CAIRO: In 2004, a woman from Tanta was persuaded by a young man she met to accompany him to his office on the understanding that he would help her find work abroad.
The office turned out to be a flat owned by the man’s friend. The woman was raped, and died of heart failure caused by the attack and a pre-existing heart condition.
Despite the incontrovertible evidence against the man, and despite the fact that the crimes of which he was convicted carry a maximum sentence of the death penalty, he was sentenced to only three years imprisonment.
The judge’s ability to impose such a lenient sentence is supported by Article 17 of the Egyptian Penal Code. This article gives judges discretionary powers to radically reduce the punishment laid down for a crime where they decide that the circumstances of the crime justify their doing so.
The Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Aid (CEWLA) recently held a roundtable discussion on Article 17, an article which many jurists and women’s rights activists in particular regard as having extremely deleterious effects.
Speakers explained that the essence of the problem lies in the discretionary nature of the powers under Article 17. “Judges reflect the culture of the society in which they live and will apply the morals and values of that society in their decisions. In crimes which judges perceive as having a moral aspect, this results in wildly different verdicts that are often dependent on which governorate the judge is in Egypt, commented Yasser Abdel Gawad, a legal consultant to CEWLA.
Abdel Gawad pointed to the example of Qena, where a CEWLA study revealed that rape convictions in the Upper Egypt governorate average between one to three years imprisonment.
“The attitude there is ‘the woman deserved it;’ there is a perception that the victim must have done something which caused the crime to take place – regardless of her actual conduct, explained Abdel Gawad.
The “she-asked-for-it attitude – a source of controversy and debate which is not unique to Egypt – was also discussed during the seminar. One participant suggested that sexually explicit music videos and scantily-clad women “provoke men into committing sexual assault.
Abdel Gawad refuted this argument by pointing to 1960s Egypt, “where you rarely saw a veil and women wore mini-skirts in the street but these crimes were hardly heard of.
He suggested that other factors – unemployment, hopelessness about the future – account for a change in men’s attitudes towards women’s sexuality.
Fatma Khafaga, former director of the National Council for Women’s ombudsman office, echoed this, suggesting that this attitude is reflected in court decisions.
“Judges are the product of the prevailing culture towards women which is sadly reflected in the way men treat women in the street; they have given themselves a license to harass women, Khafaga told Daily News Egypt.
In the socially conservative Egyptian countryside a woman’s “honor – her sexual probity – continues to be regarded as both sacrosanct and a wider reflection of her family’s virtue.
Even the vaguest of rumors about a woman’s alleged illicit sexual activity is enough to justify violent reprisals by family members.
In many of these cases it is established posthumously that the murdered woman was entirely innocent of the accusations for which she was killed.
“In many of the cases included in a study we carried out on honor crimes it was discovered that victims who had been killed for having sexual intercourse were in fact still virgins, CEWLA director Azza Suleiman told Daily News Egypt.
It is this attitude which informs the verdicts of some judges. Even more problematic is that judges are not required to give reasons for invoking Article 17. While the law obliges them to hand down a sentence based on the material circumstances of the crime, establishing that they have actually done so is impossible in the absence of an obligation to give reasons for the decision to mitigate the sentence.
Furthermore, the decision to invoke Article 17 cannot be challenged by the victim’s family.
This had huge repercussions in the Tanta case described above, when the victim’s brother approached the National Council for Women’s ombudsman office.
“He came to us seeking to appeal the verdict. We contacted the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Justice and mobilized NGOs in an attempt to make it a public opinion case – which we succeeded in doing.
“But, unfortunately, this is one of the reasons I was forced to resign from the National Council for Women, Khafaga told Daily News Egypt.
Khafaga says that a lack of transparency in sentencing combined with animosity towards her criticism of the verdict forced her to step down from the ombudsman’s office.
“The judge clearly gave a wrong ruling – it was obvious that he was corrupt, Khafaga alleged. “The rapist in the Tanta case came from an affluent family and the judge used Article 17 in order to reduce his sentence to three years imprisonment.
CEWLA is currently the only Egyptian rights group which works on honor crimes. Director Azza Suleiman told Daily News Egypt that the group faces frequent opposition from other women’s rights group who, she said, accuse CEWLA of publishing “propaganda.
“There is a perception among NGOs here that honor crimes are a problem in Syria and Jordan but that they don’t exist in Egypt because penalties for honor killings do not exist in the criminal code, she said.
CEWLA attempts to address this misperception in a study it is currently preparing on honor crimes in the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya using statistics obtained from state security and the Ministry of Justice.
In the meantime it continues to lobby for a change in the law which will prevent the use of Article 17 in honor crime cases, or at least oblige courts to give reasons for evoking it.
“We want rules to be applied to the use of Article 17 because in deciding an honor crime case the judge refers to his own moral background and concludes that the victim has violated a moral code. But who is he to decide this or define honor? And shouldn’t the law play a role in combating customs at odds with rights? Abdel Gawad told Daily News Egypt.