Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the midst of the controversy taking place in Damascus over the amendment of the Personal Status Law – something that has yet to be resolved- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree to repeal one of the Articles of the [Syrian] Penal Code pertaining to honour killings, replacing this with an Article that confers a more severe sentence on those convicted of committing this crime. Those who have repeatedly demanded the abolition of this Article – that under special circumstances limits the length of sentences given to those convicted of having committed an honour killing – have described this as “a good step, but one that is small and insufficient.”
The decree abolishes Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code and replaces it with the following provision; “He who catches his wife, or one of his ascendants, descendents or sister committing adultery (flagrante delicto) or illegitimate sex acts with another and he kills or injures one or both of them, either deliberately or non-deliberately, then the penalty for this should be a prisoner sentence of no less than two years in the case of murder.”
Prior to the amendment, Article 548 stated that anyone who commits an honour killing after catching his wife, or one of his ascendants, descendents, or sister committing an act of adultery or an illegitimate sexual act could claim mitigating circumstances and benefit from a reduced sentence.
Human and civil rights groups have been calling for the repeal of Article 548 for some time, and the abolishment of any mitigating causes that may grant the perpetrators of honour killings any excuses, especially since the majority of the victims of such crimes are innocent women. It should also be noted that many cases [that previously fell under Article 548] cannot properly be described as honour killing due to the element of surprise involved in these cases. Most crimes that have been described as honour killings are premeditated, rather than being a reaction to an alleged act of adultery.
There have also been many cases of honour killings that have occurred due to the woman’s desire to marry somebody of a different faith or sect. The last such crime took place last month in Damascus, two young men strangled their 21-year old sister to death just three days after her wedding under the pretext of defending their “honour.” It should be noted that the victim had married with the consent of her parents; despite this her brothers committed the crime, and have also vowed to kill their late sister’s husband. Two weeks earlier an 18-year old girl in Aleppo was killed under similar circumstances.
In other cases, the true motive behind such murders is greed and conflict over inheritance. However the perpetrator is then able to invoke this mitigating circumstance defence that is present for cases of honour killings, and if accepted by the court, the killer will then only serve a prison sentence of a few weeks or in some cases just a few days.
Article 242 of the Syrian Penal Code states that “those who commit crimes of passion resulting from the unacceptable or illegal actions of the victim can benefit from the excuse of mitigating circumstances.” There are also several other articles in the Syrian Penal Code relevant to honour killing sentencing, such as [previously mentioned] Article 548 and Article 192.
The Syrian Women Observatory [SWO] has stated that between 200 and 300 honour killings are committed in Syria every year, the majority of which occur in rural and Bedouin communities. The SWO stated that half of the annual murder cases committed in Syria are cases of honour killing.
However official figures indicate that only 38 honour killings occurred in Syria in 2007 out of a total of 533 murder cases. Official figures also revealed that during the first eight months of 2008 only 29 honour killings took place throughout Syria, with the Idlib Governorate recording the highest proportion of honour killings at 22 percent, followed by the Aleppo governorate that saw 15 percent of Syria’s honour killings.
The propensity of honour killings in Syrian society varies between the urban and rural areas. This phenomenon hardly exists in urban Damascus society that believes in covering up its scandals, while it is prevalent in the clan-based rural society that celebrates honour killing. There are those of certain faiths and sects in Syria who accept inter-faith and inter-sect marriage, however there is also the presence of those that consider this to be a crime punishable by death.
Sources within the [Syrian] Human Rights movement informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “tightening the penalty to a minimum sentence of two years in prison is not enough, and does not represent a strong deterrent; this Article should have been [completely] abolished”
There are however those that believe that it would be extremely difficult to completely abolish this Article, for Syria is a society whose social structure is clan-based and the defence of honour is viewed as an ingrained social norm.
Last year, the Syrian government sponsored a national forum on honour killings that both religious figures and jurists took part in. The forum’s final recommendation was to call for fatwas to be issued forbidding honour killing, and forbidding those that commit this crime from making use of the mitigating circumstance article, ensuring a prison sentence of no less than 15 years be imposed upon those who commit this crime.