Letter from Sydney sheikh sparked international drama

Natalie O’Brien

A letter written by a Lakemba sheikh stating that Sydney mother Mahassen Issa was still married under religious law was the catalyst for her being charged with adultery and bigamy while holidaying in Lebanon with her new partner.

The letter from the Islamic Centre’s Dawah and Fatwah office in Wangee Road, dated June 30, 2014, and signed  by Sheikh Yahya Safi, was sent to Lebanon and used to put a stop order on Ms Issa leaving Lebanon and returning to Australia.

Ms Issa’s plight, which made international headlines, resulted in the mother of two being trapped in Lebanon for three months in a case that highlighted the problems between religious and civil marriage laws and procedures in the two countries.

There are reports that other women are being trapped in similar circumstances in Lebanon and other countries and in some cases being blackmailed by vengeful former partners.

Womens’ rights advocate Eman Sharobeem said “this is not the first case we hear about and I don’t think it will be the last”.

“Many women from different religious backgrounds will suffer equally and for many years. For a woman to obtain her divorce from the Australian court is not necessarily the end of the marriage, obtaining the religious divorce is the actual paper that can give women a ticket to freedom or a fresh start,”  Dr Sharobeem said.

Ms Issa has been critical of the sheikh’s intervention, claiming that he knew the two were not living together and were in the process of a civil divorce with a hearing set down for July. A translation of the letter said that the marriage was in reconciliation and the Islamic Centre had not issued any decision regarding divorce. Sheikh Safi did not return calls from The Sun-Herald.

The charges of adultery were triggered when Ms Issa’s former Australian husband, Bassem Abou Lokmeh, registered their marriage in Lebanon and then made a complaint that she had travelled there and was getting married to another man while she was still married to him. Mr Abou Lokmeh told The Sun-Herald they were still married when she travelled to Lebanon.

A court order was obtained prohibiting Ms Issa, under her married name Mahassen Abou Lokmeh, from leaving Lebanon by the Lebanese Office of General Security.

Ms Issa’s lawyer, Zali Burrows, said it was an unusual situation because Ms Issa, who is Australian-born and was married in Australia, had not committed any crimes against a Lebanese citizen.

Ms Burrows who travelled to Lebanon and managed to negotiate a deal allowing Ms Issa to leave, said she had also obtained a certificate of singleness for Ms Issa which showed her Australian marriage had not been registered in Lebanon.

Samir Dandan, of the Lebanese Muslim Association, said women need to ensure they have an Islamic divorce certificate before travelling to Lebanon.

Mr Dandan said that under Islamic law women can obtain a divorce, even if the husband has not consented, but they have to follow a process and that takes time.

He said divorces can be granted by the Islamic Centre in Lakemba or by the representative in Sydney of the Mufti of Lebanon.

Ms Issa said while attempting to get help for her situation she was told that there were numerous cases of Australian woman being trapped by the system.

“I was told there are two or three cases a week,” Ms Issa said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed that other Australians, including mothers with children, have been prevented from leaving Lebanon by stop orders.

She said that DFAT warns travellers to Lebanon that crimes under Lebanese laws may not be considered offences in Australia.

“Under Lebanese law, Lebanese nationals and non-nationals may prevent family members from leaving Lebanon, even if they are Australian citizens.

“Australians, including mothers with children, have been prevented from leaving Lebanon when relatives have legally placed border alerts (known as ‘stop orders’) on them. The Australian Government cannot prevent or overturn the issue of a ‘stop order’ on an Australian citizen.”