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How have provisions of “honor killings” evolved in Syrian law

A drawing design by Enab Baladi about Rasha Bseis who was killed by her brother in an honor crime in Jarablus of rural Aleppo-October 2018

A drawing design by Enab Baladi about Rasha Bseis who was killed by her brother in an honor crime in Jarablus of rural Aleppo-October 2018

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malass

The Syrian People’s Council passed new legal amendments abolishing the “mitigating excuse” for the so-called “honor killings,” thus considering crimes provoked by the “honor” motive just like any other crime.

The council approved the law during its session held in Damascus on 12 March, stipulating to repeal Article 548 and its amendments of the Syrian Panel Code promulgated by Legislative Decree No. 148 of 1949.

Abolished Article 548 provided for two items:

The first item says that “the person who catches his wife, or one of his relatives, in the crime of proven adultery or vulgar sexual intercourse with another person, then he killed or harmed them intentionally or unintentionally, the perpetrator of the killing or harm shall benefit from the mitigating excuse. In addition, the person who catches his wife, one of his relatives, distant relatives, or sisters in a suspicious situation with another person, he can also benefit from the mitigating excuse on one condition that he killed or harmed them unintentionally.  

However, the lawmakers did not specify what lies under the “suspicious activity,” taking into consideration that sexual relations outside marriage are prohibited in Syria according to the law.

Article 548 is in connection to Article 192 

The recently repealed Article 548 is closely related to Article No. 192 of the Syrian Penal Code; both allocated a mitigating excuse for “honor crimes.”

The People’s Council, Syria’s legislative authority, gave a lenient penalty for crimes perpetrated in the name of “honor,” and also used the term “honorable motive,” according to Article 192.

Nonetheless, the Syrian law includes no definition for the “honor” motive, and this matter was left to the judge’s discretion.

In the case of the “honor” motive provoked crimes, and as per Article 192, the judge can rule for a life sentence or 15 years imprisonment instead of penal servitude for life. The judge can also rule for temporary detention instead of provisional penal servitude, and a prison sentence instead of imprisonment with hard labor, moreover, the judge may entirely exempt the convict from punishment. 

Therefore, the judiciary may reduce the sentence mentioned in Article 548, according to Article 192, with a minimum penalty of two years imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the abolition of Article 548 sparked extensive debate in the halls of the People’s Council on the necessity to repeal Article 192 of the Syrian Penal Code regarding the “honor” motive.

Article 192 states as follows:

If it was manifest to the judge that such crimes were conducted in the name of “honor,” he shall award the following penalties: 

The judge can rule for a life sentence or 15-year imprisonment instead of penal servitude for life. 

The judge can also rule for temporary detention instead of provisional penal servitude, and a prison sentence instead of imprisonment with hard labor, Moreover, the judge may entirely exempt the convict from punishment. 

Therefore, the judge may reduce the sentence mentioned in Article 548, according to Article 192, with a minimum penalty of two years imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the abolition of Article 548 sparked extensive debate in the halls of the People’s Council on the necessity to repeal Article 192 of the Syrian Penal Code regarding the “honor” motive.

Besides, the Syrian Penal Code provides for another Article No. 242, allows the judge to reduce the punishment for both men and women in cases of murders committed in the event of anger, or motivated by an illegal act provoked by the victim.

Legislative proposals to elevate social awareness 

In a statement to Enab Baladi, lawyer and human rights activist Ghazwan Koronfol described the recent amendment on the so-called “honor killing” punishment as a “positive step in the right direction.” He said the latest measure would eliminate the idea of ​​gender discrimination, and abolish the concept of ​​people replacing the legal authority and the state in imposing punishments.

Hence, “honor killings” can now be considered a full-fledged crime whose perpetrators are punished with a full sentence regardless of their causes or motives.

Nevertheless, Koronfol believes that steps towards legal amendments are not enough; for society’s ideas, customs and values imposing too many restrictions on ethical issues such as sexual-behavior are an obstacle in developing individuals’ self-awareness of these steps.

He added that there must be intellectual, cognitive, or legal factors in order to enhance community awareness; therefore, constitutional development proposals are viewed as a solution to shape or change public awareness towards sensitive issues.

As for the Syrian Islamic Council, it said in a statement that “the Muslim is subject to the Islamic sharia law, not to customs or traditions.”

It pointed out that the murder’s perpetrator provoked by motives of preserving family “honor” or avenging slights, is punished according to one of these three cases.

In the first case, the Islamic jurists say that there should not be retribution against a killer if provided evidence or eyewitnesses to the act of adultery or in case the family of the deceased offered their testimony. This perspective aims to “defend God’s instructions on earth and consider the “honor crime “as an act of jealousy that is consistent with human instinct.”

The second case says the husband cannot kill his wife for adultery without evidence. If he does so, then he will be punished with retribution, for the Islamic sharia requires four witnesses to the act of adultery.

The third case forbids killings on the base of sexual acts that exclude intercourse, and whoever committed this crime will be punished by the Islamic sharia law with retribution, for it is a “serious crime.”

According to the Council, fathers do not get retribution sentences if they killed their daughters in “honor crimes.”

Previous amendments to Article 548

Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code was first amended in July 2009, when the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad ordered to lessen the punishment provided in Article 548 to a maximum of two-year imprisonment for “honor killings.”

In 2011, Syria promulgated Decree No. 1 of the Syrian Penal Code by which several articles were modified, most prominent of which is Article 548. Article 548 was replaced with another article increasing the punishment for “honor crimes” to a period between five to seven years of imprisonment instead of two.

Therefore, the new text of Article 548 has stated, “the person who catches his wife, or one of his relatives, in the crime of proven adultery or vulgar sexual intercourse with another person, then he killed or harmed them intentionally or unintentionally. The perpetrator of the killing or harm shall benefit from the mitigating excuse and receive a penalty not less than two years imprisonment for murder.

It is worth noting that, in the previous text of Article 548, the killer benefited from a full pardon of punishment.

Campaigns against Article 548

The abolition of Article 548 came after 15 years of Syrian-based domestic campaigns that opposed the mitigating excuse for perpetrators of “honor crimes.”

The most prominent of these campaigns was the “National Campaign Against Honor Crimes in Syria” launched by the Syrian Women Observatory (SWO) in September 2005. The campaign aimed to reduce the value of the mitigating excuse to view “honor crimes” like any other crime. It was hence deterring murderers from relying on the mitigating excuse before committing their “honor crimes.”

These campaigns brought “honor killings” out of the field of silence to a matter of public opinion.

“Honor killings” are often close-lipped issues in patriarchal societies; however,  judicial statistics indicate that these incidents were and are still widely spreading in Syria, according to a previous investigation by Enab Baladi entitled “Honor crimes:” Customs at the expense of women’s blood.”

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