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Witness Tells of 'Honor Killings'

A Middle East scholar says the death and dismemberment of a Syrian immigrant's nephew were not typical of such slayings.

September 05, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Women are always the target of so-called honor killings, a Middle East scholar testified Thursday in the trial of an immigrant accused of murdering his nephew for harboring his runaway daughter.

Sherry Vatter said honor killings involve the killing of a woman by close relatives who believe she has engaged in sexual activity with a man outside marriage. Unless a man happens to be present when the woman is killed, he is not targeted, said Vatter, a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach.

"The whole concept of an honor killing is the murder of a close female relative," Vatter testified as the defense concluded its case in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Closing arguments in the trial are to begin on Monday.

Fadel Tawil, 65, of Burbank, is charged with first-degree murder in the death and dismemberment of his nephew, 35-year-old Hilal Taweel, whose partial torso and left leg were found in a Sun Valley recycling plant on Jan. 2, 1999. No other body parts have been found.

The prosecution argued that Tawil, a Syrian immigrant, was angered that his nephew seemed to be encouraging his daughter's independent ways by allowing her to stay at his Burbank apartment on several occasions in 1998. The daughter, Vilma Tawil, 23, testified last week that she heard her father slap Taweel in August 1998 and ask her cousin how he could disrespect the family after finding her at his apartment.

The prosecution argued that Tawil had lied when he denied going to his nephew's home or having him over for lunch on Jan. 1, 1999, the day the younger man disappeared.

While the prosecution does not consider Taweel's death an honor killing and has not labeled it as such during the trial, the defense spent much of Thursday hearing testimony on honor killings.

Previously, defense attorney Betty Alice Bridgers had pointed out that Tawil is a Christian. On Thursday, Vatter testified that, though uncommon, honor killings are "a Muslim crime, not a Christian crime." She also said that "dismemberment is not part of honor killings."

Disputes in a Syrian immigrant family over a daughter's behavior -- especially that of an adolescent daughter -- may be intensified by a culture in which the elders expect to have tighter control over the young. However, Vatter said, these arguments are in many ways no different than those in other American families.

Under cross-examination by prosecutor Karla Kerlin, Vatter said that her expertise is not in Syrian interfamilial relations, but in women's work in the commercial textile industry during the Ottoman Empire.

Defense attorney Bridgers called witnesses to testify that Tawil and his nephew had a good relationship. The defendant's son, Wael Tawil, told of his close friendship with his cousin Taweel, and of frequent visits Taweel made to their home.

He said his family became less concerned about his sister's forays from home as they became more common.

The defense also tried to cast doubt on the elder Tawil's ability to kill the younger man and dismember his body, since only scant traces of the nephew's blood were found on a wall at the Tawil apartment.

Pathologist David Posey said that dismemberment would have produced a tremendous amount of blood and that moving an adult man's body would have been difficult.

Authorities have not determined how Taweel died or where he was dismembered.

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