Iraq: Court Upholds Christian Girl's Murder Sentence

Monday, July 30, 2007

As killing was not premeditated, teenager’s sentence reduced to 3.5 years.

ISTANBUL, July 26 (Compass Direct News) -- Iraq’s Kurdish regional high court has reduced jail time for a teenager who fatally stabbed her uncle as he beat her for converting to Christianity and “shaming” the family by working in public.

After reviewing the case for more than two months, the court in Erbil on April 30 upheld an earlier decision by Dohuk’s juvenile court that Asya Ahmad Muhammad was guilty of killing her uncle, though she acted in defense of herself and others. Clearing her of an original conviction for premeditated murder, the court reduced the 15-year-old girl’s sentence from five to three-and-a-half years.

In a written statement submitted to the regional high court in February, Muhammad’s lawyer, Akram Al-Najar, had argued that it was incorrect to try his client for “intentional premeditated killing” under article 406 of the Iraqi penal code.

According to Al-Najar, the high court agreed in part, changing the sentence to article 405, which covers non-premeditated intentional killing.

Muhammad stabbed her uncle in July 2006, when he came to her family’s kitchen utensil store outside of Dohuk and began beating her, her mother and brother. After Muhammad’s mother fled the premises, Muhammad’s uncle began hitting her with one hand while tearing at her hair with the other, Al-Najar said.

The lawyer said that his client’s head had been forced down, and that she had grabbed the first thing that her hand came to rest upon, a kitchen knife, striking blindly upwards and accidentally driving the knife through her uncle’s heart.

“The defendant was not carrying a weapon prepared to kill,” Al-Najar told Compass. “Also, if Maria [Muhammad’s Christian name] had wanted to kill her uncle, she would have repeated the stabbing to make sure he was dead.”

According to Al-Najar, his client should have been tried under article 411-1 of the Iraqi penal code, which prescribes three months to five years in prison for “accidental killing.”

But local Christians said they thought Muhammad’s sentence was light, considering that it was culturally acceptable for an uncle to beat his niece.

“She is actually very lucky that her sentence was not longer,” one Christian said. “The penalty for murder is death, though as a minor she would have been given a life sentence.”

Muhammad’s jail time also means that she does not have to fear reprisal attacks from her relatives.

“It will be dangerous for Maria when she gets out of jail,” Muhammad’s mother, Mayan Jaffar Ibrahim, told Compass. “We are afraid that another uncle will come again and do the same thing. We might have to change houses.”

Muhammad’s uncle had previously tried to kill her father five times because of his conversion to Christianity, Ibrahim said. After her uncle’s death, Muhammad’s relatives, led by her grandmother, demanded that her father be killed.

Later the grandmother agreed to “reduce” her demands, requiring a large sum of money and Muhammad’s death.

Ibrahim said that for the past four months, their relatives, who live only 30 minutes away, have ceased to threaten them but are still angry and demanding US$60,000 to compensate for the loss of Muhammad’s uncle.

“If released, she would have to move away from Dohuk to get away from her relatives,” lawyer Al-Najar said, echoing the family’s concerns.

The knowledge that jail is the safest place for her daughter is of little consolation to Ibrahim, who misses Muhammad deeply.

“Pray that Maria can get out of jail,” she said quietly as tears formed in her eyes.

Al-Najar, who took Muhammad’s case pro bono, said that he had received two anonymous written threats prior to the initial ruling in February because of his role in defending Muhammad.

The Chaldean lawyer said that he took Muhammad’s case because he felt that it was important for both freedom of religion and women’s rights.

“In the Islamic religion, women should be [inside] the house,” he told Compass, citing the reason Muhammad’s uncle had given for attacking her and her mother. “It was even worse that this family had converted to Christianity.”

Both issues are up for public debate in northern Iraq as the Kurdish government works on drafting a regional constitution. In recent months, women’s rights groups have conducted a public campaign against female genital mutilation, while Kurdish converts to Christianity have begun to discuss petitioning the government for the right to change the religion status on their identification cards.

Kurdish leaders have taken increasing steps to meet the needs of Kurdish converts from Islam to Christianity, who now number in the hundreds. Two churches, one in Erbil and another Suleymaniyeh, have been registered with the government, and believers are able to conduct public evangelism.

Still, converts remain unable to change the section on their ID cards that identifies them as Muslims.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct