Corruption trials in Damascus

In June 1949, Syria’s former President Husni al-Zaiim passed a law enabling the judiciary to bring any government official to court and inquire into the source of his income. First to be questioned was ex-Minister of Finance Wehbi al-Harriri, a self-made millionaire who had held office in the pre-Zaiim era. When Zaiim was toppled in August 1949, however, the trial came to a halt and the law was brushed aside for the next 50 years.

In March 1999 the late President Hafez Al-Assad, in a speech to parliament, declared war on corruption, saying, “If the people riot in the streets against those who are corrupt, I would take to the streets with them.”

While praising his regime’s accomplishments—which, according to him, were “great achievements in all spheres of life, in building the economy, in social services, culture, science, and the arts”—Assad admitted for the first time in his career that there were wrongs that must be addressed. Acknowledging that corruption and injustice did in fact exist, he said, “I do not want anyone to remain silent. I do not want anyone to cover up for wrongdoings, and I know that there are many.”

One year later, Assad delegated his eldest son and heir apparent, Bashar Al-Assad, to lead the anti-corruption campaign “and bring wrongdoers to justice.”

Coinciding with Bashar’s new assignment was the resignation after 13 years in office of Syrian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zoubi. The much-loathed Zoubi was visibly corrupt. For more than a decade, he had drained the Syrian treasury and relied on a network of associates to amass riches for himself and his family. For years, there had been calls throughout the country for his removal from office.

German-American political analyst Hannah Arendt once noted that there is nothing worse than being corrupt and weak at the same time. Politicians should either be corrupt and strong, in order to defend themselves, she argued, or clean and weak, in order to ward off accusations with an unblemished record. Mahmoud al-Zoubi, however, was simultaneously corrupt and weak—the perfect candidate for inaugurating an anti-corruption campaign. Unlike corrupt military officials, who command a following in the armed forces, or corrupt politicians the country finds nevertheless indispensable, Zoubi was a political nobody unable to fight back, and was sacked in March 2000. There the matter rested until May, when Hafez Al-Assad made his last visit to Cairo. While touring the city, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reportedly informed the Syrian president that Zoubi’s children were among Egypt’s foremost investors. Annoyed that Zoubi was flashing his wealth, Assad ordered his son to strike.

Charges of corruption quickly were filed against Zoubi and his family. Accused of profiteering at the country’s expense, he was discharged from the Ba’ath Party Regional Command and placed under house arrest. His confiscated office files revealed gross embezzlement of a 1996 commercial deal for the Syrian Ministry of Tourism.

On May 21, 2000, shortly before he was scheduled to appear in court, it was officially reported that the former prime minister had committed suicide in Damascus. Apparently, knowing that he would be proven guilty during questioning, Zoubi preferred death to humiliation. On the same day, to prove it was undaunted by his suicide, the state arrested two of Zoubi’s closest allies, ex-Minister of Tourism Mufid Abdul Karim and Zoubi’s ex-minister for economic affairs, Salim Yassin. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Madrid-based businessman Munir Abu Khaddur, yet he evaded arrest by remaining in Europe.

All were charged with pocketing money from an Airbus deal conducted with a French company in 1996. Abu Khaddur allegedly had served as intermediary between the Syrians and the French. The ministers were charged with, among other things, misuse of public office, receiving bribes, and “damaging the national economy.”

Along with Abdul Karim, Yassin was charged with “inflicting heavy losses on Syrian Arab Airlines” by purchasing six Airbus 1-320s at inflated prices, and receiving a commission of $124 million. Authorities charged that on Yassin’s advice, Abdul Karim’s authorization and Zoubi’s backing, Syria purchased the six planes at a price of $374 million, while in reality the planes cost no more than $250 million. Other petty officials who had shipped, signed, and witnessed the deal also were rounded up overnight. Due to their junior status, however, nothing has been heard of them since.

The accusations and arrests spread fear and distrust in official circles, the ever-present worry being, “Who will be next?” Abdul Karim, a former civil servant, was a prominent member of the ruling Ba’ath Party who had been handpicked by Assad in 1992 as minister of tourism. The veteran Salim Yassin, a long-time academic began teaching at local universities in 1963. In 1967, he became deputy dean of the Faculty of Commerce. From 1969 to 1970, he was acting president of Aleppo University. In November 1970 he became president of the University of Latakia, a position he held until 1978. Hafez Al-Assad then appointed him minister of transport from 1978 to 1980, minister of planning from 1980 to 1981, and minister of economy from 1981 to 1985, when he was also appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs. By all accounts, he was very close to the Assad regime and an all-time ministerial favorite.

If two senior officials like Abdul Karim and Yassin were behind bars, it was commonly believed, no one’s lives or careers were safe anymore. By June 1—less that a month after charges had been filed against Zoubi—32 officials were reported to be under investigation for corruption and forbidden to leave the country.

Assad’s death on June 10, 2000, however, and Bashar Al-Assad’s rise to power one month later, somewhat derailed the anti-corruption campaign. In no time, more pressing issues demanded the new president’s attention: the al-Aqsa intifada in Palestine, the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister, and the anti-Syrian movement brewing in Lebanon. Meanwhile, officials who had been holding their breath began speculating that the anti-corruption scheme was merely a hoax—nothing more than a bid to increase the new regime’s legitimacy.

In March 2001 Damascus tried to recapture the limelight by lifting the parliamentary immunity of three deputies, all members of the ruling Ba’ath Party, removing them from their posts and bringing them to court on corruption charges. The event was not well publicized, however, and failed to do the trick. Syrians still believed that Abdul Karim, Yassin, and Zoubi were the unlucky scapegoats of a campaign that ended the minute Assad succeeded his father. This belief was enforced further when the charges brought against the three MPs proved baseless and they resumed their activity in parliament.

Time passed, corruption increased, and the trial of Abdul Karim and Yassin dragged on. Once a month, they were sluggishly brought out in public, in striped prison uniforms and handcuffs, taken to a court hearing, and returned to their cells at the Adra Prison in suburban Damascus. Then, on Dec. 8, 2001, when it was least expected, the verdicts were handed down. Yassin and Abdul Karim each received 10 years behind bars and, along with Abu Khaddur, were collectively fined, $240 million.

The stiff sentences have reignited discontent in official circles. To prove his seriousness, however, this past April the president ordered the arrest of two senior officials at the ministries of economics and transportation, and the firing and questioning of Mahmoud Misqal, director of Syria’s Commercial Bank, on charges of misuse of public office and squandering public funds. Misqal allegedly had invested Syria’s foreign currency reserve at an “unreliable bank,” resulting in the loss to the state treasury of $5 million.

Sackings and Arrests

Other April indicators of reform included the arrest of 28 government officials and the sacking of another 10 in the National Scientific Research Institute on charges of embezzlement. Yet another 23 officers were fired from the Department of Police and Public Security, and 15 fired from the Ministry of Transport. A month earlier, in March 2002, 23 senior officers had been fired from their posts and are due to stand trial very shortly. On March 18, the government arrested Asaad al-Asaad, director of transportation in Idlib, a town in northern Syria, on charges of gross corruption. The director of Syrian Airways was fired from his post, as was Ali Abdul Karim, director of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

Coming at a time of uncertainty, with a rumored cabinet reshuffling, certain ministers and their aides feared they would be excluded from the new government. Once stripped of their posts, they worried they might face the same fate as their predecessors. Their concerns apparently were justified, since in April three ministers—all long-time members of the Zoubi cabinet—were “rumored” to be in store for questioning on charges of corruption and misuse of public office. The three had retained their posts under Prime Minister Miro in March 2000, and were not officially removed until December 2001. History, after all, in Syria as well as elsewhere, is famed for repeating itself.

Response to the official anti-corruption campaign has been mixed in Damascus. Some praise it as genuine, while others insist that it has failed to address the corruption of other officials more corrupt than those currently behind bars. In his latest play, “Against the Government,” rising Syrian actor and director Humam al-Hout, whose political shows enjoycarte blanche from the government, expressed popular response to the corruption ordeal. The plot of the show, which opened in April, revolves around a senior government official who sets out to fight corruption in Syria and ends up in a mental institution, convinced the task is impossible because literally everyone in the state apparatus is corrupt.

He does make a distinction, however, between officials who are stealing to amass riches and those who resort to corruption in order to make a decent living. In the play, an elderly schoolteacher is forced to sell smuggled cigarettes in order to support herself. It is common knowledge in Syria that a high school teacher, with a monthly salary of $140, needs to steal in order to live properly.

The play’s main character is apprehended and interrogated by government officials. His defense: “True, I am stealing, but I am stealing to feed my children. This is a form of theft that nobody, not even God, will hold me accountable for. Go question those who are stealing to purchase new automobiles, increase their bank accounts in Europe, spend their winters in France and their summers in Switzerland.”

Not surprisingly, Hout received a standing ovation from his Syrian audience.

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 1 June 2002.