Lebanon News

Judge’s ‘courageous’ contempt sentencing wins praise

Women stand near a statue of the Virgin Mary during a snow storm in the southern village of Qlaya, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri Saturday commended the decision of a judge in Tripoli after an unusual sentence was given that spared three young Lebanese men jail time for the potentially serious crime of contempt for religion. The men, aged between 16 and 18, were accused of insulting Christianity. Judge Joceline Matta ruled that the men would avoid prison as long as they memorized verses of the Surat al-Omran from the Quran. The passage in question glorifies both the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

Hariri said on his Twitter account that Matta’s decision was a “pinnacle of justice and the teaching of common understanding between Muslims and Christians.”

Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati added his support for Matta’s ruling, saying it was “an example of corrective judicial rulings based on tolerance, correct religious education and respect for others.”

Minister of State for Combating Corruption Nicolas Tueni also praised the move, saying that it would “pave the way for innovative judicial approaches to solving social problems and religious intolerance.”

The Daily Star spoke with Mohammad Mourad, who is both head of discipline for an affiliate group of Dar al-Fatwa and head of a supervisory body within the Future Movement.

He said that this was the first time in his 26 years as a judge that he had seen the reading of the Quran being used in a judge’s sentencing. He praised Matta’s initiative, saying it was the “first time I have seen a judge so courageously give a punishment that benefits the accused.”

Mourad said that Matta may have been motivated to help the accused to understand their religion better “instead of sending them to prison and ruining them.” He said that the decision “points to a new understanding of the law, that benefits and respects people but at the same time, you’re still applying the law.”

Article 473 of the Lebanese Penal Code stipulates that those found guilty of blasphemy or otherwise insulting a religion can face up to one year in prison. Some of the most high-profile blasphemy cases involve censorship and the media.

For instance, singer Marcel Khalife was charged with blasphemy in 1999 for including verses from the Quran in a song.

He was sued by Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, but was acquitted by the court, which said that there was a difference between an act that would “violate a religious provision and [an act] which is actually contempt for the religion.”

Others have not been so lucky: The magazine Samandal was fined $20,000 in 2015 for inciting religious hatred, blasphemy, publishing false information and defamation over a cartoon. – Additional reporting by Dala Osseiran

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2018, on page 2.

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