Judging Manal Assi: Return of the Macho

2016-09-03    |   

Judging Manal Assi: Return of the Macho

On July 14, 2016, the Criminal Court in Beirut issued its decision in one of the most infamous cases of women being murdered in Lebanon, the case of Manal Assi. Manal was savagely killed by her husband in the presence of her mother and several members of her family. The husband justified his act by stating that he was in a fit of fury after discovering his wife’s infidelity with another man. In the conclusion of a 45 page-long analysis of the facts, the court, having found that the adultery did occur and that the husband was indeed angry, accepted this mitigating excuse and ultimately reduced his punishment to three years and nine months of actual prison time. Immediately after the decision was published, KAFA (a Lebanese NGO that played a pioneering role in the passing of the law on violence against women) expressed its astonishment and called for a sit-in to demand that the Public Prosecution appeal the decision before the Court of Cassation. According to KAFA, the decision resurrected ‘honor’ as an excuse for murdering women after Lebanon had taken important steps to fight so-called honor crimes.[1] These steps were the passing of the 2011 law that repealed Article 526 of the Criminal Code,[2] which had granted a mitigating excuse to a husband who catches his wife in the act of intercourse and then kills her or her partner, and the 2014 law combatting domestic violence against women and other family members. In this article, I will provide a critical reading of the recent Manal Assi decision and attempt to use it to comprehend the relevant considerations that the court did or did not assign the necessary importance.

What was the Cause of the Accused’s Rage?

The court appeared to be convinced that the cause of the husband’s rage was his discovery of his wife’s betrayal. However, a close examination of the case facts reveals the weak foundations of this conviction, for the file contains references to several aspects of his personality that negate this hypothesis, or at least put it under further scrutiny.

The Rage of the Feared Macho [Qabaday]

The accused is not an ordinary person; rather, he is a “strongly-built, impulsive young man, and a tough-guy [qabaday] who breaks up fights and is feared by the neighborhood” (pg. 36 of the decision). He is passionate and quick to agitate and he cannot hold his nerves (pg. 43 of the decision). The awe he inspires is implicit in several testimonies: his neighbor, who confirmed that he heard shouting and calls for help, stated that nobody could intervene because everyone fears the accused (the indictment issued by the Indictment Division in Beirut on April 9, 2014). Similarly, civil defense personnel did not go up to the accused’s house after learning from the people in front of it that the husband was beating his wife; their instructions are not to intervene in dangerous violent situations (the indictment). The court’s decision also establishes that even the head of the Tariq al-Jadida police detachment did not dare intervene when he learnt that the accused was beating his wife; instead, he merely called one of the accused’s friends and asked him to intervene and calm the accused down (pg. 27 of the decision). The contents of the indictment and conviction decision are just a snippet of the information corroborated by multiple media outlets about the man’s status as a neighborhood thug, closely connected to one of the political parties.[3]

Recurrent, Unprovoked Spousal Violence

The terror that the tough-guy strikes is not restricted to the street. Rather, the court found that the same terror governed his relationship with his wife within the home. According to his daughters’ testimonies, he would hit his wife in the face and kick her. One daughter divulged that the beatings occurred for trivial reasons, while the other said that they occurred many times in front of her and that they left marks on her mother’s body, who became severely battered. One of the daughters also told the court that the beatings of their mother terrified them and made them cry a lot. This terror applies to the victim’s entire family, for they testified that he beat and abused them and that he has a record and constantly threatens to kill them (the testimony of the victim’s brother and sister in the indictment). Of course, this recurrent violence, which was totally unrelated to the wife’s betrayal or infidelity, reflects the disdain that underpinned the accused’s relationship with her. This disdain is corroborated by the fact that he took a second wife, which certainly caused Manal much distress according to the testimony of one of her daughters (pg. 25 of the decision).

Together, these facts paint a different picture of the causes of the accused’s rage. It was not necessarily connected to his social role as a patriarch; rather, it could well be connected to his image as the feared neighborhood macho whom nobody dares counteract. His need to preserve this role would make him extremely sensitive, passionate, and unable to hold his nerves when faced with any disobedience, just as has been reported several times. From this perspective, his trauma was not that of a patriarch, but primarily that of a macho who, upon discovering his wife’s insubordination, feared that he was losing his fearsome reputation and that he could become a laughing stock and subject of schadenfreude. Hence, his angry response was orientated towards recovering his respect and status as a macho, unafraid to shed blood and defy the law in order to affirm his status. This interpretation is supported by the celebratory display that he himself arranged in order to recover his respect; in the fervor of his purported rage, he insisted on inviting his wife’s family to witness the manifestations of his power, which even included sucking blood from her lips and spitting it in her mother’s face.

The court did not wish to discuss the aforementioned possibility. Instead, it merely accepted without any scrutiny the hypothesis that the accused presented his zealous devotion to his family’s honor. On the other hand, the court overlooked all of the accused’s antecedents and the violent way in which he treated his wife and entire surroundings, with or without reason. In its view, the accused’s vices as a thug (his intensity, quick temper, and inability to hold his nerves) was evidence justifying the application of the rage defence to him. Yet it did not consider them to be any indication of his social danger.

Is an “Affront to Honor” a Legitimate Reason for Rage?

The second essential question is whether the infidelity of the accused’s wife is theoretically a legitimate reason for angry reactions under Article 252 of the Lebanese Criminal Code. For the mitigating excuse to be granted, said article requires that the accused be overcome by a fit of fury provoked by an injustice of a certain gravity perpetrated by the victim. In other words, the accused’s rage must be legitimate. The source of the excuse is not rage in and of itself, but legitimate rage. Of course, the legitimacy of the rage is gauged with reference to the positions taken by the legislature and the social interests that warrant protection, not to the accused’s personal opinions.

In this regard, the basic question that must be raised is what the legislature’s intent was when it repealed Article 562 of the Criminal Code, which granted a mitigating excuse to a husband who catches his wife in the act of intercourse and then kills her or her partner. Does this repeal not reflect a legislative commitment to providing women protection from murder on par with the protection provided to men, pursuant to the principle of equality, and in order to confront the so-called honor crimes and all of the traditions and beliefs related to them? Does the repeal not consecrate the principle that no excuse may be granted for murdering or abusing women to protect honor? Does it make any sense to withhold the mitigating excuse from a husband who sees his wife having intercourse with another man and then kills her, yet grant the same excuse to a husband who hears or reads about said intercourse and takes the same action? Does interpreting the article in this manner not lead to an absurd outcome wherein the excuse is withheld from the man that is presumably in the situation provoking greater rage?

Thus, the legislative message that was directed to society via the repeal of Article 562 is unambiguous: the law’s obligation to ensure equality between the sexes with regard to legal protection requires it to combat all traditions and beliefs that threaten said equality, and therefore ignore all excuses related to them. This interpretation is supported by the Law on Protection of Women and Family Members from Domestic Violence, for it permits protective measures against spousal violence and increases the punishment for the crimes that it encompasses, irrespective of the motives or causes. While this trend does reflect a social development, it does not mean that the traditions of honor and the social roles that underpin it or are imposed by it have vanished entirely. Rather, it means that the legislature decided not to protect or give consideration to these roles and traditions in order to combat and deter them. The legislations are based on –or at least orientated towards– the principle of equality, and must therefore eradicate all values based on inequality, especially the notion that the man is the guardian and watchman over the woman’s adherence to obligations of modesty.

In this regard, the judiciary took two objectionable courses of action.

It agreed to prosecute the wife’s supposed partner for the crime of adultery despite the wife’s death, which helps legitimize the husband’s request to be granted the mitigating excuse. On December 16, 2015, the Misdemeanor Court of Appeal issued a decision that confirmed another court ruling convicting said partner issued by an individual penal judge. This ruling contradicts the French legal doctrine and jurisprudence that prevailed prior to the abolition of the crime of adultery in France: “When the wife dies, the prosecution against her shall be dropped and the memory of her surrounded by the legal presumption of innocence. For the sake of public morality and family honor, it is important that this presumption is not allowed to be voided via the potential consequences of continuing the prosecution of her supposed partner. Unlike in other crimes, convicting the partner is in total contradiction to the presumption of innocence of the wife, who is the principle actor”.[4]

The Criminal Court accepted that the adultery that occurred constituted an injustice perpetrated by the victim against the accused, without going through the trouble of investigating the permissibility of pleading the rage excuse, given legislative developments as mentioned earlier.

Were the Reactions Proportional to the Gravity of the Act?

The third question that this case raises is whether the husband’s unusually ferocious reactions (such as trampling his wife’s head, tearing her lips so that he could suck her blood and spit it in her mother’s face, causing a pressure cooker to strike her body, leaving her unconscious and drowning in her own blood for two hours, organizing a celebratory display of his revenge on her, and repeatedly abusing her family members who attended the murder spectacle) were proportionate to the affront to his honor and dignity. This important question affords the Criminal Court another margin for assessing the accused’s eligibility for the mitigating excuse, as indicated by several court rulings that ruled out the excuse when the reaction seemed excessive given the act that provoked the perpetrator’s rage. For example, the excuse cannot be applied to a person who murders another for gloating at him or slapping him, for the reaction would be disproportionate to the act. Yet the court once again showed clear leniency towards the accused, thereby revealing that it has no qualms, not only about excusing honor killing, but also about excusing barbaric murder to this end.

More importantly, the court did not give any regard whatsoever to the fact that the accused’s reactions spanned several hours. These hours were interrupted by two hours during which he left to visit his mother and have coffee with a friend, having locked the door to the house so that his wife could perish right before her mother’s eyes. Does such behavior constitute a bout of hysteria? Does it constitute a moment of weakness in which the accused succumbed to an uncontrollable rage? Or was it an act of vengeance inspired by the accused’s desire to restore his damaged pride, albeit a spontaneous one? One telling indication here is that the decision made no reference to any apology or expression of regret by the accused. In his final speech, all he requested was clemency and to return to raise his two daughters (pg. 29).

The Sentence in Light of the Gravity of the Crime

Lastly, the sentence that the Criminal Court ultimately imposed must be discussed. Initially, the court found that the act falls under paragraph 4 of Article 549 of the Criminal Code, which would necessitate capital punishment because acts of torture were committed. However, it then reduced this punishment to seven years of imprisonment after granting the accused the mitigating excuse, as explained earlier. Then it reduced the sentence again to five years [which in Lebanon equates to three years and nine months of actual prison time] after granting him mitigating factors.

The decision justified the granting of mitigating factors on two counts:

The victim’s family waived their personal rights [to reparation]. While such a factor is usually accepted as a reason to reduce punishment, accepting it in this case – which blends values of machismo [al-futuwwa] with values of honor – merely propagates the practice of pressuring victims’ families to relinquish their rights and promotes the tendency for families to cover up the murder of their daughters instead of seeking justice. The effect is that the dangers facing women are exacerbated.

The accused’s two daughters appealed to the court in the final trial hearing “because they are in critical need of him for care and in order to complete their education”. Perhaps this appeal influenced not only the sentence, but also the assessment of the responsibility of the accused, who has become the sole provider for his children. This possibility is made more likely by the poor state of care institutions, the absence of an alternative care law, and –more generally– the state’s inadequate monitoring of the status of children being raised outside their family environment. In certain cases, some courts may prefer to keep children with an abusive father, as the abuse may do less damage than the dangers that they could face outside of his care. But in a case as symbolically cruel and savage as this one, it is difficult to put the children’s potential interest before public interest and the associated need to protect society from its dangerous members.

Consequently, the court once again appeared to be basing its decision on the case facts without giving any consideration to the decision’s social effects. Making matters worse, the court did not pair the sentence with any subsidiary punishment, such as depriving the accused of his civil rights, or precautionary punishments, such as compelling him to attend anti-domestic violence courses or workshops; or, subjecting him to judicial monitoring upon release because of the danger he poses to society and his own children.


In summary, this decision constitutes a prelude not only to resurrecting the values of male honor under the guise of “rage” and in contradiction to all recent legislative trends, but also to reinvigorating the spirit of machismo and thuggery and the fervor, primal emotions, and brutal and surreal reactions associated with it. Honor, social prejudice, and religiosity all play a part in justifying the murder of women, as does a passionate persona that is quick to agitate, cannot hold its nerves, and accords us the most horrific scenes of subjugation and torture imaginable. The effect is, of course, to entrench the dominant forces and values and spread terror through the hearts of women in general, and battered women in particular, as well as all other vulnerable groups. It is time to put an end to this killing machine.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] See: Elham Barjas’s, “KAFA in Protest Against the Manal Assi Decision: The Public Prosecution Must Appeal This Honor”, The Legal Agenda, July 22, 2016.

[2] See: Azza Charara Baydoun’s, “526 and its Repeal in the Discourse of the Nation’s Representatives”, The Legal Agenda, October 18, 2011.

[3] See: Saada Allaw’s, “The Murderer of Manal al-Assi Free After 18 Months”, As-Safir, July 16, 2016.
[4] French Cassation June 6, 1872, Dalloz, Jurisprudence, pg. 347, and the Dalloz encyclopedia.

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