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Husband pleads guilty to murder as probe slams police

Dec. 21, 2012 9:08 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 2, 2013 4:37 P.M.)
By Soraya Al-Ghussein and Hannah Patchett

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- A man pleaded guilty to murdering his wife on Thursday in a case that sparked outrage and prompted a presidential inquiry into institutional failures to protect victims of domestic violence.

The prosecutor charged Shadi Ubeidallah, 33, with fatally slashing the throat of his estranged wife Nancy Zaboun outside her workplace, a shop in Bethlehem's Old City, on July 30.

Zaboun, 29, was killed half an hour after attending a court hearing with Ubeidallah to decide custody for their children, aged 3, 6, and 8. An autopsy revealed she suffered 13 stab wounds in the attack.

Although Ubeidallah pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, he told the court that "it's not all true," without elaborating. The judge postponed the trial to Feb. 21 to allow the defense to call witnesses.

The night before her death, Zaboun told police Ubeidallah had attacked her at her workplace and threatened to kill her.

Zaboun had repeatedly complained of domestic violence to police, the Ministry of Social Affairs and three women's organizations but Ubeidallah, a former police officer, was arrested for the first time at the scene of her murder.

The public nature of Zaboun’s killing provoked outrage and demonstrations. President Mahmoud Abbas responded by forming a committee which, in October, criticized police and women's institutions for failing to protect Zaboun.

"The police must work with complaints in a swift and serious manner, and follow all legal steps required of them by the law," the committee recommended in a confidential 40-page report seen by Ma'an.

Zaboun started divorce proceedings, a lengthy process in Palestinian courts, on June 26. The judge in the case postponed two hearings because Zaboun's lawyer, provided by the Mehwar center for women, was not licensed to practice law in the Palestinian religious court that deals with divorce.

The Ministry of Social Affairs twice referred Zaboun to women's organizations, finally to a counseling center run by Khawla al-Azraq, a women's rights activist, on June 27.

The ministry passed responsibility to the center "because they didn't work seriously with these cases, because they didn't have a clear plan to deal with such cases," al-Azraq told Ma'an. "They don't like to hear these words but this is the fact."

Zaboun told al-Azraq that Ubeidallah had beaten her since their wedding day 10 years earlier; she spent the first 10 days of married life in hospital.

In an interview, al-Azraq criticized the police, noting that Zaboun had presented them with medical reports detailing broken bones, cigarette burns and strangulation attempts.

"This man, he tortured her and he hit her all the time. Even he broke her arm sometimes, and there were signs on her body. And he also tortured the children, not only Nancy. But they never arrested him. He never went to jail," al-Azraq said.

The inquiry found that only one of Zaboun's five complaints was transferred to the public prosecution. It was never pursued.

Instead, police asked Ubeidallah to sign "pledges" not to attack Zaboun again, most recently the night before she was killed.

Police often ask men to sign "pledges" in cases of domestic violence, a practice the minister of women's affairs says should be scrapped.

"One day a pledge is signed, the next day something else happens. This is clearly flawed and needs to be stopped because it can sometimes lead to further killings of women," Rabiha Diab told Ma’an.

Ministry of Interior official Haitham Arrar says police must be trained not to seek compromises in cases of domestic abuse.

"When a woman goes to the police station to complain about violence, the police think of culture and not the law and try to make some kind of compromise between the woman and the abuser," said Arrar, who heads the ministry's human rights and democracy unit.

"Mostly these compromises are promises but he will do a different thing," she said.

Despite these concerns, the Palestinian Authority is showing no signs of change: The president's legal adviser says "pledges" encourage reconciliation between spouses.

"This is what the police do, they reconcile social disputes. In (Zaboun's) case, there was a murder but in the majority of cases the outcome was positive," Hassan al-Ouri, the legal adviser, told Ma'an. Domestic violence "was present from the time of Adam and will be around until the Day of Judgment."

In an interview at the president's compound in Ramallah, al-Ouri spoke of "instances where a husband hits a wife but he really, truly loves her and they continue the rest of their lives together until they die."

'Silent violence'

Nearly 90 percent of married women in the West Bank say they have been sexually abused by their husbands, and 78.6 percent say they have been physically abused, according to a 2011 survey.

Police records show that 339 women reported domestic physical assaults in the West Bank between January and June but Arrar, the interior ministry official, says the real figure is likely to be higher.

"I think the number of women living under domestic violence is more than official statistics available: this is a silent violence," she said.

Zaboun was unusual: Just 1.2 percent of abused women in the West Bank go to the police, according to the 2011 survey, which was conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

"She dreamed to have a small house, to live with her children and to find work. And she said, 'just help me in this to live with my children,'" al-Azraq says. "She was dreaming about life."
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