical conclusion) with no heart.
The accused Sabiha, once the body was completely burned, took the body from the tank, placing the head on a stone, then lighting it with some papers. She left to her school as if nothing had happened to her innocent husband… The “nothing had happened” stance was repeated twice in two consecutive paragraphs to underscore the cold bloodedness of all accused (“in cold blood”), if not their outright indifference for a human life.

113Motive is one of those empty signifiers that receives meaning only from the documentation of the users themselves. How did the plaintiffs’ advocate present his case to the court? Clearly “motive” was, in his mind, what would bring the case together, which in this instance principally translates as Sabiha’s character analysis, which is principally a character assassination at the hands of the prosecution. Motive unhesitatingly takes a single stance, as there does not seem to have been that many alternatives in the defendant’s worldview—at least not from the lawyer’s perspective. She was someone who got infatuated with her cousin as a teenager, before any court would have provided her with legal rights on her own. Having sinned from that early age—a sin based on sexual lust—she had to, on one hand, hide her sinful behavior and marry the victim Muhammad (who in effect was victimized in his marriage before he even got murdered), and pursue her long term illicit relation with her cousin. In sum, the theme of sexual appetite coupled with reckless behavior would be enough to bring the defendant’s character together. Her behavior would become even more reckless once caught in delictum—on her own marital (or “sharʿi,” as stated by the lawyer) bed. Having created a one‑dimensional monster with gross sexual appetites, the lawyer was here at odds at explicating convincingly how the choice to eliminate the husband went through. Now that the wife’s sins have been revealed, why not follow traditional custom through an honor killing? The lawyer asks the question to himself and the court, but seems to find no convincing answer. Why go after the husband?

114In the lawyer’s narrative, even though the mother seems the one to have given benediction, she steps into the background once sister and brothers make their final plans. The monstrosity of the act and its banal execution—“in cold blood”—are only explicable through this unusual ability of the offenders, and a fortiori the sister, to sustain their distance with the act, to the point that Sabiha went to her regular school teaching job early in the morning, only few hours after the killing, “as if nothing had happened.” In sum, the lawyer’s argument was that honor had to be preserved within the family, rather than spill outside, and to do so required that the only element from the outside, the husband, had to be ritually sacrificed. Which is the hardest thing to explain: in a very traditional rural community, where marriage is sacrosanct, and where men and women have to remain faithful to one another for their lifetimes, the family decided to rally behind “the one who dishonored us,” while sacrificing the one who “knew about it.” The counsel stumbles upon such a reversal of fortunes and the more he finds himself unable to make any sense out of it, the more he unleashes his anger towards the defendant in machismo style.

Selective use of language, key‑wording, and language games

115The plaintiffs’ advocate picks up therefore on that first confession, selects what fits better with his own scenario, corrects what he thinks were malicious errors, discredits many of the facts, prior to narrowing the cross‑examination to the only element that really interested him. Basic rules of memo writing: process all the texts of the case‑file in order to create your own text: select, decontextualize, bring statements from different sources into one text, recontextualize, and, finally, such juxtaposed combinations of elements would become “the plaintiff’s lawyer’s memo” in the case‑file.

116From the first June 9 testimony, the counsel only eyed the double‑burning hypothesis, eschewing possibilities of natural death or suicide, and to underscore its veracity, he reiterated that the confession took place voluntarily, without any pressure or duress, and only in the presence of an investigating judge in the privacy of his office. That is important to keep in mind, considering that the defendant went through several versions in 1983 alone, alleging that she was placed under pressure. In effect, by July 20 she would deny in toto everything she had stated in her previous testimony. Other inmates, who were imprisoned in the same cell as Sabiha, had alleged that she told them several stories in which she fully confessed her killing of her husband. By November 25 she had, however, come up with another version, this time fully confessing her killing of her husband, with the help of her two brothers and nephew. Here the counsel played the same trick as before, namely a ten‑point presentation of the defendant’s “main points” of her November 25 interview–confession. He then linked the facts of the crime with its root cause: namely, that the husband caught his wife in a “witnessed crime” (jurm mashhūd), when she was practicing sex with her cousin on her marital bed. The husband refused to “absorb” such a humiliation, threatened to inform her family, and the rest of the town if necessary. Sabiha bargained for her life, proposing to her husband a divorce, and to forgo the dowry and other prearranged payments, and giving up her jewelry and the apartment under her name. At this stage the lawyer’s narrative seems almost complete. The plausible narrative was in effect corroborated with all kinds of factual evidence, memos and reports, and testimonies of witnesses. The motive of the crime was also there: the illicit sex that the defendant–wife was having, the husband’s threats, and the sense of honor on both sides.

117The lawyer is nearly complete, and he could have stopped at this stage. But he will proceed even further, as he is still only in the middle of his memo. Now that the brother’s role has been established, he will go through Ahmad’s cross‑examination, summarizing it into eight points (headers), in order to bring the sister–brother testimonies close to one another, as if they were in mutual agreement, and as if one confirmed the other. The memo then underscores two points made earlier. First, Ahmad’s testimonies were delivered while “he was totally free, without any mental or physical pressure from any party,” even though “he was beaten up at some point by state secret agents (mukhābarāt), but as he stated it himself, that did not prevent him from telling the truth.” The lawyer was referring here to an episode where secret agents interrogated the then suspect Ahmad, since at the time he was serving in the army. Second, the lawyer underscores once more the validity of the two‑burning thesis.

That immoral thing

118For the court, in its 1994 verdict, and in the aftermath of a decade long investigation, the problem began when in the night of his marriage the newly‑wed Muhammad Fulfulah “suspected that there must be something wrong in the virginity of the accused Sabiha as soon as he penetrated her.” That was soon followed by the husband’s impromptu visit to his own home in one morning, at a time when he was supposed to be at work, where he found his wife, on that same bed where he made love to her, naked with her cousin. Suspicion then took a turn for the worst, as threats and counter‑threats prevailed, followed by the mother’s decision, based on the testimonies of her son and daughter, to end the existence of her son‑in‑law. In short, the court perceived this case as one of honor, but instead of killing the person who dishonored family values (a perfectly legitimate attitude, we are told), the wrong man, who simply happened to have been the husband of the culprit, was killed instead. Which partly explains the severity of the judgment—the death penalty.

119In the final section of the verdict devoted to the discussion of factual evidence (all of which duly laid out in the first section) from a juridical perspective, the court reiterates its broad view of the matter that it all began with that “suspicion” (shakk) that a devoted and innocent husband had nurtured towards his wife as soon as they consummated their marriage. And, “considering that it is all about the honor of a family, the decision was made to kill the victim Muhammad Fulfulah to protect the family’s honor and reputation.” The defendant Ahmad stated to the investigating judge that his mother had told him that Muhammad detected in his wife “something immoral,” which prompted the mother to beg her son to kill his brother‑in‑law at his earliest convenience. The crux of the argument amounted to the statement that “all conditions for a premeditated killing were set.” Hence the death penalty.

When the Law enjoys itself

120We began this chapter with a public execution of youngsters who were lawbreakers, who frightened the city with “unreasonable” serial crimes, and were perceived by the population at large and the law as mercilessly breaking all shared values around them, as if nothing mattered beyond their own fragile narcissistic superegos. We then focused on two men of different generations who heartlessly killed their victims, without emotion or sign of vengeance; the courts gave them a well “justified” death penalty verdict; which was also Sabiha’s fate, but this time the murder was neither one of indifference to the victim nor righteous vengeance, as there was no revenge per se against the husband, except that he was behaving more like a woman than a man, hence he had to be axed for not mastering the symbolic honor codes. Finally, in an interim case, which was unique to the Syrian penal system, and which we have deliberately placed between three death penalty verdicts, three policemen were accused of manslaughter for torturing to death one of their inmates, which considering how much torture is well spread in the prison system, if not acknowledged, raises uncanny concerns on the limits of torture.

121Syria is a new nation‑state, not even a century old, and whose “newness” implies that its juridical symbolic order received an abrupt makeup over a century ago by transplanting modern Napoleonic codes into the old defunct Ottoman system. The error here would be to make a blunt division between “modernity” and “non‑modernity,” only to argue that the Syrian system meets or fails to meet certain criteria of “modernity.” In late‑capitalism there is nothing that would be off the ground of contamination between “modernity” and pre‑modern lifeworlds, hence there is no need to reason in terms of a lifeworld that is pure and uncontaminated and another one that belongs to modern late‑capitalism. To wit, even an externalized gaze of a westernized world that demarcates itself from non‑western “Oriental” lifeworlds is hard to sustain, so much the transplants and contaminations among lifeworlds have taken a toll on modern lifestyles.

122Consider, for example, the public executions with which we have inaugurated this Chapter. One could easily argue that such representations of state power are obsolete in that they belong to a previous defunct era of sovereign power that was meant to be abusive, hence they have no existence in modern democratic societies. For Syria, they must be remnants of an old past that has not yet matured into modernity and the political and legal rights of citizens. More importantly, what such public executions obfuscate is the existence at the core of “society” of archaic forms of power relations which point to a lack of disciplinary practices inscribed in institutionalized discursive practices as documented by the likes of Weber, Norbert Elias, and Foucault. By the same token, torture and abusive violence are corrosive in police investigations as some cases in this book show, but whose excessive and unlawful ethos is seldom systematically investigated: they are simply documented, but left aside as if nothing really mattered. Yet, what such critical appraisals miss is precisely the uncanny coexistence of a multiplicity of forms of power relations in Syrian society. Thus, the state authorities do at times feel obligated to break the routinized procedures of judicial investigations, submitting non‑political lawbreakers to hastily patched military trials, prior to executing them in public at dawn in the most symbolic of all spaces, as if normal life should not be affected and go on in spite of all that happened. But such practices come as supplement to routinized civil trials of sorts, like the ones documented in this book; the latter, however, are not free from permitted‑but‑denied torture either, which is seldom investigated, or at the very least, would prompt for a retrial. In other words, both public exhibitions of torture and the secretive ones conducted in police stations are symptoms of the Law’s obscene addendum to its underworld of sadistic enjoyment qua practices of (political) domination. To be sure, such practices are not unique to nondemocratic societies, as the obscene superegoic addendum of the law is inscribed at the heart of democratic societies with a strong penchant for law and order; even though in the latter police brutality is more exposed to the whims of the mass media.

  • 68 Robert Badinter, L’Abolition, Paris: Fayard, 2000.

123When it comes to the death penalty, it stands as capital punishment all over the world, even though Europe at large has prohibited it since the 1980s.68 To be sure, the national differences are significant, but what is at stake in Syria is the secretiveness of such executions; or, more importantly, the paradox that surrounds the much wanted publicity of public executions, versus the jailed secrecy of death row inmates. The latter’s execution is fairly selective, pending a presidential decree amid the Jināyāt’s recommendation, set within a time framework that defers the decree over many years, even though all appeals were already exhausted. The secretiveness of executions of death row inmates must be thought in conjunction to police torture: both are fairly known, but kept behind a veil of ignorance. Publicizing such matters would bring unwanted debates to the public eye. In sum, the general motto is, we know such things are happening, but there is no benefit in publicizing them. Thus what ascribes public officials to the law is the very ability to transgress it, where everyone knows that it has been transgressed (what the public routinely detects as “corruption (fasād),” which only consolidates perverse transgression even further without unmasking its uncanny mechanisms), yet we collectively play the game that transgression is there, but “useful.”

  • 69 Another case was that of the two young lovers who murder the husband, only to engage in sex for a s (...)

124By the same token, the likes of Basim, ʿAbdul‑Karim, and Buthayna have all transgressed the law in their own way, prompting the state to transgress (not retaliate) by its own means. When the state rehabilitates the death penalty it reestablishes the power of the big Other as the bearer of moral values and civic virtues—that there is always “someone up there” to guard us against evil. It is indeed the very discreetness and arbitrariness of the death penalty, the fact that out of all the homicides only a very narrow (and insignificant) margin would go for capital punishment which gives it that aura of uniqueness. Hence the significance of the death punishment is less in its acting as possible deterrent (there is no evident empirical correlation between homicides and the death penalty) and more its role as the externalized subjectivized Gaze of the state, which re‑inscribes itself as the third‑party audience as a necessary component of crime. Basim and ʿAbdul‑Karim picked up victims that did not matter much to them (ʿAbdul‑Karim’s act was in his own admittance one of pure randomness), as if unconsciously aware that the recipient of the crime was not the victim but someone else who acts as a third‑party gaze, and whose feeling of guilt is left unacknowledged by the recipient itself. Sabiha for her part treated her husband like a male residue, someone with whom she shared no sexual lust (which she had dutifully kept for her cousin, her prime and only love), and which had to be dispensed of because he was too much of a burden, hence his murder was precisely that uncanny source of excess of jouissance.69 What the death penalty does is, so to speak, “confiscate” that third‑party gaze in order to reconstitute the consistency of the big Other in the name of the integrity of the people and the nation‑state.


1 Which was used by the late Ottomans to execute “Syrian nationalists.”

2 It remains unclear how so many people managed the early hours: Were they informed beforehand? Were news of the executions circulated beforehand, and through which media?

3 Reported, among others, by the “independent” Syria–News website, which is “friendly” to the Asad régime: http://www.syria‑

4 For the law those stood as major crimes for the purpose of pettier crimes, which begs the question as whether the homicides were “necessary” per se, or simply “for the fun of it,” as the hastily staged executions seem to suggest.

5 In reference to president Bashshār al‑Asad who presumably endorsed the event, though not publicly.

6 Akram Ḥourānī, Mudhakkarāt, Cairo: Maṭbaᶜat Madbūlī, 2000, 4:2737–38; Nāṣir Rabbāṭ, “al‑Mawt taḥta al‑taᶜdhīb,” al‑Ḥayāt, Beirut, 21 May 2013. The article notes that the latest figures (April 2013) point to 194,000 inmates and 2,450 torture victims, but fails to indicate whether those figures include both civil and political prisoners and in which proportions exactly.

7 Ḥourānī, Mudhakkarāt, 4:2728–29.

8 International Herald Tribune, New York, 24 May 2013.

9 There is a tendency to blur the lines between countries where the social and symbolic order functions on the premises of a big Narrative, where the enemy‑figure is well delineated, on the one hand, and the “invisible hand” of liberal societies where the state provides more functionality than coherence. Ideology becomes more confusing, prone to dissolution in the web of competing representations. One such tendency is to read “the state of exception” as valid across the board among differently structured societies. Here is one example from Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012, 221: “Egypt is often described as a repressive, authoritarian state, and many studies of it proceeded on that premise. Its extended space of emergency, numerous presidential decrees, apparent abuses of constitutional powers, use of torture, and flouting of international conventions are all seen to provide ample evidence for this… And yet there is now a large body of literature, some of it decades old, that documents how Western democratic states have increasingly relied on emergency powers to conduct their affairs even since before World War II. Western European states used emergency powers for state reconstruction and the maintenance of colonial control. In the United States emergency powers began to be increasingly invoked since Roosevelt’s attempts to counter the Great Depression of the 1930s. Since a long time, according to this literature, the exception has become the norm.” First of all, let’s note here that “the state of exception,” following Carl Schmitt, is the very condition of the existence of law, hence of the state as such. That is to say, state‑law only validates itself through itself as the exception to all norms pervading in society (Derrida’s force du droit). Second of all, beyond the fact that “the state of exception” is validated differently from one society to another and under different historical junctures, there is a big difference between liberal laissez‑faire societies and authoritarian states like Egypt. For one thing, authoritarian states reason in terms of the Party that defeats the adversary, the enemy‑figure, maintains the route to socialism, thus providing with a grand Narrative (the Lacanian big Other) that the liberal state clearly fails to provide. In the latter, abusive situations, such as torture, are secretly managed for narrow purposes, which remain loose on their own, outside a grander narrative.

10 Or what used to be the major industrial city, prior to massive destructions in 2012–13.

11 Abbreviation for short message (or messaging) service, a system that enables cellular phone users to send and receive text messages. As (young) internauts seem versatile in both SMS and the web, there is that rampant tendency for very‑short‑messages over longer thoughtful comments.

12 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, expanded ed., Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007, which constructs the concept of the state on a concept of politics in terms of “friend” and “enemy,” argues that “liberalism,” understood as a system which tolerates diversity, depoliticizes society at large, while confusing religious, cultural, and economic motivations with political ones. For Schmitt, however, the “enemy” is always external, that is, located outside the territory of the nation‑state, which would not bear one more civil‑war episode (e.g. the U.S. in the early 1860s) in the form of an internalized friend–enemy division. In similar vein, Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London: London: Verso, 2000, argues that “it is vital for democratic politics to understand that liberal democracy results from the articulation of two logics which are incompatible in the last instance and that there is no way in which they could be perfectly reconciled. Or, to put it in a Wittgensteinian way, that there is a constitutive tension between their corresponding ‘grammars,’ a tension that can never be overcome but only negotiated in different ways. This is why the liberal–democratic regime has constantly been the locus of struggles which have provided the driving force of historical political developments. The tension between its two components can only be temporarily stabilized through pragmatic negotiations between political forces which always establish the hegemony of one of them.” (p. 5) The two “incompatible” European traditions referred to by Mouffe come from long struggles since the Middle Ages, if not before: “On one side we have the liberal tradition constituted by the rule of law, the defense of human rights and the respect of individual liberty; on the other the democratic tradition whose main ideas are those of equality, identity between governing and governed and popular sovereignty. There is no necessary relation between those two distinct traditions but only a contingent historical articulation.” (pp. 2–3) In Syria, the “symbolic framework informed by liberal discourse” hedges on a formal acceptance of the rule of law, for instance, in the court system, and its bypassing whenever necessary, as in the example of public executions, in order to re‑inscribe the pre‑liberal state into the spectacle of politics. Since in authoritarian régimes, the hegemony of the “populist majority” is taken over by the state through a political elimination of all adversaries, public ceremonies tend to desperately represent that common consensus by all possible means, including executions.

13 Names or nicknames were signed either in the Arabic or Latin scripts.

14 Or another way of framing the question, Is a civil tribunal possible under such circumstances?

15 Most messages are without proper punctuation; we’ve added whatever necessary for the sake of clarity.

16 See my Grammars of Adjudication, Chapter 11.

17 Avi Rubin, Ottoman Nizamiye Courts: Law and Modernity, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

18 Based on my own investigations in 2003–05; since prison executions tend to be secretive, I was unable to check later years.

19 Syrian Arab Republic, The Statistical Abstracts, published yearly in Damascus.

20 In the United States, since the federal death penalty was reinstated, in 1988, attorneys general have authorized it for about 500 defendants: The New York Times, January 24, 2014.

21 When a Christian is executed, a priest would replace the shaykh.

22 Iran is alleged to have the second highest execution rate in the world after China, but supplies no official figures for hanging. Public executions in Iran are usually conducted as punishment for murder or rape, though lesser crimes, such as fraud, can also incur a death sentence. In one such instance, similar in some respects to the Aleppo hangings with which this Chapter was inaugurated, four young men, ages 20–25, were hanged at a public park in Khomeinishahr in 2011 in the presence of a massive crowd, mostly young men. They were convicted for forming part of a group of more than a dozen men, who invaded a private party in the city, tied up male guests or locked them in rooms, and raped a number of women: see, World Press Photo 12, London: Thames & Hudson, 2012, 66–69; Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran Resorts to Hangings in Public to Cut Crime,” The New York Times, 21 January 2012.

23 If publications are any indication of the general interest, the paucity of printed sources on the death penalty would indicate that the broad public shows no interest in such matters.

24 Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

25 Which stands for first‑degree murder in Anglo‑American penal law.

26 Except for honor killings, see, Chapter 6.

27 Chapter 6 on honor killings.

28 In similar vein, the sexual lust of the father towards his teenage daughter materialized into an impotent gaze where the girl was locked and bonded on a bathroom floor for a couple of years (C4–2). Sexuality thus turns into violence against the object of the gaze once a feeling of total impotence exacerbates the subject of the gaze, with the potential of murder looming in the horizon.

29 Note how the counsel uses the combination of “image” and “thought” to clear his client from any premeditation; the two would coalesce into a ṣūra dhihniyya, a “mental image” that would visualize the act of murder prior to its commitment.

30 Because there was no prior “mental image” of the killing, which would have signaled premeditation, it was the very act of hitting the girl with a stone, which was the product of its moment, hence deliberate but non‑premeditated, which led to the killing. What is of value here is the representation of the “insane‑as‑unbalanced” offender as incapable of reproducing a “mental image” prior to committing the act of murder. Obviously, such claim does not stand evidence: why should someone who is “unbalanced” (mukhtall) not be able to “imagine” what he or she is doing beforehand but only after the fact?

31 Robert Pippin, Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy, Richmond : University of Virginia Press, 2012.

32 Pippin, Fatalism, introduction.

33 Aleppo Jināyāt 229/2/1998; the murder and motorbike theft occurred on the road to Minbij; final ruling missing.

34 The mandatory military service, which lasts for two years and a half, and which involves every male beyond the age of eighteen, is so low paid—a monthly average of 150 liras ($3)—that it becomes a heavy financial burden on the conscripts and their families.

35 An acknowledgment of this kind could be interpreted as a blunt pre‑determination, punishable as death penalty or permanent incarceration.

36 Young men who are the only males in the family (waḥīd) have the right to avoid the military service. Hence, if Abdul‑Karim was indeed the only son, his decision to serve in the military would have been his own.

37 G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Chapter 4.

38 A neighborhood known since Ottoman times to have been at the periphery of the city, serving as hub for the trade with the countryside, and controlled by rival clans and families.

39 A copy of the newspaper clip was appended to the dossier I consulted when the hearings were in progress. Interestingly, even though I am unsure whether the Syrian media (television, newspapers, websites and blogs) reported the event, the dossier did not carry any Syrian news items related to the case, which leaves the honor to an originally “Lebanese” newspaper whose Beirut office handles the Syrian news (the Damascus office is considered to be a mouthpiece of the Syrian mukhābarāt, with its reporter at large Ibrahim Hamidi arrested and jailed for brief periods in the aftermath of the disappointing Damascus Spring that brought Bashshār al‑Asad to power). It is as if the prosecutors wanted to benefit from the prestige of the Lebanese liberal media to press charges, rather than on local outlets.

40 Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, 84: “In histories of Western criminal law, judicial torture (i.e., the application of pain to the body of the accused or of a witness, in order to extract a confession) is invariably treated as an aspect of early inquisitorial procedure and is contrasted with the duel, ordeal, and sacred oath (compurgation), which are elements in primitive forms of accusatorial procedure. Legal historians distinguish several aspects of these two types of procedure—for example, the part played by ‘individual citizens’ or by ‘society’ in initiating and conducting the trial, in determining culpability, in prescribing and carrying out the penalty. But perhaps the most striking difference lies in the respective modes of determining guilt.”

41 Even though in civil‑law systems the criminal courts do offer cash compensations, albeit low in value, the parallel civil lawsuit, initiated by the plaintiffs, is usually meant to pursue additional material compensation for the alleged damages inflicted on the victim and his family.

42 See, supra Chapter 3, C3–1.

43 The Lebanese newspaper al‑Nahār has reported on June 16, 2010, that “The Egyptian judiciary has ordered to take out a body and have it subjected to an autopsy, after accusing the police of killing its owner.” The person in question had apparently died on June 6, and newspapers and internet sites had published photos of his pointing to heavy‑handed torture. The initial autopsy alleged that the 28‑year old victim had swollen a quantity of Bango (brand of hashish) which was stuck in his throat, leading to death by asphyxiation. The extraction of the body, which will take place in Alexandria in the presence of the DA office and the victim’s parents, will permit for another autopsy. According to eyewitness accounts, the victim Khalid Muhammad Said was present in an internet café in Alexandria when informers (mukhbirīn) unexpectedly dropped in and started annoying the customers with their rude manners. As Khalid complained, he was driven out of the café, dragged to a nearby police station, then dropped as a dead body by the same team few minutes later, with his skull, jaws and spinal cord completely broken. He died instantly. In sum, as in our case here, a red line was crossed: In a country that is known both for its routine torture of its inmates and political prisoners (most notably members of the Muslim Brotherhood), and this seems “approved”; but when it comes to killing a young man under torture for no apparent reason, “public opinion” is alarmed, and a new autopsy is now in the works.

44 Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, New York: Harper, 2010, elaborates on how the Chinese Communist Party “As an organization, [it] sits outside, and above the law. It should have a legal identity, in other words, a person to sue, but it is not even registered as an organization. The Party exists outside the legal system altogether.” (22) By contrast, in Syria’s constricted patrimonial political system, neither the legal system has been violently challenged since the coming of the Baath to power in 1963, nor has the Party stood as the organizing matrix for the economy and society at large. Indeed, the basic components of law—the civil, penal, and commercial codes—are fairly “liberal,” dating from a pervious era, and have only been undermined either by unruly practices of socialization targeting private property, or else incrementally by presidential decrees and parliamentary legislation short of a grand view in legal matters. But even if the Syrian legal system does not suffer from arbitrary violence for due process, it nonetheless seems paralyzed—or at the very least mute—whenever a political problem emerges from the top, and due process is hijacked by other means. That was the case when gang members were publicly executed in Aleppo in 2007, or as this torture case shows, once the ministry of justice seemed upset at the insistence of the Aleppo judges for charges of involuntary manslaughter against the three policemen. Moreover, as there are few legal intellectuals, the prominent ones tend to be authorities in sharīʿa law, and are only taken seriously in personal status matters, the only area that receives occasional attention. (Witness, for instance, the debate in 2009–10 around an alleged revamp of the 1953 personal status code, which culminated in a complete debacle, with minor amendments to the existing code.) Besides the fact, therefore, that the few secular legal intellectuals do not have the ear of the leadership, there are no public debates on torture or the death penalty. In sum, there is only a political leadership, but no parallel legal one.

45 Notice that the name(s) remain unrevealed, and, based on the case‑file, no “informer” has been questioned, hence the credibility of this side of the narrative remains at stake.

46 This little detail on outfits could indicate that the police unit was not there for a personal vendetta, but on an official mission, which the head of the department was duly informed all through.

47 Once more, the alleged torture episode is suppressed.

48 Note that even at this early stage, once the initial police investigation has been completed and suspects and witnesses have passed to the authority of an investigative judge, suspects must be informed of “all acts attributed to them,” and their right to a lawyer during their early custody within the garde‑à‑vue detention limit. What remains uncertain, and considering that a trial may take years to come (for this case it was in 1994), how long should suspects be kept? When is it that a suspect ceases to be a suspect, for lack of credible evidence, and should be set free, at least until further evidence has been collected?

49 A reader marked this sentence in parentheses.

50 This is the only sentence in the handwritten autopsy report that has been underlined, possibly by a reader–expert working on the case‑file.

51 The five‑panel report on October 3, 1991, mentions that its predecessor three‑panel report included 18 photographs. I am not sure whether all of them were appended to the case‑file.

52 The committee did not identify the “foreign object” as heroin, nor was there any lab examination that identified it as any kind of drug; the autopsy refrained also from any identification with a toxic substance.

53 That is another assumption that has never been proved. The possibility that this substance, assuming it was indeed heroin, was tucked in Farawati’s body either during his investigation and torture, or after his death, does not seem to have been explored.

54 Did the wife accompany the policemen to the location of her husband?

55 In parenthesis in the original Arabic.

56 A reader underlined this last sentence.

57 This is the second underlined sentence, probably by the same reader as above.

58 Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999, 77–83, on “the exaggerated formulation of the torturer as a representative of the state with limitless power” (Elaine Scarry).

59 Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner, Žižek: Beyond XE "Index:Foucault, Michel" Foucault, New York: Palgrave, 2007, Chapter 1.

60 Idlib Jināyāt ruling 24/1994, the crime occurred in Miʿatmisrin (Idlib province) in 1983, final ruling in 1994. One of the defendants was executed in prison in 2003, while the fate of the other one remains uncertain.

61 Having worked on the case in 2004–05, a year after Sabiha’s execution, there was at the time uncertainties regarding her brother’s fate: will he be executed, like his sister, as requested by the Jināyāt’s verdict? It does seem, however, that he was spared the death penalty on the basis that he was “commanded” by his mother and sister to kill the victim, relegated only to the role of “accomplice.” The son of the counsel who was hired by the victim’s family recently told me (Beirut, 13 August 2012) that Sabiha Dalʿun was hanged in Idlib’s prison yard on New Year’s eve in 2003, while her brother was spared the death penalty and serving a life sentence: “At 5:00 in the morning on January 1, 2004, I got a call on my mobile from the victim’s brother, congratulating me for Sabiha’s execution, and thanking me for the efforts that my dad (who died a couple of years earlier) had invested to bring justice to this city. I was terrified and did not know what to say.”

62 Syrian criminal literature, a fortiori that of the courts, commonly use the epithet “al‑maghdūr,” which translates as “the betrayed,” for “victim.” In the depositions to police and judges victims are routinely referred to, whenever they are named by witnesses (including suspects), as “the betrayed,” which gives an awkwardness to the written text, in particular, as was the case here, the main suspect was recounting her experience with her husband, which she had allegedly murdered. Obviously, since the original oral utterances are unavailable (as they were unavailable also for the court), it remains uncertain whether such attributes of politeness were stated in the “original,” or an outcome of the “editing” that would transpire only in the written text.

63 The term gharīm traditionally stands for opponent, adversary, antagonist, or rival; it also comes in conjunction to creditor or debtor; it therefore remains uncertain why it was used here as “lover,” possibly as colloquy to maghrūm or ʿashīq, which would have been more appropriate terms.

64 The sister’s daughter was not mentioned anywhere else in the case‑file, hence it remains unclear what the accusation was in this respect.

65 When one or more of the suspects either has a military record, or else is/are serving in the army at the moment of the investigation, or at least was/were in service when the crime occurred, the military police would conduct their own investigation in tandem to that of the Jināyāt court.

66 Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies, Stanford University Press, 1993; Niklas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, Stanford University Press, 1998.

67 In the first column are the attorney’s statements, and in the second are my comments.

68 Robert Badinter, L’Abolition, Paris: Fayard, 2000.

69 Another case was that of the two young lovers who murder the husband, only to engage in sex for a second time while the corpse was still in the room, see C8–4.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 5–1. Bloggers commenting on the 2007 public executions at <Syria‑>; even a year later, comments were still pouring in.
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Titre Figure 5–2. Still more bloggers in 2008; one of them, under the name of “the broken” (al‑muḥaṭṭam) relates the perverseness of the young (inḥirāf al‑shabāb) to various social and economic prejudices: 40 percent on the elderly parents, 20 percent on unemployment, 20 percent on the high rents, and 20 percent on poverty.
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Titre Figure 5–3. Pictures of the deceased Farawati that were taken in the aftermath of the autopsy report, in the layout of the forensic photography department of the Jināyāt, which make it impossible to assess the extent of the alleged torture.
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