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H.E. Ayman Awdeh
Minister of Justice
Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Dear Minister Awdeh,

We are writing to acknowledge your decision to designate a special tribunal to hear cases of so called "honor" killings in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. We recognize this effort on behalf of the Criminal Court as a genuine initiative to ensure that so called honor crimes are tried in a uniform manner, and that the sentences handed down to the perpetrators of these crimes are equitable.

Human Rights Watch has previously expressed our serious concern over lenient sentencing of men who murder their female relatives in Jordan in our April 2004 report "Honoring the Killers" (see below). The verdicts which Jordan's Criminal Court handed down have been far from just. For example, on July 8, 2009, the Criminal Court sentenced a 29 year-old Jordanian man, who shot his sister 12 times because she was raped, to seven and a half years in prison, reducing the initial 15-year sentence. The court halved his sentence because some of the victim's family members dropped charges against him. On February 3, 2009, a court sentenced another Jordanian man who it found had killed his sister for falling in love with a Syrian man to merely 6 months in prison.

We continue to be concerned that "honor" killings in Jordan claim an average of 25 women's lives every year according to a recent study (June 2009) entitled "Crimes of Honor in Jordan and the Arab World" by Attorney Lubna Dawany Nimry. As of July 2009, 13 women in the kingdom had been thus murdered this year. Three of these crimes occurred during the month of July alone. These figures reflect only the crimes that have been reported and may therefore seriously underestimate the real extent of the problem. The unchanged, and perhaps even slightly rising, number of victims of "honor" killings shows that Jordan's past efforts to battle this scourge have not borne fruit.

For any court system to function, it must be adequately resourced in terms of infrastructure and staff. In Human Rights Watch's experience, the establishment of a parallel court system to address certain types of crimes-such as the special tribunal for "honor" killings in Jordan-can be an obstacle in this regard. Often, the new court is either badly resourced, or, if well resourced, may divert much needed resources and staff from regular courts. Either way, ensuring equal access to justice would require a careful monitoring of justice dispensed in the specialized and regular court systems in Jordan. Furthermore the creation of a special court should not be a reason to avoid ensuring that judges and other staff in the regular justice system, who will still be dealing with "honor" crimes in their work, address such crimes fairly and without discrimination. We therefore recommend that the special tribunal and its specialist staff provide training and instruction to all judges on violence against women, and specifically on "honor" killings. We are aware that public prosecutors in Jordan have received training on violence against women in order to eliminate gender discrimination in the handling of all cases; these prosecutors should therefore be able to recognize the seriousness and criminal nature of gender-based violence, including so called "honor" crimes, in the regular court system. A similar training for judges should enhance the criminal justice response to these types of crimes.

Human Rights Watch also remains concerned that without penal reforms, the criminal justice system may not be able to effectively bring perpetrators to justice. For years, human rights activists in Jordan have campaigned to abolish article 340 of the penal code, which provides a reduced sentence for a male who kills a female relative engaged in illicit sex, as well as article 98, which provides for reduced sentences if the act of murder was committed while the perpetrator was in rage. In other provisions, reduced sentences are also granted if members of the victim's family do not pursue what is called private rights. In the case of intra-family "honor" killings, of course, the victim's and the perpetrator's family members are one and the same. The Jordanian Lower House of Parliament on several occasions blocked such penal reform.

Violence against women is a violation of human rights and a crime. In 2004, the Third Committee of United Nations General Assembly's 59th session stated that "States have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish perpetrators of crimes committed against women and girls in the name of honour."  In 1992, the CEDAW Committee General Recommendation No. 19 recommended that measures to overcome family violence must include legislation to remove the defense of honor in regard to the assault or murder of a female family member. CEDAW article 5 (a) specifically states that states should modify social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with a view to eliminating prejudices based on the idea that one sex is superior to the other. Seventeen years after ratifying CEDAW, Jordan, in August 2007, published the text of the convention in the official gazette, giving it the force of domestic law.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, in its 39th session held in August 2007 reviewing Jordan's progress on women's rights, called upon Jordan to ensure that "honor" crimes are treated as seriously as other violent crimes. It also urged the kingdom "to amend, without delay, applicable provisions of the Penal Code."

In "Honoring the Killers," Human Rights Watch recommended that the Jordanian government:

  • Repeal penal code article 340 which stipulates that a man who murders or injures a female relative engaged in illicit sex is exempt from any penalty or benefits from a reduced sentence.
  • Repeal penal code article 98 qualifying the murder if conducted in a "fit of fury," with attendant reduced sentences.
  • Repeal legal provisions that allow family members to drop charges for "honor" crimes resulting in reduced sentences.
  • Eliminate gender discrimination in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of "honor" crimes.
  • Provide training to judges on violence against women and "honor" killings in particular. In addition, training for judges must also include instruction on the narrow limits of the "fury" defense which uses article 98 to reduce sentences to perpetrators who kill while in "fit of rage".
  • Provide specialized training for certain prosecutors in each region to try cases of violence against women including "honor" crimes. In addition, Human Rights Watch recommends that these prosecutors shall be responsible for handling cases of violence against women in all trial courts in their districts.

The establishment of a special tribunal on "honor" killings signals the government's awareness that it must do more to tackle these severe and discriminatory crimes against women. However, in Human Rights Watch's experience, only a sustained and comprehensive effort-not a special tribunal-can lead to the goal of integrating sensitivity about violence against women into the mainstream justice system.  Such an effort should start with the legal reforms in the penal code, but also include adequate judicial training.

We look forward to hearing from you about your plans in this regard.


Liesl Gerntholtz

Executive Director of the Women's Rights Division
Human Rights Watch

CC:  Judge Nayef Al Sammarat, President of the Criminal Court
Judicial Institute of Jordan

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