Rami al-Assaf was born in 1977 in Deir ez-Zor, east of Syria. He grew up in Al-Tabaqa in Raqqa province, a working class city whose inhabitants originally came from various Syrian provinces.
Rami moved to Damascus to study law and graduated from Damascus University in 2002. He did his compulsory military service in Lebanon only to return afterwards to Deir ez-Zor in order to practice law.
Rami had wanted to be an attorney since his early days at the university. He considered this to be an independent profession suitable for working in Syria, especially given that there were 17 lawyers in his extended family.
"I graduated in 2002 with a group of friends and colleagues from Deir ez-Zor," says Rami. "We were about 50 lawyers enthusiastic about legal work. A small percentage volunteered in the police force or worked in the judiciary, while others became practicing attorneys."
He continues: "There was rivalry and a competitive spirit among us at work when trying to close litigation quickly. In our city, there had been around 20 well-known lawyers who had practiced for the past 20 years. All this changed when we, a large cohort of young lawyers from well-known families, entered the labor market."
During his career Rami tried to specialize in specific judicial areas and refrained from pleading in certain cases. "I wouldn’t accept cases tried before military or state security courts, or even cases that were related to property and land disputes. In fact, I wasn’t prepared to plead in front of someone who had not studied law. It is common knowledge in Syria that a real estate judge is just a real estate office employee who became a judge without studying in the Judicial Institute or even in Law school. "
"Since the 1980s, the judiciary in Syria has been a total ideological space under the control of the ruling Ba’ath Party. Judges are appointed through the Ministry of Justice, which follows the Supreme Judicial Council, which is, in turn, directly headed by the President of the Republic. Separation of powers, therefore, does not exist. The Head of State appoints the government. He is the national Secretary General of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party, the State Leader, and heads the judiciary through his chairmanship of the Supreme Judicial Council so that, at any moment, he can expel any judge he wants. This is what happened in 2006 when 90 judges were instantaneously dismissed following a decree. "
Security services interfered in various aspects of life in Syria, in both small and large governmental institutions including learning and education. Rami mentions the following example: "One year, they wanted to hire 1,000 teachers in Deir ez-Zor. 970 male and female teachers were sent from the Syrian coast while only 70 from Deir ez-Zor were appointed. Those from Deir ez-Zor mostly went to work in the Gulf countries after graduation because of the lack of job opportunities."
According to Rami, the nature of Deir ez-Zor was different from the rest of the provinces. The court there was different from those in other parts of the country. It was less corrupt. "Maybe this was because we were a closed city. Our residents knew each other. They were related by blood and intermarriage. Even the countryside was a society that had a clan structure so it was shameful for a judge of well-known descent and clan identity to accept a bribe."
"A sort of patronage and clientelism existed but this was not motivated by bribery, and often help was provided because of personal relationships and knowledge, with very few corrupt judges.
In tribal conflicts, a consensus formula was often reached between Law and tribal custom. In the past, tribes resorted to judges who came from community notables. They named the judge or referee "the knower”. However, along with social development and the rise in power of the state organs and institutions, recourse was often restricted to State jurisdiction. If the Tribe felt that it was unjustly treated by the rule of Law or that justice was not applied in a way that satisfied everyone, it would resort to unpredictable things, especially in murder cases that led to vendettas.
"In Deir ez-Zor, tribes have been made hybrid in the very same way that the ruling regime has turned everything hybrid in the country, starting from trade unions, professional unions, organizations and so on. It did this using a multitude of methods. For example, if the tribal sheikh was a member of the opposition, we were always surprised to see that the sheikhdom would be given to a clan member close to the security services. In fact, tribes had been losing their power since the 1970s when the regime allowed large clans to represent themselves only in the People's Assembly, while giving important executive positions to the sons of smaller clans."