Stricter punishment for “religious violence”

The ministry of justice confirmed on Wednesday that serious consideration was being given to the establishment of a new category of aggravating circumstances targeting “religiously motivated violence.” Aggravating circumstances can be crucial during sentencing procedures, where they can play a role in leading to the stricter punishments. Though the ministry denies a direct connection, this question has come about following the controversial sentencing of a man of Turkish origin in mid-January. On account of his personal background and traditions, the man was sentenced to attempted manslaughter and not attempted murder in the case of his near fatal knife attack on his wife, who had told him that she wanted a divorce.

The general secretary of the ÖVP (conservative), Fritz Kaltenegger, declared that violence in the family must be dealt with severely, and that “it is the task of politics to adapt the legal framework to social developments.” The minister of justice, Claudia Bandion-Ortner, was careful to stress that this development was not to be understood as a continuation of the debate on “cultural crimes,” begun two years ago by the interior minister, Maria Fekter. Thus, Bandion-Ortner continued, there is no plan to adopt new sentencing guidelines for forced mariages or honor killings: “murder is still murder, and more than a life sentence cannot be imposed.” Nevertheless, she did mention that an additional category of aggravating circumstances may be forthcoming, aimed at “general behavior which attempts to impose upon someone a lifestyle that is not consistent with our society.” This would apply, for example, to parents who refuse to send their children to public school, or who do not allow girls contact with men, out of religious considerations.

Criticism of the proposal has come from legal experts, the SPÖ (social democrat) and the Greens, the Catholic church and Muslim groups. Helmut Fuchs, head of the Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology at the University of Vienna, called the idea absolutely unnecessary, while saying that “non-religiously motivated violence is no less reprehensible than religiously motivated violence.” The minister for women and public service, Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, gave voice to her displeasure at the mixing of religion and criminal law, stating that crimes such as genital mutilation or honor killings had less to do with religion than with tradition and power structures. Erich Leitenberger of the archdiocese of Vienna echoed this position with his view that such “dubious cultural practices” had nothing to do with religion. Meanwhile, Carla Amina Baghajati, spokesperson for the Austrian Islamic Community, stated that violence against women can be fought with Islamic sources as well, and can be part of the solution – as was the case in the fight against female genital mutilation. She continued by saying that legitimizing these practices as “religious” could contribute to the problem, and proposed instead the adoption of the internationally established notion of “harmful traditional practices.”

Muslim prison chaplains to be standardized

Following an agreement reached between the justice minister, Claudia Bandion-Ortner and the president of the Islamic Religious Community, Anas Schakfeh, Muslim chaplains in prisons are to be standardized across the country. At around 1300 Muslim inmates, Islam has come to represent the second largest religion in Austrian penal institutions. Earlier religious services had been the result of local and regional cooperation, which meant regular visits by Muslim chaplains had been limited to ten prisons. The goal of the agreement is that such regular visits be possible in all prisons where a demand exists.

The agreement also lays out a number of minimum standards for the chaplains and conditions for the prisons visits. This includes a high school diploma; good knowledge of German, in order to hold religious services in German; and basic knowledge of the prison system, so as to ensure an optimal balance between safety and religious practice.

In the press release, Bandion-Ortner stressed the importance of the chaplain’s assistance in the resocialization of inmates, while Schakfeh expressed his happiness that an important step had been taken towards the broader institutionalization of Muslim prison chaplains.