Lebanon much closer to repealing controversial rape law

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Campaigners against gender violence in Lebanon have voiced caution after MPs agreed to work to revoke a nearly 70-year-old law allowing rapists to avoid prosecution if they marry their victim.

A parliamentary committee agreed on Wednesday to work to scrap article 522 of the penal code, which forgives rape, statutory rape and kidnapping if the perpetrator marries their victim.

The decision was largely applauded by politicians and citizens alike including prime minister Saad Hariri, who tweeted: “We will be waiting for the completion of the civilised step at the beginning of the first parliamentary session.”

But although there is consensus to abolish the controversial law, no actual vote on scrapping the legislation has yet taken place. The committee will meet on December 14 to discuss how to proceed on the issue, as well as other articles in the penal code’s section on sexual violence.

“They have not voted yet, so we cannot say it has been repealed,” said Maya Ammar, communications coordinator of Kafa, which works against gender violence and the exploitation of women.

She said she was worried that aspects of the article might not be repealed, or may be tacked on to other pieces of legislation. She added that some MPs have been discussing the possibility of perpetrators avoiding prosecution through marriage in cases involving the kidnapping of a minor or sexual activity with a minor.

About a dozen Lebanese women, dressed in white wedding dresses stained with fake blood and bandages, held a protest on Tuesday outside government buildings in Beirut against the law.

Article 522 is part of a set of old Lebanese laws aimed at protecting the “honour” of families and victims of sexual violence. These laws are based on assumptions that a woman is not fit for marriage if she has suffered sexual violence and that rape and extramarital affairs – among other things – tarnish family names.

Some of these laws have been overturned, but only recently. It was not until 2011 that article 562 of the penal code – which limited punishments for people who murdered relatives to protect their family’s “honour” – was revoked.

And despite now being outlawed, so-called “honour killings” still take place. In a suspected “honour killing” carried out earlier this week, the body of a woman who had been shot 21 times was discovered alongside the body of a man near Lebanon’s border with Syria.

Meanwhile, marital rape is not yet fully criminalised.

Lebanon is not alone in the Middle East in still allowing rapists to go free if they marry their victim: Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain all have similar laws in their penal codes. Morocco repealed such a law in 2014.

While there are campaigns across the region to remove such laws, just last month Turkey’s ruling AKP introduced a draft legislation that would allow men jailed for raping minors to be pardoned if they married their victim. The proposal sparked street protests in Turkey and condemnation internationally. Within days, the draft law was withdrawn.

Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim defended the draft law, saying “the proposal aims to remedy unjust suffering” caused when those ignorant of the law get married as minors and see their husbands carted off to prison.

And in October, a popular Tunisian talk show was suspended after its host encouraged a young rape victim to marry her attacker to “close the case” and “contain the situation”.

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