In Marea, Syria, detainees are held in a former school classroom that now… (Los Angeles Times )
TAL RIFAAT, Syria — Unshackled and in flip-flops, the first defendant of the day was led into the principal's office, where he sat in a brown plastic chair before seven imams.
The man, Nidal, was accused of being one of President Bashar Assad's shabiha militia members and informing on antigovernment activists.
"The men caught this guy … being a shabiha," Ayman "Abu Ali" Sheikh, a hardware merchant who heads the newly formed town council in this rebel-held town, told the imams presiding over the religious court.
In his hand, Sheikh held a brightly colored spiral notebook with "Romance Days" written on the cover; what would have once been used by a schoolgirl had been repurposed as a court docket, listing 120 cases ranging from theft to custody battles to murder.
"I didn't. There is a Koran — I will swear on the Koran," Nidal said.
On the wall above the heads of the seven imams were blank spots where for years Assad's photo hung, along with that of his late father and the Syrian flag. They were ripped down more than two months ago, when opposition fighters and activists ran out the last of the police officers and representatives of Assad's government.
Like the missing photos, there is a power vacuum in towns and villages across Syria that have recently come under the control of the opposition. Now some residents are cobbling together councils and courts to fill it.
"In all practicality the regime has fallen here and we found that there was a security and civic void," Sheikh said. "We had to find a solution."
He and others in Tal Rifaat, north of the battleground city of Aleppo, formed a town council with 33 members, all men, and a religious court. The council oversees things such as garbage collection, funerals and humanitarian aid.
As the country further descends into civil war, it is perhaps one of the few hopeful signs that a post-Assad period might be characterized by something other than chaos and vendetta killings.
But in the early stages of trying to govern themselves and institute a new form of law, there are inevitable stumblings. Parallel courts and overlapping authority can lead to confusion. More worrying are reports of summary executions by the rebels, as well as abuse of detainees.
In the Tal Rifaat court, Nidal, sitting slightly hunched over with his hands clasped in his lap, admitted informing on two brothers who were opposition activists.
"Don't you know that this is a big crime? That you should be punished for this?" asked one of the judges, Sheikh Hatim Badran.
A few minutes later, Nidal was found guilty of being an informant and a shabiha. His punishment would depend on the fate of the brothers.
The court proceedings were interrupted by a commotion outside.
The imams walked to a white pickup that had pulled up in front of the school. In the back were four bodies: men dressed in civilian clothing, their hands tied behind their backs, each shot in the head. The men had been held at the much-feared air force branch before their bodies were found that morning in Aleppo.
The side of one man's head had been ripped open and his face sagged down. A rebel leaned over another body and cut the rope binding the wrists, trying to restore a bit of dignity.
A few minutes later, the truck drove off to the cemetery.
Even if the judicial arm of the government no longer extends to Tal Rifaat, the violence of its repression regularly does. Shells and rockets slam down on the town almost daily, leaving at least a few bodies in their wake.
A recurring theme of the Syrian uprising is that it gets ahead of itself: calling towns "liberated" when tanks are less than a mile away or launching ambitious offensives when there is a severe lack of ammunition.
With government law enforcement slipping away in rebel-held towns, crime has risen as many people find themselves jobless and without opportunity. But most of the problems the new authorities confront stem from the rebels themselves, as young men suddenly find themselves with the title of "revolutionary," easy access to weapons and sometimes a willingness to intimidate.
Since the beginning of the uprising, many in the opposition dismissed the idea that a post-revolution period would be chaotic. But as the fall of the regime becomes more likely, the need for building the early stages of a civil society becomes clear, even as rebels work to destroy the existing one.
In the town of Marea, north of Tal Rifaat, the metal doors of a school were kept locked and the courtyard and basketball court were empty save for the growling sound of a generator.
This was the prison run by a coalition of rebel militias known as the Al Tawheed Brigade, where more than 150 prisoners are held, many of them police officers, shabiha or soldiers.
In one classroom, dozens of men sat on the floor or on thin mattresses. They were dressed in T-shirts and sweat pants, and though the windows were open there was no cooling system and the room reeked of body odor.