By Stephen Kalin
BEIRUT (Reuters) - A few thousand protesters took to the streets of Beirut on Saturday to demand that politicians approve Lebanon's first law against domestic violence in a non-partisan display rarely seen in Lebanon's highly politicized climate.
Organizers harnessed popular outrage over the deaths of two Lebanese women in suspected domestic violence cases which struck a nerve in a country where regular car bombs and rocket attacks have desensitized many to violence.
"The people want the passage of the law," protesters chanted outside the ministry of justice, invoking one of the most popular slogans of the Arab Spring uprisings.
The demonstration, called to coincide with International Women's Day, appeared to number at least 3,000 - large for a politically independent event in Beirut.
Lebanon, known for its nightclubs, stylish boutiques and liberal social norms, offers women freedoms denied to many in the Arab world, but campaigners say one woman a month is killed by domestic violence in the country of 4 million.
Many Lebanese took to social media following the deaths last month of Manal Assi and Cristelle Abou Chakra to condemn a seven-month delay in passing the domestic violence law, held up by political disagreements and backlog of bills linked to the Syrian civil war.
"How many wives must die assaulted by their husbands before the state passes the law to protect women?" said one tweet.
The deaths of Assi, bludgeoned with a pressure cooker, and Chakra, who was reportedly poisoned with chemicals, amplified public outrage in Lebanon.
Last year's death of Rola Yacoub, whose family said was beaten to death by her husband in front of their children, first brought the issue to the fore.
Zoya Rouhana, director of KAFA (Enough), a group supporting abused women, said the taboo surrounding domestic violence was lifting.
"People used to hide such crimes, even the parents of the victim, as if it was a scandal," she said. "But now people are talking more and the media is shedding light on these issues."
Yacoub's mother, Laila, said neighbors tried to intervene when they heard screaming from her daughter's house but were told it was a private matter. Inconclusive autopsies and witness statements led authorities to release her husband.
"I want justice," Laila told Reuters. "You can't kill my daughter and six months later go free."
KAFA first proposed legislation in 2007 to establish penalties for domestic violence and provide protection orders. The bill polarized politicians and was amended by parliament after lobbying from Lebanon's powerful religious establishment.
Sethrida Geagea, a Christian lawmaker and one of only four women in the 128-member parliament, said she, like Saturday's protesters, wanted to roll back some of the amendments in order to focus the bill on women and to criminalize marital rape.
"The people affected by (domestic) violence today are mostly women, not men or children," she said. "It is not permissible that in 2014 women are subjected to violence."
Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon's top Sunni religious authority, issued a 16-point statement saying the bill discriminated against men, encroached on religious courts' authority and aimed to destroy the family institution.
While Lebanon's legal code is largely secular, personal status laws give Muslim and Christian religious authorities control of many civil affairs. The confessional system settles disputes over marriage, divorce and inheritance in religious courts.
Human rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh, who runs the legal reform NGO Legal Agenda, said the amendments would dilute its ability to combat domestic violence.
One amendment removes a reference to forced marriage, while another one introduces the spousal right to sexual intercourse, essentially legalizing marital rape, he said.
The amended proposal also removes a special status for women and adds adultery to the definition of domestic violence. According to Saghieh, this could extend to men the protections intended to shield women from their historically inferior social position.
(Editing by Rosalind Russell)