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

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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

Some rebel groups have been accused of atrocities while battling the regime. This week, a video became public of rebel fighters executing a group of apparent regime soldiers, apparently near the northern town of Saraqeb, where heavy fighting had taken place. Human rights groups say the actions in the video, if verified, may represent a war crime.

Such battlefield crimes are unlikely to make it to this court. But what Abu Ibrahim hopes it can do, at the least, is bring accountability to the interactions between the armed groups and civilians, as well as handle civilian complaints. He hopes it will become the foundation of a civilian infrastructure that can supersede the control of the rebel groups.

The legal council hears about 15 new cases a day, says Abu Ibrahim. It has recognized marriages and divorces and mediated family disputes. There have been many cases of theft, but in each case the council has ordered the thieves to return what they stole, and has declined to punish them because of the difficult circumstances of war.

In fact, the council has yet to punish anyone. That's partly because it has little power to enforce its rulings, or to force an armed group to turn over prisoners.

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