Lebanese women are often portrayed in the media as being among the most liberal in the Middle East, and while that may be true to a certain degree, it does not mean that the law often works in their favor –liberal or not. Tuesday stood testament to that, as activists and human rights groups staged a brief protest outside the Beirut Justice Palace in Adlieh, demanding that a man convicted with the murder of his wife be given a longer sentence. The protest took place on the first deadline to appeal the verdict that saw the murderer’s sentence reduced.
The man, Mohammad al-Nhaily, was found guilty of bludgeoning his wife Manal Assi with a pressure cooker in 2014, leaving her to die an agonizing death in front of her two daughters as family members begged to provide her with medical attention. Assi was reportedly tortured for two hours under the hands of al-Nhaily before finally succumbing to her wounds.
Last month, Helene Iskandar, the presiding judge at the Beirut Criminal Court, reduced Nhaily’s sentence from the death penalty to five years in prison, stating that he had been in a state of extreme rage during the time he had committed the murder. Given the nine-month judicial prison year in Lebanon and time already served, al-Nhaily is scheduled for release in a little over a year.
KAFA, the group behind the rally, said the verdict was based on section 562 of article 252 of the Penal Code, which relates to “Honor Killings.” The article, which Lebanon repealed in 2011, stipulates that if a crime is committed as a result of a bout of severe rage induced by the victim, then the accused is allowed a lighter sentence.
Al-Nhaily has maintained that Assi had admitted to having had an extra-marital affair at the time, and that he had killed her in a moment of sheer rage. Judge Iskandar reportedly used the powers vested in her to interpret the case individually, thus enabling the use of article 252.
The leniency in al-Nhaily’s verdict is certainly not unique. Karam Bazzi, a man who was accused of murdering his 31 year-old wife Roula Yaacoub in 2014 by also beating her to death was never convicted for “lack of evidence”. Her mother Laila Khoury, who was present at the protest, expressed her anger at a “system that does not do women justice.”
Roula’s case changed the domestic violence law in Lebanon with activists, and women’s groups rallying alongside her family to urge Parliament’s approval of a draft law aimed at protecting women from domestic violence. This resulted in the criminalization of the act as stipulated by Law No. 293/2014. Although the law is far from complete, due to several amendments made under pressure by religious groups, it was at the time seen as a step forward.
But how much forward are we really moving, and in what direction seeing that archaic laws are still being put to use? A question that needs to be asked to judges and state prosecutors who till date bow to patriarchal prejudice in verdicts related to domestic violence.
9 women have been killed in domestic violence cases this year alone, adding to the growing number of victims, according to KAFA. It pains me to see that the state prosecutor has not yet used his powers to appeal the verdict, but it even pains me more that a female judge misused her powers to reduce the sentence. How many more women will fall before such tragedies are put to an end; before the victims are allowed a peaceful rest? Questions that beg an answer.
UPDATE: State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud appealed the court decision to reduce the prison term of al-Nhaily on Monday, stating that said decision was “a mistake in explaining and implementing Article 252 of the penal code.” Hammoud called on the court to uphold the original death sentence for al-Nhaily.