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mosul\'s property racket
courts sell houses out from under overseas owners

Abdullah Salem
Lack of a working property registration office in Mosul means fraudsters are taking advantage of legal loopholes to sell buildings and land out from under unwitting, overseas owners. While many owners fear…
7.08.2013  |  Mosul

There was nothing she could do other than file a lawsuit. For the past few years Iraqi woman, Faeza Mounir, has been living outside the country, in the US. But she still owns a house in Mosul, in the Somar neighbourhood. Or at least she thought she did. Mounir had rented her house to a local, who took advantage of her absence and legislative loopholes, to claim the house was his own in a Mosul court. After the house was transferred into his name, he sold it and pocketed the profits. Mounir was left with nothing.

Salem Jiryis tells a similar tale. He normally lives in Belgium and only found out that the family home he had supposedly inherited had been sold by accident. Jiryis was chatting on Facebook with an old neighbour in the Midan neighbourhood in central Mosul when the neighbour told him the surprising news that his house had also been claimed by someone else, then sold.

There are many similar stories told of houses sold in this illegal way in Iraq, following the US-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein\'s regime. The collapse of Iraqi state institutions, the lack of security, militias that roamed the streets and the general lack of rule of law resulted in a situation that criminals could take advantage of.

In Mosul, there is also another reason why this type of land grab is so prevalent: locals say it is a result of the murder of the head of one of the local government offices that supervised property registration in the province. The former administrator was assassinated in front of his house in 2006. There have since been more assassinations and employees in the department have grown more and more fearful – they no longer wanted to do their jobs properly and preferred to do mundane, daily tasks rather than registering property properly. Eventually the department was closed and it was also announced that many cases of fraud had been found after records there were examined.

This has resulted in a great deal of confusion on Mosul\'s real estate market. Anyone wanting to buy or sell property must now go through the Mosul courts in order to ensure the transaction is even slightly legal. But this has given fraudsters the opportunity to grab land or property that is not their\'s too. They file suits against Iraqis living abroad, dead people, immigrants or detainees, claiming they have the right to sell the property or to rent it out. They also take advantage of Iraqis who\'ve fled the country because they were charged with terrorism or who were considered complicit with the old regime.

Figures based on the number of lawsuits filed in locals courts, obtained by NIQASH, show that there were between 580 and 600 cases of property seizure based on judicial decisions issued against their owners in absentia between 2003 and 2013.

“These kinds of frauds are widespread in Ninawa now,” Faisal Ahmed, a retired judge, told NIQASH. “A lot of the victims are Christians who used to live in Tall Kaif but who have emigrated over the past three years.”

“Other victims of these crimes are Iraqis living outside the country who don\'t have anyone to manage their property,” he explained. “In some cases the property owners are dead or nobody knows who they are. Usually the fraudsters have managed to find some details out about them.”

Mounir\'s lawyer, Mohammed Nouri, who helped her file a court order against the person who had illegally sold her property, explains how it all happens. When a fraudster goes to court to have the property put in his name, he will claim that he has paid full price for the property to, for example, an Iraqi living overseas. The fraudster gives the address of the person from whom he allegedly bought the property and the court then tries to notify the seller of the property exchange.

“In case the person to be notified is not present at the address given, the law allows the officer of the court to then designate that the seller\'s address is unknown,” Nouri says. “Then the buyer is notified by having the court notice published in a daily newspaper. If the seller doesn’t get in touch within one month, the court officer then organises a visit to the property purchased. If the fraudster-cum-plaintiff is indeed living there, the court rules that he had rights to the property.”

Nouri adds though, that this ruling is not final by any means. The seller can file a lawsuit against the fraudster. “Which is what my client Ms. Mounir is now doing,” he noted.

Some Iraqis have no idea what is happening to their properties, the lawyer said, others will never know they\'ve lost them. And some Iraqis are reluctant to do anything about it even if they do know whats happened – the costs of travelling back to Iraq and going to court may actually be more the property was ever worth.

Mosul policeman Saad Hakem says that a lot of internally displaced people have also become victims of these kinds of crimes. “They are afraid to go to court about it because they believe that the fraudsters belong to gangs who might take revenge on them,” he explains. “There are also plenty of corrupt lawyers and officers of the court who work with these fraudsters,” Hakem continues. “They forge the notification documents or collude by pretending to be a relative of the supposed property owner.”

And then even if the fraudsters are found guilty they may get away with relatively minor punishments – one recent penalty was six months imprisonment and another was an IQD20 million fine (US$17,000). Often though, the fraudsters simply disappear.

Meanwhile Faeza Mounir must await the results of her court case to see if she will get her own property back. In the meantime she does want the people of Iraq, both at home and overseas, to know more about her case – she wants it to ring alarm bells for all those who are in a similar position but who may not know it. “I just want the fraudsters to stop being able to commit these crimes,” Mounir says.