Afghan Murder Trial Doubts About German 'Honor Killing'

The murder of a 16-year-old Afghan girl by her brother in May sparked media speculation that yet another honor killing had happened in Germany. Now, with the trial coming to a close, it seems likely the crime was the product of sibling rivalry.


There are words that act like sparks, and some words form the single spark that can trigger a deadly explosion.

He just wanted to talk to her, says Ahmad-Sobair O., 24, who now faces murder charges. He says he just wanted to ask her whether she was prostituting herself, and whether the things they were saying about her were true. She responded to his questions with that one fateful sentence. It would be her last sentence, and her tone was probably flippant or even contemptuous. "It's none of your goddamned business!"

That was when he stabbed her. Morsal, his 16-year-old sister, fell to the ground. She managed to pull herself up again, and as she stumbled toward him, he stabbed her again and again, a total of 23 times. He stabbed her in the chest, in the lungs, in the legs and in the back. By that point he no longer knew what part of her body he was stabbing.

He described how he panicked and ran to the subway, bleeding, because Morsal had defended herself. When he left the train, he took a taxi and told the driver to drive around the streets. He then bought alcohol at a gas station, got out of the cab and called his girlfriend, who was sleeping. He was beside himself. When the young woman found him in a park, she didn't know what to do next. Then she could hardly believe what he was telling her.

In the night of May 15, 2008, at the scene of the crime, a parking lot at the Berliner Tor subway station in Hamburg, emergency doctors spent half an hour trying to save Morsal's life. She had lost a lot of blood, and she died en route to the hospital. When her mother learned of the killing, she shouted: "You have killed everyone, my son!"

The news of the murder had hardly been released before the media machinery began churning out the usual catchphrases: immigration background, honor killings, failed integration. The older brother, born in 1984 in Kabul, Afghanistan, a "killer," had murdered his attractive sister Morsal because of her Western lifestyle, the media reported, suggesting it might have been on the family's orders. That was the way things usually happened in these cases, and the authorities had probably failed, once again.

The trial against Ahmad began in December 2008, before the criminal division of the Hamburg District Court. It was a stroke of luck that the presiding judge in this emotionally charged criminal matter, a case bound to trigger outrage and consternation, was Wolfgang Backen, a sensitive and fair-minded judge. After a few days of hearings, he managed to develop a picture of the circumstances leading up to the horrible crime that would disprove the usual stereotypes.

He heard how the crime was not committed by a willing tool of a family clan clinging to archaic values, but by an extremely aggressive, unstable young man. Since childhood, he had tried to compensate for his feelings of inferiority and fear of failure with violent, frightening behavior. It was not the fault of his genes or of the fact that he was born in Kabul. But his behavior did reflect his experiences at home. He had allegedly learned firsthand that problems were solved by scratching and biting, hitting and kicking.

The parents had been prosperous when the family lived in Afghanistan. They were respected people. The father, trained in the Soviet Union as a military pilot, flew sorties against the increasingly powerful mujahedeen in legendary MIG-21 fighter jets. His very young wife cared for Ahmad and their second child, a daughter.

When the Soviets withdrew in the late 1980s, the father fled to Moscow. His wife and the children moved to Ukraine, where they stayed with an uncle. Morsal was born in 1991. In 1992, his father went to Germany and settled in Hamburg, where an Afghan refugee community had formed. He brought his wife and children to the country in 1994. By then the fighter pilot had become a bus driver.

Ahmad, only 10 at the time, had already been uprooted twice. He was finally sent to school, where he was unruly and even attacked teachers, and he soon developed a violent reputation. Whenever he was teased for being small, he would lash out at his tormentors. He took growth hormones and testosterone for several years. He was expelled from school in 1995. He barely managed to make it through a special school for students with learning disabilities. He had trouble finishing things.

Beginning in 2001, the family was in constant contact with social service agencies. Ahmad became delinquent. In an effort to escape his father's violent outbursts, he sought protection from a social worker. "He said that he couldn't go back home, and that he would sleep in my office if he had to," the social worker said, testifying at his trial. He was admitted to a youth shelter. "Did you ever try to examine the reasons for his criminality?" the presiding judge asked. "He didn't talk about it," the woman responded. "He used his charm to get his way, and he was convinced that he could manage on his own."

Morsal, his younger sister, was said to have admired Ahmad for having found a way out of his ongoing conflict with their powerless parents. Through her, the bright, self-confident little sister, who was accepted in school and respected for fearlessly standing up for weaker fellow students, Ahmad suddenly acquired an important role in the family: To protect Morsal from their parents, who responded to the problems of their adolescent children with stereotypical violence. Ahmad called Morsal "my star."

In many families, the children's adolescent years are marked by conflict and a mutual lack of understanding, even without an "immigration background." Morsal began to dress differently, and to smoke and wear makeup, which the parents tolerated, but only reluctantly. But she was not required to wear a headscarf and she was permitted to take part in physical education and class trips. Soon she began spending nights away from the family's apartment. Testifying at the trial, the social worker said: "She was only 15. Even when we got her a spot in the girls' shelter, she wouldn't go there. It was certainly worrying."

Morsal didn't last long anywhere. She stayed at the apartment of her brother, who was no longer under any restraint. She sought refuge several times with the Hamburg children's and adolescent emergency service agency, and she repeatedly returned home. Was she too young for a life outside the family? She could see how her helpless parents were destroying themselves. Was she afraid to leave her mother alone? "She was very ambivalent. But she didn't want to talk about it," says the social worker. The two siblings didn't discuss the family. Perhaps they lacked the right words, or perhaps they were ashamed.

But Morsal also said almost nothing about the nine months her parents had forced her to spend in Afghanistan, where they wanted her to witness the arduous lives of women there. Who brought her back? Her father? Her brother? An uncle? Did they send her there to cure her of her unruliness? All sorts of rumors circulated.

In 2008, she received a place at Hopeful Hearts, a youth welfare facility in Brunsholm, a town in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. The parents reportedly approved of her placement there but her stay ended after two weeks. The staff at the facility attempted to take away her mobile phone, which she had used to stay in touch with people who were considered a bad influence, and not just by the family. Friends later reported that Morsal had become irritable and short-tempered.

By that time she was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, and coming and going as she pleased. Her grades slipped and she became moody. She cut herself deliberately. Her mother was concerned because Morsal had money that she had not received at home. Ahmad tried to find out when she left school and where she went. But she acted as if he meant nothing to him. She loved him, and yet she was afraid of him. It was described as a highly ambivalent relationship. By then he was hitting her, following in the footsteps of their father, mother, older sister and younger brother.

On the day of the murder, Ahmad saw his sister with a group of young men under a covered walkway at Hamburg's main train station. He met friends at a bar, and four girls joined them. Ahmad asked them whether they knew where his sister was getting her money. One said that Morsal was probably turning tricks. His little sister! In tears, he responded: "But we're not in Afghanistan anymore." As it turned out, the irresponsible gossip was nothing but hot air.

Nevertheless, Ahmad called his mother. He was distraught and she tried to calm him down. "Stay out of this," she said, "it's our business!" Ahmad called a cousin and asked him to bring Morsal to the Berliner Tor station in the evening, saying that he wanted to talk to her. If Ahmad had not been carrying a knife (he had been knifed once himself), Morsal would probably still be alive.

The judges rejected a favorable report on the defendant by Michael Kreissig, a psychiatrist who had been trained in the former East Germany. In the report, Kreissig wrote: "The crime of which he is accused was embedded in and the culmination of an unparalleled history of suffering on the part of Morsal, in which the person being assessed was an active participant and was probably involved with the parents' approval." But the conclusion was erroneous. The defense attorneys, Thomas Bliwier and Hartmut Jacobi, also rejected Kreissig's testimony, arguing that they were concerned that he could be biased.

The court replaced Kreissig with Marianne Röhl, a psychiatrist with a reputation at the Hamburg public prosecutor's office for being too biased toward defendants. But in the Morsal case, her conclusions could hardly be overlooked. She diagnosed the emotionally unstable defendant with a narcissistic personality disorder and found clear evidence that the murder was a crime of passion at the end of a long-smoldering conflict between the siblings.

The public prosecutor's office questioned the findings and demanded "another expert witness." But the court is unlikely to grant the request simply because prosecutors are unhappy with the second psychiatrist's conclusions.

According to Röhl, there were no indications of a murder plan. Ahmad asked Morsal a question that she could have answered differently. He told the court that her words -- "It's none of your goddamned business" -- had caused him to experience a "tremendous emotional breakthrough." If Ahmad had wanted to kill her, Röhl believes, he would not have asked.

The court plans to announce, on Feb. 5, whether it will allow Röhl's testimony.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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