BAGHDAD Near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a father doused his three teenage daughters with boiling water and shot them because, he told a court, he suspected they were having sex. Two died.
He said he killed them to defend his honor.
Murder in Iraq can carry a death sentence but under laws that activists say are far too lenient for so-called "honor killings," the father was jailed for just two years. Medical examinations showed the girls were virgins.
The light sentence was a result of Article 409 of Iraq's penal code which is often used in cases of "honor killings" by men. Women's activists in Iraq, led by the only woman in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet, Minister of State for Women's Affairs Ibtihal al-Zaidi, are lobbying to change the law.
But they say they face entrenched tribal values in a country where parliament includes many men from conservative parties.
For decades Iraqi women have enjoyed more freedoms than women in many other countries in the Middle East. They are generally free from the strict enforcement of dress codes or restrictions on movement, and can join political life.
But conservative tribal norms still prevail and all too often girls or women are punished by relatives for what are perceived to be crimes of honor.
Such cases can be difficult to document. An Iraqi Human Rights ministry report said 249 women were murdered in 2010, including for reasons of "honor crimes," without giving a breakdown. Amnesty International cites the ministry as saying at least 84 women were killed in Iraq in honor killings in 2009.
Article 409 reduces a murder sentence to a maximum of three years if a man "surprises his wife or one of his female dependents (who is) in a state of adultery or finds her in bed with a partner and kills her immediately, or kills one of them."
Families can cover up the crimes and courts may turn a blind eye. Political party allies among the authorities can help provide false testimony or witnesses.
"One reason the numbers of honor killings aren't known is because when they're presented to court, they are presented as suicides," Surood Ahmed, from the Kirkuk office of Iraq's al-Amal Association for Women, told Reuters.
"The police are lenient with the perpetrator because they say 'we're sons of the society', so we can't be tough on him."
The deaths near Kirkuk in 2008 were documented by Amal in Kirkuk for a report by Chicago's DePaul University. The third daughter lost an eye and suffered a severe mental disability.
When her father left jail, she returned to live with him because there was no other place to go.
EQUALITY IN PUNISHMENT
Zaidi said she wants to change Iraqi law to provide equal sentences for male and female perpetrators, without the special exemption for male killers provided under article 409.
She recounted the story of a 12-year-old Iraqi girl who killed her father after she saw him committing adultery. She was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
"If a man saw one of his female dependents committing adultery, how would he be punished? Six months and he'll get out," said Zaidi, who wears a headscarf.
"A woman, even a 12-year-old, got 15 years in jail for an act she committed out of fear and horror of what she saw.
"Definitely, we have brought up this issue and we asked 'where is the fairness and justice?'. Here the sentence for a woman differs from a man's. Fairness and equality is required in this issue," Zaidi told Reuters in an interview Sunday.
Zaidi said she was planning to present a recommendation to the cabinet to modify Article 409 to require the same sentence for male and female killers. But she believes any proposed changes to the law are likely to provoke a "strong reaction."
"At the end of the day, we are a Middle Eastern culture where tribal norms dictate affairs," said Zaidi, an Arabic linguist and independent member of Maliki's ruling coalition.
"We will require some time before these recommendations turn into law ... there needs to be social awareness about this issue."
Zaidi said she also hoped to pass a law against domestic violence this year. Official statistics indicate 20 percent of Iraqi women face domestic abuse.
Sundus Abbas, who heads the Women's Leadership Institute, a rights group with branches in seven Iraqi provinces, says the true figure for women who face sexual and domestic abuse is as high as 73 percent.
Zaidi's proposed changes to the honor killing law fail to address the issue, she said. Giving female killers the same rights as male killers would still provide "legal cover for violence against women."
"It is not correct to give the husband the right to kill his wife under this pretext and to give the same right to the wife in the same provision," she told Reuters.
"I believe (Article 409) must be abolished and instead have a law that punishes a crime regardless of the reason."
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Robert Woodward)