Arrest Blamed On Culture Clash

Andrea Weigl, News and Observer, Sept. 4

A Lebanese immigrant facing sexual assault charges involving his infant son is caught in the middle of a culture clash between Western law and Eastern tradition. The Wake County courts will have to settle the question: Is the 24-year-old North Raleigh man a sex offender or an affectionate father?

Raleigh police have accused Charbel “Charlie” Hamaty, 24, of 5835-A Pointer Drive of first-degree sexual offense based on photographs of

himself and his 6-year-old daughter kissing his 2-month-old son’s groin area.

An Eckerd Drug employee contacted police after two of the photographs were developed there, and a search of Hamaty’s home turned up a

handful more. If convicted of the most serious offense, Hamaty faces life in prison. His daughter and son have been removed from the home and taken into the custody of a local social service agency.

The depiction of Hamaty as a criminal is disputed by both his lawyers

and the more than 100 supporters who crammed a Wake courtroom twice

this week for hearings related to the charges against Hamaty and his

wife, Teresa.

The supporters, mainly from the local Lebanese community, wore red

ribbons that said “Support the Hamatys.” They said the charges are the

result of a misinterpretation of a half-dozen photographs among more

than 100 snapshots.

“We understand why the police did this, but there are innocent

explanations for all of this,” said Raleigh lawyer Daniel Boyce.

Boyce has received offers of support from the World Lebanese Cultural

Union, the Lebanese embassy and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination

Committee, based in Washington. “We’re afraid there might be some

cultural misunderstanding,” said Kareem Shora, the committee’s

director of legal policy.

Such kisses are signs of affection, not sexual abuse, ruled the Maine

Supreme Court in 1996 when it overturned a sexual assault conviction

of an Afghan immigrant who was similarly photographed with his

18-month-old son. The court ruled that the father kissing his son’s

penis was a common cultural practice and not a sexual act.

“Kissing a young son on every part of his body is considered a sign

only of love and affection for the child,” the court said in its

ruling. “There is nothing sexual about this practice.”

“It shouldn’t be looked at as a crime,” said Ludwig Adamec, a

professor emeritus of Middle East history at the University of

Arizona’s Center for Near Eastern Studies, who testified as an expert

in the Maine case.

Hamaty, who works delivering pizza and three other jobs to support his

family, is charged with first-degree forcible sex offense and two

counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. His 34-year-old wife, who

works as a nurse, is charged with two counts of first-degree sexual

exploitation of a minor.

That the Hamatys took the photos to the drug store proves their

innocence to the Rev. Claude Franklin of the St. Sharbel Maronite

Mission, where the Hamatys’ relatives attend church.

“If you’re going to do something illegal, you would use a digital

camera and put them on the Internet,” Franklin said. “If you were

doing something criminal, you wouldn’t take the photos to Eckerd

Drug.”

On Thursday during a bond hearing, Boyce said the photos have been

taken out of context. Plus, Boyce said, police found no child

pornography in the couple’s home and no Internet access. In support of

reducing Hamaty’s $500,000 bail, Boyce argued that Hamaty’s release

would pose no risk to the community, his children, the witnesses or

evidence.

However, Assistant Wake District Attorney Jacquie Brewer argued that

federal immigration officials have sought to detain Hamaty for

potential deportation because his work visa has expired and he has

failed to register with federal authorities as post-Sept. 11, 2001,

laws require.

Boyce said Hamaty had hired an immigration lawyer more than a year ago

to resolve a dispute with federal officials since he believes his

status has changed by marrying his wife, who is a U.S. citizen.

Wake District Court Judge Paul Gessner agreed to reduce the bail to

$250,000 and allow electronic house arrest with a number of

conditions. While out on bond, Hamaty cannot be alone with any

children under the age of 16, must surrender all photographic and

video equipment and can have no contact with his children or the

witnesses.

Gessner also ordered Hamaty to cooperate with social workers in their

investigation of the incidents. As of Friday, Hamaty was still being

held at the Wake County Detention Center.

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