New Drive to Abolish “Honour Crime” Laws

(24-Oct-08)

Syrian leaders have recommended reforming laws under which criminals convicted of so-called “honour crimes” get lenient sentences.

The commission for family affairs – a government body – proposed the change last week at the end of a state-sponsored forum on honour crimes, the first of its kind in Syria. More than 100 civic, religious and government leaders as well as legal experts attended the conference in Damascus, which also drew support from the ministry of justice and the ministry of religious endowments.

Under Syrian law, men who catch a female family member engaging in adultery or other “illegitimate sexual acts”, or even in a “suspicious state”, are exempted from the standard punishments for murder and assault. Those convicted of murders deemed to be honour killings face only six months to a year in prison.

The conference called for the honour crime exemption to be eliminated from the statute books, so that individuals convicted of murder in honour-related crimes would face a minimum of 15 years in prison.

“Article 548 gives permission for half of the [Syrian] people to commit murder,” said family affairs commission chair Simwa Astor. “We want to eliminate this article… for the sake of the sovereignty of the law, and to protect human beings.”

Women’s groups estimate that close to 300 so-called honour killings are committed every year, most in rural communities.

Brigadier Ali Alush, a senior official in the interior ministry, told the conference that honour crimes have accounted for seven per cent of homicides so far in 2008. But he acknowledged that the figure was probably an understatement because such crimes often go unreported.

“The problem with these crimes is not the numbers, but rather the deed itself,” said Raghda al-Ahmed, vice-president of the women’s general union. “Even if there is only one homicide, it remains a source of shame in our history.”

Women’s and human rights advocates have fought for many years for the honour crimes law to be changed.

The official backing given by the conference raised hopes that the recommendations could influence a change in a law that women’s groups say decriminalises violent crimes against women.

Syria’s chief Muslim cleric or Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Badr Hassoun, last year called for the law to be amended after parliament reportedly stalled on legislation that would have changed the penal code.

In 2006, human rights activists, intellectuals and media outlets also participated in a campaign to reform the laws.

Conference participants tried to pressure members of parliament invited to the event to change the penalties for this kind of crime.

But not all politicians favour reform.

Ghalib Inaiz, a member of the parliament’s legislative committee, told the conference that the honour crime law “is derived from Islamic sharia, and we cannot change it”.

Another member of parliament, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would not support changes to the law, “because a person cannot give up his honour, and he should receive a commuted sentence if he kills one of his relatives if he catches them in the act”.

But another legislator, Mohammed Habash, who is an expert on Islam, said this law is not based on Islam and has “become a butcher’s knife to kill people in the name of honour”.

Ahmed Talib, a Shia sheikh from Lebanon who attended the conference, blamed honour crimes on what he called the “dominant culture”, in other words local tradition rather than religious tenets.

“Men grow up [thinking] they are above their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. That is the primary reason for the prevalence of such crimes,” he said.

Huda al-Himsi, a member of parliament who sits on the family affairs commission, said reforming the law would not automatically change the customs and traditions which sanction honour crimes.

“I am not optimistic,” she said. “Even if we abolish Article 548, we will not be able to stop honour crimes.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists.)