French appeal into Muslim marriage row

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DOUAI: A French Muslim couple urged a court Monday to release them from their marriage vows after officials blocked an earlier annulment granted on the grounds the bride was not a virgin.

France is a secular state, and public outrage at a ruling in April granting the annulment forced the government to order that the case be reviewed, against the wishes of both spouses.

State prosecutors said Monday they were not against allowing the split if it were possible to replace the discriminatory motive of loss of virginity with a more general one, such as mistaken identity.

Neither the woman nor her husband, a Muslim engineer in his 30s, was present for the hearing in the northern French town of Douai. Both asked the court to release them from their marriage vows, according to their lawyers.

The bride s lawyer, Charles-Edouard Mauger, said before the hearing his client was very fragile as a result of the scandal, and wanted to find a way out of this marital bond that no longer has any meaning.

The groom sought the annulment after realizing his bride was not a virgin on the night of their marriage in a civil ceremony in July 2006.

His wife, who admitted to him she had had pre-marital sex, says she accepted the annulment and now wants to move on.

We need to take the general interest of society into account, and not annul the union for questions of virginity, but we still need to find a motive to annul this marriage, her lawyer told reporters.

He said his client had been wronged in this case and would ask for a symbolic one euro in damages.

The secretary general of the Douai prosecutor s office, Eric Vaillant, said there were several ways out for the couple.

But the court of appeal has to accept the substitute motive. Judges may consider that in strict legal terms there are no grounds for annulment.

In that case, Vaillant said, these people will remain married and they will just have to get a divorce.

The court in Lille that granted the initial annulment did not mention the couple s religion but said the man s belief in the woman s virginity was a determining factor in his decision to marry her.

It said he had been misled about an essential quality of his bride-to-be.

The ruling drew furious protests from rights groups, who slammed it as a victory for religious fundamentalists and a blow to the emancipation of women that set a dangerous legal precedent.

Some 150 European parliament members wrote to France s Muslim-born justice minister, Rachida Dati, denouncing it as an unacceptable encroachment of religion in the public sphere.

Dati finally ordered an appeal in the face of a wall of protest, but she continued to insist the ruling was legally sound, based on a breach of trust between the pair, not the issue of virginity itself.

The justice minister also warned the case should not be used to stigmatise France s five-million-strong Muslim community, Europe s largest.

The ruling is expected on November 17. -AFP

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