Syrian Military Field Courts that Killed Thousands are Abolished

Syrian Military Field Courts that Killed Thousands are Abolished
Photo by Milad Fakurian via Unsplash


İrem Çakmak

Middle East and Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

On 04.09.2023, the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad declared that Military Field Courts will be abolished. According to the Syrian government’s news outlet SANA, the announcement was posted on Telegram, a messaging application, and stated “All cases referred to the military field courts are to be referred… to the military judiciary.” [1] It is expected this amendment will come into force immediately. [2]

The Military Field Courts were founded by 1968 Decree to bring charges against the enemy or deserting soldiers. It was made clear by Article 1 of the decree that the Court has competence during war and military operations. [3] Therefore, when it was established, the Military Field Courts were not intended to see cases involving civilians. However, the Court's jurisdiction was unlawfully extended to encompass civilians, as a means to overcome the uprisings of 2011. [4] 

Increase of the Military Field Court’s competence resulted in torture and mass hangings, especially in Saydnaya Prison. According to the report of Amnesty International dated 07.02.2017, up to 13.000 people were hanged behind closed doors in this prison. [5] Moreover, the majority of them were believed to be civilians who opposed the Assad regime. [6] 

Ghazwan Kronfol, a Syrian lawyer, highlighted in his interview with the AFP, numerous human rights violations that the defendants and prisoners faced before the military field courts. [7] He explained that the judges of Military Field Courts made decisions within minutes which were then enforced immediately, without a chance to appeal. [8] To sum up, it is alleged that the defendants were denied their right to counsel and the right to defence, which are crucial components of the right to a fair trial.

Bashar al-Assad, who took office after his father’s death in 2000, has continuously rejected democracy as a foundation for the Syrian government. [9] The Syrian government’s position on human rights became a bigger concern for human rights defenders throughout the years. In its report dated 2009, even before the wake of the civil war in the country, Human Rights Watch described the Syrian government’s position regarding human rights as “one of the worst”. [10] 

An official statement that clarifies the motivation behind the decision to abolish the decades-old institution of Military Field Courts has not been made yet. However, anti-government protests that started on 20.08.2023 in As-Suwayda Governorate have caught the attention of the global media. Some suggest this series of protests are the most significant in years to the point where it was alleged that the protests may even lead to a change of hands of the political power. [11] Although it can be argued that the efforts of the civilian protesters may have provided a basis for the abolishment of Military Field Courts, numerous activists are still sceptical about the realisation of this decision. [12] 

The Syrian president's remarks could be viewed as a doctrinal advancement in the state’s commitment to upholding human rights. This development is a surprise from the Assad regime, which openly opposed human rights and hasn’t shied away from using excessive force to repress the populace for decades. However, due to the fact that there are no clear-cut ways to put this choice into practice yet, the results for the civilians remain undetermined.

Sources and further reading

[1] Syrian Arab News Agency, ‘President al-Assad issues Legislative Decree No. 32 that ends work in military field courts’ (September 3, 2023) < > accessed 8 September 2023.

[2] Middle East Eye, ‘Syria's Assad scraps notorious military field courts’ (September 3, 2023) < > accessed 5 September 2023.

[3] Al-Monitor, ‘Syria’s Assad abolishes notorious military field courts’ (September 4, 2023) < > accessed 5 September 2023.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Amnesty International, ‘Syria: Investigation uncovers government’s secret campaign of mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya Prison’ (February 7, 2017) < > accessed 5 September 2023.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Middle East Eye, ‘Syria's Assad scraps notorious military field courts’ (September 3, 2023) < > accessed 5 September 2023.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Al Jazeera, ‘Profile: Bashar al-Assad’ (April 17, 2018) < > accessed 5 September 2023.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dhaka Tribune, ‘Syria protests: New revolution or economic issue?’ (September 02, 2023) < > accessed 5 September 2023.

[12] Gerceknews, ‘Assad abolishes controversial military field courts in Syria’ (September 04, 2023) < > accessed 5 September 2023.