Explained: Amiri Lands

The issue of the so-called “Amiri lands” has returned to the fore in Syria amid talk that the state could take back such properties from people who were forcibly displaced to opposition-held territory.

In Islamic jurisprudence, Amiri lands are properties owned by the state that are at the disposal of emirs and walis, or princes and governors, who have the right to distribute it to their subjects to dispose of it “to the benefit of Muslims”. The term was redefined in the Ottoman era and came to mean “governmental” in the Turkish language. All lands belonging to the Ottoman Sultanate remained as Amiri lands: that is, they belonged to the state. In 1856 the lands were distributed to people to dispose of it but without the right of ownership.

The Syrian Civil Code, as carried in Legislative Decree No. 84 of 1949, defines Amiri lands as the state-owned real estate, for which there may be right of disposal.

Right of disposal is a real estate right that entitles its owner to use, exploit and dispose of his property. The disposal right has two types: material to use and exploit the land, and Legal such as ceding the right of investment to others, leasing and lending.

While the right of disposal is temporary and can be forfeited with non-use, the right of ownership is considered a permanent right.

Recovering Amiri lands

The issue of Amiri lands has reemerged in recent months amid public auctions to invest in lands belonging to people forcibly displaced from rural Hama, Idlib and Aleppo governorates. It appears that the Syrian government is seeking to take these properties, which are listed as Amiri lands, through a series of steps that may exploit legal loopholes.

The Civil Code grants the person in charge of a piece of Amiri land the right to exploit, use or cultivate it as they wish. However, according to Article 775: “The right of disposal for Amiri real estate is forfeited if it is not ploughed or used for a period of five years”, meaning that the land becomes  a state property again.

But Article 379 says: “The statute of limitations that exceeds five years shall not apply to the rights of those who are not eligible, those who are absent, or those who have been charged with a felony if they do not have a legal representative”. The Civil Code thus does not allow use of the five-year deadline to forfeit right of disposal against absentees. This legal detail may make it difficult for the Syrian government to seize Amiri lands from forcibly displaced formers.

Converting Amiri lands into property

Amiri lands sit outside official zoning plans. When they enter such plans, they lose their status as Amiri property and become owned real estate. Article 15 of the Land Registry Law included in Decree No. 188 of 1926 allowed “a person with the right of disposal to resort to the judiciary to make a correction in the land registry entries so that they correspond to the reality of the property that they own”. The jurisprudence of the Court of Cassation, such as Decree No. 50 Base 155 of 1995, considered that including the property within the boundaries of built administrative zones would make the property fall under ownership. Indeed, the issue is not only related to the land registry, but also to its inclusion within city limits.

Nevertheless, the real estate registry secretary cannot change the category of a property from Amiri to ownership. Rather, this change requires the investor of the Amiri property to submit a case before the civil court of first instance and formally request the change from Amiri to ownership. They must also bring a statement from the city council or municipality where the property is located, indicating that the property sits within a defined, populated administrative area.

Possession and right of disposal

Article 919 of the Civil Code affirms: “[A property holder] may acquire the right to register disposal of Amiri lands that are not subject to the administration of state property if 10 years have lapsed since the date of possession, either with or without a bond, provided that the holder is cultivating the land”.

Possession is when a person effectively has control over a property, such as by usufruct. Possession is a temporary condition, in which there is sufficient justification or legitimate reason to hold the property. Consequently, the holder of an Amiri property may not sell the land before registering the right of disposal because he has the right of usufruct or to exploit while the property belongs to the state.

The right of usufruct is a real estate right allowing someone to use something belonging to others. This right allows its grantee direct authority over a property, which they can use without permission from the owner.