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Israeli rabbinical courts softened their approach in 2009 to men refusing to grant their wives a divorce, the courts administration said yesterday.

According to information released yesterday by the administration, the number of women recognized as "mesoravot" (refused a divorce) or "agunot" (chained to their marriage by their husband's refusal to divorce) stayed the same in 2009.

Sanctions were imposed in just 44 cases during 2009, in contrast to 73 cases in 2008. Only six of the verdicts handed down in 2009 included arrest warrants for the husbands, as compared to 23 cases in 2008.

This information was presented at a press conference held yesterday to mark the end of 2009 in the district rabbinical courts and the High Rabbinical Court.

Last year also saw the number of divorces in Israel drop by 2.3 percent. In 2009, 9,986 couples were divorced, as opposed to 10,225 couples in 2008.

According to information on cases currently being deliberated in the tribunals, the rabbinical tribunal system became more effective overall in recent years, with 71 percent of the cases being heard, and the average time for a case to be closed 138 days.

However, a comparison with earlier reports draws attention to an area of religious law for which the courts find themselves most frequently criticized - the reluctance to impose sanctions on husbands who refuse to grant divorces.

The lenient rulings are usually granted by judges attentive to the edicts of Lithuanian leader Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who advised avoiding the punishment of divorce refusers, fearing this would produce a forced divorce - which contradicts the principle that divorce must be provided by the husband's free will.

Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Dahan, director of the rabbinical courts, said that sanctions imposed in 2009 included arrest warrants, withholding of driver's licenses, restriction orders on departing the country, and some 10 cases in which for the first time national insurance payments to recalcitrant husbands were reduced.

Ben Dahan said the number of divorce cases that are open due to the husband's refusal remains steady at 180.

Organizations supporting divorce-refused women, however, said the actual numbers amounted to hundreds, if not thousands, of cases. The courts and the organizations use different estimates, as the courts only consider a woman "mesorevet" after she had waited over two years for her husband's consent.

Ben Dahan explained the drop in sanctions by saying they could not be imposed in every divorce case. "Sanctions are enacted only in extreme cases, like those involving a violent, ill or sterile husband," he said.

Attorney Batya Kahana-Dror, director of the organization Mavoi Satum ("Dead End"), which works for the rights of women who have been refused divorce, said that "in contradiction to natural justice, law and the halakha [Jewish religious law], the judges refuse to apply legitimate pressure on husbands who refuse divorce. As a result, thousands of women are barred from leaving failed marriages."