By Soraya Al-Ghussein and Hannah Patchett
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- President Mahmoud Abbas has no plans to amend laws that reduce sentences for suspects who claim an "honor" defense for murdering women, his legal adviser says.
"Why change it? This would cause serious problems," Hassan al-Ouri told Ma'an, adding that such a reform would "not benefit women."
In May 2011, the president pledged to amend the law to guarantee maximum penalties for "honor killing" in response to protests over the killing of university student Aya Baradiya in Hebron.
The decision was announced in a phone call to a primetime show on state TV, drawing tears among crowds of mourners shown in a live link-up from the Ramallah studio to Baradiya’s hometown.
Abbas suspended Article 340, which offers a pardon for murder if the perpetrator committed the crime on finding his wife in bed with another man.
The reform was cosmetic: Article 340 had never been used in Palestinian courts since it was legislated in 1960.
"So why did we change the law? To garner public opinion," al-Ouri said in an interview in the presidential compound in Ramallah.
"I, personally, was against the amendment because the crimes that happen in the street have no relevance to Article 340," the legal adviser added.
Al-Ouri says the president will not change the go-to clauses for lawyers seeking leniency for clients who claim they committed murder to defend family "honor."
Articles 97 to 100 of the Jordanian Penal Code, in force in the West Bank, still offer reduced sentences for any act of battery or murder committed in a "state of rage."
"The (law) only addresses 1 percent of the problem. What we need is a new culture," al-Ouri said.
Other officials insist the penal code is the problem.
The law "privileges the killer," Interior Ministry official Haitham Arrar told Ma'an.
"It encourages some people to commit crimes against women, which will go (as far as) killing them," said Arrar, who heads the ministry's democracy and human rights unit. Abbas fears 'conservative forces'
The Palestinian Legislative Council has not met since 2007, when Hamas and Fatah split, but women's rights expert Soraida Hussein dismisses arguments that reforms must wait until parliament reconvenes.
"For us, for women, all this is irrelevant," said Hussein, general director of the Women's Technical Affairs Committee, an umbrella group of women’s organizations. "Until now, our lives -- in law and in practice -- are seen as less than men's."
The president should issue a decree that "anybody killing anyone else will be sentenced to the highest sentence possible, whether it is a woman or a boy," says Hussein.
"The minute the law is changed and applied, the minute people will think twice," she says. "It's simple and it's not done."
Hussein suggests Abbas is hesitant to pass legal reforms because "he is not ready yet to confront conservative forces."
In 2009, Abbas ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but al-Ouri, the legal adviser, says it will only be implemented "so long as it doesn’t contravene Islamic code."
"Look, we are for total equality but if there is a basic tenet of Islamic code that we would be forced to change under CEDAW, then people would revolt and brand us as non-believers," al-Ouri said.'Dressing up honor'
Lax laws encourage murder suspects to claim "honor" in their defense, officials and women’s rights activists say.
"Because the penalty is one or two months, they consider killing her and dress it up as honor," Minister of Women's Affairs Rahiba Diab told Ma'an.
Khawla al-Azraq, who runs a women’s counseling center in Bethlehem, notes that femicide is a global issue but "now in Palestine, they call this honor killing."
"Sometimes these girls are abused by someone in the family and they need to cover this (up) and they kill her; sometimes because they need her money," she says. "These are the real reasons for killing."
"In Palestine, this is the gap, that until now we don’t have our own legislation that really can protect women."
The Independent Commission of Human Rights says 13 women have been killed this year, but the real figure is likely to be higher.
"There has been historically a problem of documentation," says Hussein, the women's rights expert. The cause of suspicious deaths of women was often recorded as "fate," which could refer to forced "suicides" or being pushed from a building, she explained.
Despite repeated requests since September, the Ministry of Interior did not provide Ma'an with the official number of women whose deaths were recorded as "fate" in 2012.