The case seems simply too strange to be true. A 26-year-old mother of two wanted to free herself from what had become a miserable and abusive marriage. The police had even been called to their apartment to separate the two -- both of Moroccan origin -- after her husband got violent in May 2006. The husband was forced to move out, but the terror continued: Even after they separated, the spurned husband threatened to kill his wife.
A quick divorce seemed to be the only solution -- the 26-year-old was unwilling to wait the year between separation and divorce mandated by German law. She hoped that as soon as they were no longer married, her husband would leave her alone. Her lawyer, Barbara Becker-Rojczyk agreed and she filed for immediate divorce with a Frankfurt court last October. They both felt that the domestic violence and death threats easily fulfilled the "hardship" criteria necessary for such an accelerated split.
In January, though, a letter arrived from the judge adjudicating the case. The judge rejected the application for a speedy divorce by referring to a passage in the Koran that some have controversially interpreted to mean that a husband can beat his wife. It's a supposed right which is the subject of intense debate among Muslim scholars and clerics alike."The exercise of the right to castigate does not fulfill the hardship criteria as defined by Paragraph 1565 (of German federal law)," the daily Frankfurter Rundschau quoted the judge's letter as saying. It must be taken into account, the judge argued, that both man and wife have Moroccan backgrounds.
"The husband can beat his wife"
"The right to castigate means for me: the husband can beat his wife," Becker-Rojczyk said, interpreting the judge's verdict.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Becker-Rojczyk said the judge indicated to her that it makes no sense to insist on an accelerated divorce. The judge's advice? Wait for the year-long waiting period to elapse.
The lawyer and her client were shocked. Immediately, they filed a claim alleging that the judge should have recused herself due to a conflict of interest. They felt that, because of the point of view presented by the judge, she was unable to reach an objective verdict. In the reply sent to Becker-Rojczyk, the judge expressly referred to a Koran verse -- or sura -- which indicates that a man's honor is injured when his wife behaves in an unchaste manner. "Apparently the judge deems it unchaste when my client adapts a Western lifestyle," Becker-Rojczyk said.
On Tuesday evening, Becker-Rojczyk expressed amazement that the judge was still on the bench, given that the controversial verdict was handed down weeks ago. Becker-Rojczyk had elected to go public with the case to attract attention to the judge's conduct. It seems to have worked. On Wednesday, after the Tuesday evening publication of the story on SPIEGEL ONLINE, the attorney received a fax from the Frankfurt court granting the conflict of interest claim and excusing the judge from the case.
Still, it is unlikely that the case will be heard again before the mandated year of separation expires in May. But the judge who heard the case may have to face further consequences for her decision. On Wednesday, numerous politicians in Berlin voiced their horror at the verdict -- and demanded disciplinary action against the judge.
"In my opinion, this is a case of extreme violation of the rule of law that can't be solved with a mere conflict of interest ruling," Social Democrat parliamentarian Dieter Wiefelspütz told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There have to be further consequences. This is a case for judicial supervision -- this case needs to be further investigated."
The deputy floor leader for the Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Bosbach, agreed. "This is a sad example of how the conception of the law from another legal and cultural environment is taken as the basis for our own notion of law," he said on Wednesday.
This isn't the first time that German courts have used cultural background to inform their verdicts. Christa Stolle of the women's rights organization Terre des Femmes said that in cases of marital violence, there have been a number of cases where the perpetrator's culture of origin has been considered as a mitigating circumstance -- although such verdicts have become seldom in recent years.
But there remains quite a bit of work to do. "In my work educating sexist and short-sighted Muslim men," asked Michaela Sulaika Kaiser of the Network for Muslim Women, "do I now have to convince German courts that women are also people on the same level with men and that they, like any other human, have the right to be protected from physical and psychological violence?"
With reporting by Franziska Badenschier and Severin Weiland