Written by Compass News Roger Elliott
November 24, 2008
Human rights advocates look to international arena for help.
By Roger Elliott
ISTANBUL, November 24 (Compass Direct News) - Egyptian human rights workers are looking to international bodies for support against Muslim judges who use sharia (Islamic law) to undermine custody rights of Christian mothers.
Despite provisions such as Egyptian law's Article 20, which dictates that minors should remain with their mother until age 15, judges consistently rule in favor of Muslim fathers in custody disputes with Christian mothers. Islamist judges typically resort to Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that "principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation."
Sharia-based decisions that rule contrary to Egyptian statutory law have led the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, to protest before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). The ACHPR was formed by the African Union to oversee the implementation of its Charter on Human and People's Rights.
An investigation, decision and recommendation by the African Commission to the Egyptian government would lend considerable weight to the EIPR's efforts to enforce Egyptian Personal Status Law, which states explicitly the mother's right to custody of her children until they reach age 15.
The EIPR's complaint before the African Commission accuses the Egyptian government of violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984, the human rights organization said in a Nov. 10 statement. The EIPR referred to the case of 13-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses, whom an appeals court awarded to their father Medhat Ramses Labib on Sept. 24 after a custody battle.
"The government's treatment of the boys' mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, constituted discrimination based on her religion and violated her right to equal protection before the law," the EIPR stated. "The case also charges that the government violated the two boys' right to freedom of religion and contravened the state's legal obligation to protect child rights."
The boys' father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.
"Obviously in this custody decision, it is a flagrant disregard of the Personal Status Law, which ensures custody for the mother until the children are 15 years old," said Hossam Bahgat of the EIPR. "In this case the judiciary chose to ignore statutory law and apply their own interpretation of sharia."
The long-running case of the twins exemplifies the problem but is in no way unique. Sisters Ashraqat Gohar, 12, and Maria Gohar, 8, were taken from their Christian mother in January and placed in the custody of their Muslim father, Wafiq Gohar, despite his criminal record and the 12-year-old's claims that he is an alcoholic.
The court ruling referred to Wafiq Gohar's fears that "[the girls] would cherish a religion other than Islam, eat foods that are banned in Islam and go to church" as determining factors in their decision.
"It is a big problem we are facing in Egypt," said Naguib Gobrail, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations. "The decision of the court clearly stated that according to Article 2, the main source [of legislation] is sharia, so the judge cannot apply the natural law."
More recently, 3-year-old Barthenia Rezqallah of Tanta, near Cairo, remains in her father's custody, despite a court order that she be returned to her mother pending a final verdict. Police have turned a blind eye to the court order out of fears that the child will practice Christianity rather than Islam, said Gobrail.
Gobrail said that international pressure may be the solution.
"Maybe a connection with someone of international character connecting with President [Hosni] Mubarak is the only way," he said, "because he has the authority to give orders to the National Assembly to issue a law to make things equal between Muslims and Copts, especially for the children."
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