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RIGHTS-BAHRAIN: Weak Laws Let Rapists Off the Hook

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Mar 16 2010 (IPS) - Cunning rapists in Bahrain can avoid victimising virgins so they could escape the maximum penalty provided by law, and those who force themselves on young girls can evade punishment by promising to marry their victims.

These are two of the biggest loopholes in the penal code of the Gulf island nation of more than one million people, a country that has become one of the best financial hubs in the region but still has outdated provisions on rape and sexual harassment.

While there have been amendments in the penal code, which was passed in 1958, the changes were insignificant.

The law’s weaknesses do not help in a society where many rape cases already remain unreported because victims fear social rejection and where those who do pursue lawsuits face humiliation throughout the long and tiring court process.

“The penal code is clear that rape takes place only if the victim is a virgin and only if she loses her virginity, while raping a woman is a crime damaging honour, which has less punishment than rape,” lawyer Fawziya Janahi, a member of the Arab Bar Council who takes up rights cases, said in an interview.

According to sources from the Ministry of Interior, the police registered 144 sexual abuse cases, including 13 involving minors, in 2009. The police also recorded 361 sexual harassment cases in which females were the victims.


Activists are campaigning for amendments to the penal code or the enactment of a new law that would deal with sex crimes, as well as domestic violence.

For instance, one discriminatory provision in Bahrain’s penal code is Article 353, which stipulates that no penalty will be imposed on a man who has sexual intercourse with a woman against her will provided he marries her, according to the Bahrain Human Rights Centre.

This effectively allows criminals to escape punishment and does not address the physical and psychological suffering of the victim.

Already, Bana Buzabon, president of Batelco Anti-Domestic Violence Centre here, says that the centre has been seeing an increase in the number of rape cases where victims were women younger than 21 years old.

“The law needs urgent amendments because rapists could escape punishment by marrying their victims and then divorcing them after few months,” she said, adding that many of the younger victims were raped by men they knew.

The Bahrain Human Rights Centre says Article 334 of the Criminal Procedure Code is also biased because it states that persons who catch their spouses in acts of adultery and kills or assaults them in the process will not be imprisoned. This extends to individuals who catch their relatives or sisters in the act of adultery.

While this provision covers both male and female spouses, it more often benefits men more in this society.

Activist and lawyer Shahzalan Khamis outlines the law’s other weaknesses in protecting women. In a research paper, she pointed out that the toughest punishment rapists could get is 20 years’ imprisonment and that this could even be reduced upon appeal. The law imposes the maximum penalty of 20 years if the victim is below 14 years old and this becomes shorter if the victim is older.

Khamis says the law does not provide for a minimum penalty and it is up to the judge to impose a prison sentence of only a few months.

This happened last year in the case of a Bangladeshi imam who was at first convicted for molesting his 14-year-old student. After he appealed the sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment and deportation, it was reduced to one year – without deportation. He was later pardoned, further angering activists who want stronger legislation against rape.

Likewise, Buzabon explains that some rape victims who do not file lawsuits against their attackers to protect the honour of their families keep their pregnancies a secret. This in turn means they need to give birth at home instead of at hospitals, and often dump their babies near hospitals or orphanages subsequently.

Estimates of the number of such cases are difficult to make. But Akbar Mohsen, chairman of the Child Care Home, says the orphanage has received about 5,000 infants whose parents could not be traced.

Many women fear being ostracised in this situation and while hospitals would accept them, giving birth without being married would be seen as a dishonour to their families. Likewise, without the father’s name on his or her birth document, a baby would not be able to get identification papers later on because under the law, Bahraini mothers cannot pass their nationality to their children.

At the same time, experts like Khalid Ismaeel Al Alawi, professor of psychology and special education, believe that addressing the issue of protecting women’s rights and addressing sexual abuse and rape also depends on changes in attitude within society. If legislation by itself cannot help reduce the number of rape cases and protect victims, then better sexual education can, he says.

In an interview, he says that introducing sex education in the school curriculum could make young people more aware of their rights, the dangers they might face and how to protect themselves.

“There is no doubt that the penal code needs to be amended, but in the meantime sex education could correct sexual disorders that a child might develop during adulthood (lead to aggressive or criminal behaviour). It also could solve many sex ignorance-related issues present in conservative societies,” Al Alawi said.

But some women have decided that they had better know how to look after themselves.

In December, 20 Bahraini women enrolled in a one-year self-defence course, the first of its kind in Bahrain organised by the Al Shams (Sun) Academy, ‘Al Arabiya Net’ reported. The course teaches the women martial arts techniques so they can fend of attacks in cases of harassment, rape and robbery.

 
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