Explained: The Ministry of Finance and Precautionary Asset Seizure

In principle, precautionary asset seizure in Syria is a legal procedure in which a person’s movable and immovable assets are placed under the authority of the judiciary to prevent him from disposing of them. This is to ensure the collection of debts owed by him to individuals or official entities. Since 2011, however, the Ministry of Finance has become the executive body to receive precautionary asset seizures, in many cases without a judicial decree and sometimes with no legal basis at all.

Basis: Judicial seizure

Precautionary asset seizure is a preventative, not executive, measure. It is implemented according to a lawsuit that is of a financial nature or that has financial implications, such as debt issues, compensation, fines, or tax evasion. The lawsuit is either personal or is raised by official entities against individuals or companies. The power to issue a precautionary asset seizure rests with the Ordinary Judiciary, either by a decision of the trial court or by a decision of the Court of Urgent Matters Judgein the deliberation room if the plaintiff has filed a “basis case.”

Government ministries and precautionary asset seizure

Apart from the judiciary, some Syrian government ministries have been granted the ability to implement precautionary asset seizure, which is known in these cases as administrative asset seizure to distinguish it from seizures ordered by the judiciary. Legislative Decree No. 12 of 1953 authorised the Minister of Finance to issue precautionary asset seizures on the assets of employees and accountants of all state administrations and public institutions in order to secure the losses and damages they may cause to the assets of those institutionsor due to their mistakes or negligence. The law also permits the seizure to extend to assets belonging to the spouses of these employees, unless the spouses can prove they acquired said assets independently. Later, Legislative Decree No. 177 of 1969 expanded the authority of Decree No. 12 to include the movable and immovable assets of people other than state employees and their spouses.

Decree No. 12 of 1953 granted the Minister of Interior that same authority with regards to employees of municipalities, governmental departments, and those in charge of supervising their affairs. This authority was then transferred to the Minister of Local Administration and to the head of the governorate’s Executive Council. Decree No. 63 of 2012, which focused on the authorities of the judicial police, granted the judicial police the right to request that the Minister of Finance issue precautionary asset seizure decrees in writing without a judicial ruling.

In addition, the Ministry of Finance tasked the General Director of Customs with issuing precautionary asset seizures in cases of “customs smuggling,” meaning the entry or exit of goods into or out of the country, in violation of Customs Law No. 38 of 2006. The precautionary asset seizure becomes an executive asset seizure if the financial dues requested by the court are not paid within three months.

Antiterrorism Court: Political seizure

Precautionary asset seizure can also be used as a punitive measure against regime opponents. Antiterrorism Law No. 19 of 2012stipulates the precautionary asset seizure of assets belonging to people under trial before the Counterterrorism Court. The precautionary asset seizure becomes executive for those convicted by the court. Their properties are then confiscated and sold via public auction or added to the state treasury.

After Law No. 19 was issued, such confiscations soared to unprecedented levels, prompting the Ministry of Finance to expand its confiscated assets department and create an entire directorate for that purpose. In theory, after the Counterterrorism Court issues a final ruling, the Ministry of Justice transfers a copy of the ruling to the Ministry of Finance to carry out the confiscation of movable assets. It also transfers a copy to the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform so that it may confiscate the immovable assets.

However, the Ministry of Finance is now confiscating both movable and immovable assets under Martial Order No. 4562, issued on September 26, 2010. This decree authorises the Ministry of Finance to manage and invest confiscated funds. Later, the Council of Ministers Letter No. 9310, issued in June 2015, tasked the Ministry of Finance with officially confiscating movable and immovable assets. After transferring and registering those confiscated assets in the state’s name, the Ministry of Finance manages them through its Directorate of Confiscated Assets, as well as subsidiary departments in the governorates.

Since its establishment in 2012 until the end of 2020, more than 90,000 cases have been referred to Syria’s Counterterrorism Court, according to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. This means there are more than 90,000 precautionary asset seizures underway for movable and immovable properties belonging to people on trial.

Military seizure: Executive

This type of seizure is an exception to the general rules of executive asset seizure, which is only imposed by the judiciary based on concluded rulings or for the collection of debts. The Ministry of Finance has been able to directly carry out executive asset seizures, without prior notice in certain cases.

Under the Military Service Law No. 39 of 2019, the Ministry of Defence must compile a list of men over 42 years of age who have not completed their mandatory military service and have not paid their service loss fee. The ministry must then submit this list to the Military Judiciary’s Public Prosecution, as well as the Ministry of Finance’s Taxes and Fees Authority, in order to directly impose executive seizure on those men. In February 2021, a high-ranking Syrian military official stated that executive asset seizure could also possibly be placed on the properties of those men’s family members.