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(Beirut) – Lebanon’s parliament should repeal a penal code provision that allows rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament should also amend other provisions to adequately criminalize sexual assault and rape, including by spouses.

Demonstration outside Lebanon's Parliament on December 6, 2016, with women in white dresses and wrapped in bandages, calling for the repeal of article 522 of the penal code. © Patrick Baz / AFP

On December 7, 2016, members of the Parliamentary Committee for Administration and Justice announced an agreement to repeal article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which allows halting the prosecution or suspending the conviction of a person who has committed rape, kidnapping, or statutory rape if he marries the victim. Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri expressed his support for the measure on Twitter. The proposed reform, once officially confirmed by the committee, will next go to the full Lebanese parliament for review.

“The current law allows for a second assault on a rape survivor’s rights in the name of ‘honor’ by trapping her in a marriage with her rapist,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Protecting honor should be about ensuring that attackers are punished and promoting social attitudes that support survivors of sexual violence instead of stigmatizing them.”

The proposed repeal follows years of campaigning by Lebanese women’s rights organizations. Abaad, a local women’s rights group, campaigned in recent months for the repeal of article 522 with a viral video, billboards, events outside parliament, and an online petition with the hashtag #Undress522.

Parliament should also address the issue of marital rape. The parliamentary committee is still reviewing penal code articles 503-521, which address rape, acts of indecency, statutory rape, and kidnapping. Article 503 defines the crime of rape as “forced sexual intercourse [against someone] who is not his wife by violence or threat.”

The 2014 law on domestic violence makes threats or violence by a spouse to claim a “marital right to intercourse” a crime, but does not criminalize the non-consensual violation of physical integrity itself. The penalties for this are covered under articles 554-559, which provide for as little as a fine of 10,000-50,000 Lebanese pound (US$6.66-$33) or a maximum of six months in prison if the victim required 10 days maximum of rest to recover, compared with at least five years for rape under article 503.

In November 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, during its review of Lebanon’s record under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, called on Lebanon to criminalize marital rape.

“The Lebanese parliament should ensure that the legal definition of rape is comprehensive, and does not make exceptions for marital rape,” Begum said. “Rape inside and outside of marriage should be treated exactly the same.”

Lebanon’s parliament should also clearly define sexual assault as a violation of bodily integrity and sexual autonomy, and rape as a form of sexual assault that is a physical invasion of a sexual nature without consent or under coercive circumstances, Human Rights Watch said. A physical invasion would include penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim – or of the rapist by the victim – with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body.

The penal code, under articles 507-510 and beyond, refers to violent acts of “indecency.” However, “indecency” is ill-defined, and it should instead be replaced with specific reference to sexual assault that is not penetrative rape.

If Lebanon abolishes the loophole for rapists who marry their victims, it will join a growing number of countries around the world that have made similar reforms in the past 30 years, including Costa Rica (2007), Uruguay (2006), Romania (2000), Peru (1998), France (1994), and Italy (1981).

Regionally, in 1999, Egypt repealed article 291 from its penal code which had allowed rapists or kidnappers to escape prosecution by marrying their victim. In January 2014, Morocco’s parliament removed a clause from article 475 of its penal code that had allowed some men to escape prosecution for raping a child if they agreed to marry her.

Countries in the region that retain such provisions include Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine, Syria, and Tunisia.

Some of these are considering reforming their laws. Jordan is considering a proposal to amend article 308 of its penal code to end the exemption from investigation and prosecution for people accused of sexual assault if they marry their victims and remain married for at least five years. However, a proposed provision allows men to escape statutory rape –consensual sex – in cases where the child is above 15, if they marry the victim.

Bahrain’s parliament on May 31, 2016, approved the abolition of article 353, which exempts those who commit rape from punishment if they marry their victim, and called on the Council of Ministers to return to parliament a draft law of the abolition to be enacted. On November 7, the Council of Ministers noted that the Ministerial Committee on Legal Affairs is studying the issue.

“Lebanon, Jordan, and Bahrain should all move forward to adopt and implement proposed reforms to prevent rapists from escaping prosecution by marrying their victims,” said Begum. “Other countries should follow suit.”

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