File picture: Independent Media

Lisbon - About three years ago, a married Portuguese woman began seeing another man. The affair was brief - and after two months, the woman wanted to end it.

In response, the woman's former lover turned to her husband, telling him his wife had been unfaithful, according to Portuguese media outlets. The couple divorced. But the two men, both enraged, worked together to plan an attack on the woman.

In June 2015, the former paramour kidnapped the woman and held her down while the ex-husband beat her viciously with a nail-spiked club, leaving bruises and lashes all over her body.

After charges were filed in the assault, the ex-husband was given a 15-month suspended sentence and a fine of about $2 000 (about R25 000), according to the Associated Press. A prosecutor thought he deserved a harsher sentence, and asked an appeals court in Porto, Portugal's second largest city, for prison time of 3 years and 6 months.

But the appeals judges decided against it.

Why? Because the judges felt it was somewhat understandable that a husband in a "depressive state" would act out against a wife who had betrayed him.

In a written ruling that harked back to the 19th century, Judges Neto de Moura and Maria Luísa Abrantes justified the lighter sentence with biblical references that condemn adultery.

"Now, adultery by a woman is a very serious attack on a man's honour and dignity," the judges wrote. "Societies exist where the adulterous woman is stoned to death. In the Bible, we can read that the adulterous woman should be punished with death."

They argued that the "disloyalty and sexual immorality" of the woman caused her husband to fall into a "deep depression." It was in this clouded mental state that the husband committed the act of aggression, the judges wrote.

The judges cited a criminal law from 1886 that called for merely a symbolic penalty against a husband who, finding his wife committing adultery, killed her.

"These references are merely intended to emphasise that society has always strongly condemned adultery by a woman and therefore sees the violence by a betrayed, vexed and humiliated man with some understanding," the judges wrote.

The written ruling was filed October 11 but was not made public until Portuguese news outlet Jornal de Notícias reported the news earlier this week.

The sentence has stunned women's rights activists, legal experts and even religious authorities who saw it as an attempt to justify domestic violence with references to the Bible. 

Across social media, Portuguese commentators and feminist groups called out the ruling for perpetuating victim-blaming and "legitimising" violence against women.

Amnesty International Portugal said in a statement that citing the Old Testament in a court ruling presents a "manifest violation" of the separation of church and state, which is part of the Portugal's constitution.

UMAR, the Women's Union for Alternative and Response, has called for a protest rally on Friday in downtown Lisbon in response to the ruling. In a statement, the group said the verdict was "perplexing," "revolting" and violated the rights, freedoms and "dignity" of the individual.

"Evoking the Bible does not combine with the rule of law in our country and discredits the judicial norms," UMAR said in the statement. The group said the decision could lead to "serious consequences" for Portuguese society, particularly for women.

"It also conveys a message, especially to younger generations, of total impunity," it added.

Even some religious authorities condemned the ruling. The Rev. Manuel Barbosa, secretary of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, told the religious news agency Ecclesia that the judges incorrectly referred to scriptures in their ruling. He said no one should "justify any kind of violence, in this case domestic violence, even in the case of adultery."

While Barbosa said adultery should not be accepted in his faith, he urged the importance of preserving the dignity of women. He cited teachings from Pope Francis on forgiveness and mercy.

The woman could appeal the decision to Portugal's higher courts, the AP reported.

"It is evident that no human being can be satisfied with this," Erica Durães, a lawyer representing the woman, told Portuguese news outlet Diario de Notícias. She said the victim is "very worn out and tired from all of this" but declined to say if she would be taking further legal action.

Portugal's Superior Magistrates Council, which oversees judges, acknowledged the public criticism but said it could not intervene in judicial matters, even in light of "archaic, inappropriate or unfortunate" remarks from judges, according to Diario de Notícias

It does not appear to be the first time Judge Neto de Moura has turned to biblical teachings when preparing sentences for domestic violence cases, the BBC reported.

In one example, last year, the judge overturned a previous sentence of two years in prison in an assault case, questioning the "reliability" of the female victim's testimony.

"A woman who commits adultery is a false, hypocritical, dishonest, disloyal, futile, immoral person," he said at the time. "In short, a person who lacks moral credibility."

According to Reuters, "ultra-orthodox patriarchy," still exists in parts of the country. Before Portugal's 1974 revolution, it was one of the "cornerstones" of the regime of dictator Antonio Salazar.

The deputy director of the Portuguese news outlet that first reported the news, Inês Cardoso, wrote commentary on Monday criticising the court decision. Cardoso titled it: "She was asking for it."

"Is this an isolated case in the Portuguese courts?" she asked. "Perhaps not, because sentences with discriminatory and abusive references arise sporadically."

In a discussion that echoed recent commentary in the U.S. over sexual harassment and assault, Cardoso equated the judge's ruling to victim-blaming.

"Even when she is a victim of aggression, harassment or sexual abuse, she is often considered the cause of the crime," Cardoso wrote. "Either because she dresses provocatively, or because she fails in her role as a dedicated wife, or because she acts with 'sexual disloyalty and immorality.'"

"We know that there is much to be done to combat marital violence and gender inequality," she said. "But the courts, like the other organs of sovereignty, exist to promote justice and equality. Not to validate prejudice and discrimination."