(Beirut) - The Syrian government should treat all murders alike and not make exceptions for so-called "honor killings," Human Rights Watch said today. On July 1, 2009, President Bashar al-Assad abolished Article 548 of the Penal Code, which had waived punishment for a man found to have killed a female family member in a case "provoked" by "illegitimate sex acts," as well as for a husband who killed his wife because of an extramarital affair. The article also lowered penalties if a killing was found to be based on a "suspicious state" concerning a female family member. The article that replaced it still allows for mitigated punishment for "honor killings," but requires a sentence of at least two years.
"Two years is better than nothing, but it is hardly enough for murder," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East and North Africa women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Syrian government should punish all murders alike - no exceptions."
The new text of Article 548 reads: "He who catches his wife, sister, mother or daughter by surprise, engaging in an illegitimate sexual act and kills or injures them unintentionally must serve a minimum of two years in prison." In the previous text, the killer benefited from a complete "exemption of penalty".
Syria does not maintain definitive data on these killings, usually by family members who consider the woman to have done something to shame the family or harm its reputation. On March 29, 2006, Al-Thawra newspaper reported an estimate of about 40 such killings a year. The Syrian Women Observatory, an independent Syrian website that addresses discrimination against women, estimates that there are nearly 200 such killings each year. If this figure is correct, on average, 16 Syrian women are killed by relatives every month, in a country with a population of approximately 18 million.
In 2008, the National Forum on Honor Crimes, sponsored by the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs (SCFA) in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, set out a number of key recommendations, including repealing Article 548. It also recommended amending Article 192, which states that if a killing was based on an honorable intent, the judge has a number of options for reduced sentences, including short-term detention or imprisonment.
"The recommendations set out at the National Forum showed the government the way forward," said Khalife. "But there is a long way to go to rid Syria of this vicious practice."
Another article, 242, allows a judge to reduce the punishment both of men and women in cases in which a murder is committed in rage and motivated by an illegal act provoked by the victim. Extra-marital affairs are illegal in Syria.
"You cannot abolish one penal code provision that protects these killers and leave others intact." Khalife said. "Article 548 was a start. Now the government needs to reform all the articles in the criminal code that treat those who say they kill for ‘honor' differently from other murderers."