NAHR IBRAHIM, LEBANON — Lebanese police recently caught up with Ali Zankar, a burly middle-aged grocer with sad eyes and a graying beard, in this sleepy riverside village of majestic stone houses and century-old cypress trees just north of Beirut.
Denounced by neighbors, Mr. Zankar was wrestled to the ground as he brandished his Kalashnikov assault rifle. Witnesses say he was about to commit a crime many in the Arab world still find justifiable: killing a female relative for reasons of family honor.
Zankar later admitted to police that he intended to kill his mother to "cleanse the family honor." He said she was having an affair.
He has yet to go to court, but when he does, Zankar could invoke an Ottoman-era clause in Lebanon's law that allows judges to lessen sentences for crimes committed with an "honorable motive."
"More often than not," says lawyer Muhammad Zaatar, who has dealt with several such cases, "the defendant will get off with a token sentence, because the judge deems 'honor' an extenuating circumstance."
Though not pervasive, "honor crimes" are a reality in the Arab world and are most often perpetrated by Shiite Muslims. But apart from any religious justification, they also have strong roots in the region's culture and traditions - and are occasionally carried out by Christian or other non-Muslim Arabs.
In March, a Jordanian court sentenced a Palestinian to six months in prison for killing his sister. The judge "found the woman's immoral conduct a mitigating circumstance in his decision," the Al Hayat newspaper reported. Six such cases have been tried in Jordan alone in the past year.
And in Lebanon's predominantly Shiite Bekaa Valley, a young Christian man was reportedly absolved of killing his sister because of her "ambiguous behavior toward a local schoolmaster."
Usually those found guilty by their families of breaking Islamic law are sentenced to die. Most cases involve a young, unmarried woman who slept with a man.
"Women are always the ones who pay for these so-called honor crimes," says Laure Moghaizel, a Lebanese lawyer and rights activist. "And men always benefit from them as an excuse to commit murder. Have you ever heard of a man being killed by his family for sleeping with someone?"
Since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1991, the government has tried to crack down on honor crimes, which used to be tolerated as tribal ritual. But the society is still ambivalent on the issue, and Article 562 of the Lebanese penal code allows those who have killed a "wife, sister, mother, or daughter" to plead innocent.
In December, however, one honor crime incited the wrath of Lebanon's military prosecutor, who gave an uncharacteristically harsh life sentence to a Lebanese Army corporal for killing his sister. The family believed the unmarried girl was no longer a virgin, though this allegation was later disproved by tests.
If some Islamic religious authorities, such as Shiite cleric Sayyed Jaafar Morteda, condemn honor crimes outright, others who prefer not to be named suggest such "crimes" are meant to "spare families the shame of the traditional - and very public - Islamic punishment" for adultery: stoning.
While still carried out in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, stonings have never been practiced in Lebanon. Sharia, or Islamic law, stipulates that men and women judged guilty of adultery should be partially buried and then stoned to death. To inflict this punishment, however, requires two eyewitnesses - a condition some families try to circumvent by dealing with offenders - though usually only the women - privately.
Iran's late Ayatollah Khomeini - a religious authority revered by Shiite Muslims across the Middle East - once issued a religious decree, or fatwa, stipulating the size of the stones to be used in a stoning. Human rights groups protested what they called a "cruel and barbaric" punishment.
With social and government pressure, honor crimes seem to be waning in Lebanon, though they still occur, especially in less developed, predominantly Shiite areas.