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In rebel-held Aleppo, Syrian civilians try to impose law through courts, not guns

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But this group of lawyers and judges is finding it difficult to exert civilian accountability over the rebel groups, whose guns are the law.

"In times of war, justice suffers first," says Abu Ibrahim, the judge who heard Youssef's petition. A judge in a government appeals court before the uprising, he asked not to use his real name because his family lives in an area under the control of the Syrian regime.

The court was established one month ago by a group of about 50 former lawyers and judges. Many of the rebel groups fighting in Aleppo already had their own informal courts, usually based on sharia or Islamic law. Abu Ibrahim says this court is an attempt to build a unified system to apply justice, both for civilians and fighters.

He and the other council members met with the leaders of the various rebel groups to secure their promise that they would cooperate with the new court, to give it legitimacy. Most of them have agreed, he says, with a few holdouts.

But even among those that have nominally agreed, it's not clear how much those words are worth. The judicial council works in an edifice built before the war and never used. The bare walls and floors echo with the voices of the people who fill a hallway, waiting to make their complaints. Downstairs in the basement, several rooms prepared as prisons sit empty, waiting for the rebels to turn over their prisoners to the legal council. Only one cell is occupied, by just two prisoners.

Rebels accused of atrocities

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