Geiroon – Samer Al Ahmad
On October 21st of last year, a video went viral on social media of a man named “Bashar Bseis” killing his sister (Rasha) by firing tens of bullets at her from an automated rifle for what he called “washing away the shame”, while being instigated by another person standing next to him, as shown in the video. This kind of incident happens repeatedly in different parts of Syria, where the murderers take advantage of the penalty reduction that was previously allowed by law under the “pardonable excuse” clause linked to these types of crimes, which are called “honor crimes”.
Until this day, it is unknown whether the murderer (Bashar) faced any legal penalties, as he has escaped from Jarabulus to Hama Suburbs, while some news sources say he turned himself in to Hay’it Tahrir Al Sham, without mentioning his fate. This crime was widely condemned by Syrian activists and civil society organizations, which have launched a social media campaign under the name (Crime of no Honor) to express their rejection to those crimes which are merely a reflection of societal traditions and have no legal or religious context. The campaign called on all relevant authorities (courts, police, and local councils) to bear the responsibility of raising community awareness.
Several regions in Syria have had direct elections to choose their local councils, as seen in Saqba in Rif Dimashaq in 2017, in Saraqib in Idleb suburbs in 2017, and several months ago in Anjara village in Aleppo’s western suburbs; however, the issue of “honor crimes” was not listed clearly in electoral campaigns, or on the agendas of those local councils, for many reasons, one of which is the unclarity of the councils’ real responsibilities, as they are perceived as service providers that do not interfere in society.
In this context, Osama Al Hussein, director of the local council and a former candidate in Saraqib, told Geiroon “this kind of topic was mostly never proposed for discussion by local councils, because the real effort is being exerted towards women’s participation in the administrative process, since the councils were recently men-dominated,” adding “the local council system in Syria is a new system, and the previous regime authority limited the responsibilities of the municipal councils to a service providing level; for that reason, (honor crimes) were never discussed by councils, considering it is not part of their responsibilities but rather the responsibility of the legislative authority and police forces.”
On the other hand, a woman known as Mohammad’s mother – who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons – and who is also a candidate for the Anjara local council elections, told Geiroon “I ran for the local council elections, which took place several months ago, and focused during my electoral campaign on the importance of enabling and empowering women. We did not mention (honor crimes) specifically, but we defended women’s rights in general, and called for confronting domestic violence and gender-based violence.”
Local councils in Aleppo’s northern suburbs currently operate to secure civilians’ needs, and also contribute to raising awareness in coordination with the legislative authorities and the police force, in order to improve living conditions in the northern suburbs of Aleppo, according to Abed Khaleel, director of Jarabulus local council, who said “policies of the council are all based on confronting all social and religious kinds of extremism, and the importance of complying to the city’s civil laws, no individual behavior is excluded. The council plays its role in raising awareness through schools and mosques, where everyone is urged to comply to the law and avoid following worn out customs and traditions,” adding to Geiroon “we need a wider social awareness; we encourage all organizations to help spread the word about the importance of rejecting such behaviors; we need organized campaigns and support from all actors across the city.”
It is not expected that the cities of Azaz, Jarabulus, Albab, Afrin, and the rest of Aleppo suburban villages will hold local council elections anytime soon, but it will eventually do so in the future, in order to take on its role in social awareness, especially when it comes to issues related to violence against women and (honor crimes). In this context, Yaseen Hilal, director of the Free Bar Association in Aleppo, told Geiroon “it is only when local councils are elected and start enjoying wider authorities that they will bear their responsibilities, because elected councils represent people’s will; the people of this land who know best what problems it is facing and what the best way is to solve these problems, especially with regards to (honor crimes), taking into account the cultural context of each region. These local councils will be a compass for all legislators, that will guide them to draft laws more suitable for each region.”
These types of crimes were mentioned by Syria’s penal code in article 584, which previously pardoned the killer from any punishment. The article was amended in 2009 to state that “he who witnesses his wife, or one of his first hand relatives, or his sister, having an affair or a sexual interaction with another person, and accordingly kills her or harms her, will benefit from a mitigating excuse.” In 2011, another amendment to the article extended the time of punishment to 7 years, with a mitigating excuse.
Hilal added “(honor crimes) rarely happen in Aleppo suburbs, according to court statistics. During the past years, 2000 misdemeanor cases and 1000 felony cases were reported to the Court of First instance in Azaz, and (honor crimes) did not account for more than 5 of each. The legal system treats the committer of such a crime as a criminal and does not allow room for any justification, because using the mitigating excuse will help spread the crime under this pretext.” For his part, Ahmad Al Hassoun, Attorney General of Jarabulus, assured that “no honor crime was committed in Jarabulus since the incident of Bashar Bseis; and this was due to awareness campaigns that were launched in coordination between the judiciary, local councils, and religious authority, by sending facilitators to refugee camps to deliver awareness sessions on this topic.”
Hassoun called for joint efforts between local councils, legislative authorities, and civil society organizations to “put an end to these kinds of crimes, impose legal restrictions to eliminate fornication in society, call on taking responsibility when it comes to (honor crimes), enhance the culture of respecting the legal system, and criminalize unlawful killing. The main reason behind the spread of crime is the absence of law and the weakness of its effectiveness, as well as the lack of courage among women to refuse the concept of allowing a man to kill a relative due to customs and traditions.”
These crimes are considered a clear violation of a human’s right to live, and of the 3rd article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
(Honor Crimes) are common in many Arab states. In Syria, president of the criminal chamber of the court of cassation in the regime government revealed that in 2016 (honor crimes) have quadrupled compared to 2011, although Syria was listed third place in the Arab World for the number of (honor crimes) at the time.
Prior to 2011, many civil and political actors attempted to pressure the government to repeal the law that allows a mitigating excuse; while Syrian political parties also attempted to propose this topic for discussion in Parliament. Mahmoud Alwahb, former parliamentarian and member of the directing council of the Syrian Unified Communist Party’s central committee said “the (honor crimes) question has always been proposed for discussion in social, legal and administrative departments in general, and I believe that some members of the Syrian parliament have raised this issue more than once as part of the discussions on laws related to women’s rights, or during open sessions, but the furthest they could get to is raising the time of the killer’s sentence. There is a consensus that (honor crimes) are inherited by worn out traditions, and that the issue is built into an inherited culture that the regime was never able to overcome, although it claims to be a secular regime.”
Political life in Syria before 2011 did not allow initiating discussions or projects that were not aligned with authorities, or that may trigger social anger. The president was able to reject any law passed by parliament, if he does not approve it; for that reason, parties that have representatives in parliament never succeeded in confronting issues such as honor crimes, Alwahb said “the Syrian Unified Communist Party condemns and refuses this crime without doubt, but I believe that the party never sought to repeal the mitigating excuse for those crimes through its members of parliament. The party was probably more occupied by political, social and economic issues related to living conditions and was not interested in confronting religious figures or other key actors with traditional mentalities.”
At that time, the League of Syrian Women, which was associated with the communist party, took on the responsibility of following up on this issue under the leadership of organized communist women, according to Samira Albahu, former member of the league, who said “the league’s main focus was the call for women’s rights. It did raise the issue of honor crimes several times but the struggle for women’s rights in general would always collide with authorities. For example, when the league proposed the issue of allowing Syrian women who are married to foreigners to grant their citizenship to their children, communist members of parliament adopted the proposal, in addition to many other members, but the bill was rejected in the presidential palace.”
The crime committed against Rasha Bseis remains in the minds of Syrians, awaiting to see justice taking effect against the killer, so that it would be a lesson to deter those who may think of committing a similar crime in the future, and hoping that more efforts would be exerted by legal authorities, police forces and elected local councils to help enhance law and civil justice and raise the necessary awareness among civilians, so that they can overcome this legacy that violates women’s rights and makes them exposed to the harshest kinds of intimidation and possibly exploitation.
This human rights article was published with the support of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) and the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF).