The long-time first wife of former league star Hazem El Masri has spoken out in support of her embattled ex-husband, who is facing assault allegations from his new partner.
Arwa Abousamra, who split from the Bulldogs rugby league legend in 2014, says she has known him for 18 years, and for 13 of those were happily married.
“Hazem never as much as raised his voice at me, even in an argument,” she said in a statement.
“We separated two years ago, but have remained best friends.”
She said when it came to parenting their three children, she was the disciplinarian.
“It would always be me who sent the kids to the corner because Hazem just doesn’t have the heart,” Ms Abousamra said.
“To believe he would ever strike a woman is incomprehensible. Hazem’s respect for women is beyond reproach as is his character. Just ask the countless women in his life: a mother, two daughters, three sisters, seven nieces, and one best friend.”
El Masri’s current wife, Douah El-Cherif, walked herself in to Bankstown police station on Monday night, making a statement that has rocked the sporting community and put question marks over her husband’s reputation as one of the poster boys for rugby league.
El Masri, a former White Ribbon ambassador, was charged on Monday night with assault occasioning actual bodily harm and common assault following an altercation at the couple’s Bankstown home at about 7.30pm.
A police spokeswoman confirmed the incident was first reported at the local police station and it was “an alleged domestic assault … involving his 25-year-old wife”.
Neighbours said El Masri, who describes himself as devoutly religious, and his new wife only moved into the renovated duplex home two weeks ago.
They had kept to themselves and those close by didn’t hear any noise on Monday night, when the alleged assault occurred.
El Masri, 39, has been ordered to not approach or contact his wife, one of several bail conditions ahead of his first appearance in Bankstown Local Court on Thursday.
An interim AVO was issued for her protection. It’s believed she didn’t require hospitalisation for her injuries.
The response was swift with NRL chief executive Dave Smith dumping El Masri from any ambassador roles.
“There is absolutely no place for domestic violence in our game,” he said. “It’s abhorrent to us. I don’t know the details of that case but I can say that any ambassadorial role that he was playing with us, he’s been stood down from.”
White Ribbon Australia chief executive Libby Davies said the charity was “very disappointed to learn of the charges”.
El Masri, once described by commentator Ray Warren as “one of the real gentlemen of the code”, has spent much of his time campaigning against domestic violence since his retirement from football in 2009.
He was named the inaugural Women in League Favourite Son in 2009, awarded for being a role model to younger players and a person whose off-field characteristics “embody the true values of the rugby league community”.
He has served as an NRL One Community Ambassador, travelling to schools to promote multiculturalism, literacy and active lifestyles.
In 2013 he joined a White Ribbon Day march with Commissioner Andrew Scipione and other sportsmen, standing beside former league star Mario Fenech, who said: “I can still remember my father telling me, ‘Son, real men don’t hit women.'”
He walked through Randwick alongside former Penrith Panthers player Rhys Wesser, who was charged this month with dragging a woman down the stairs during a violent assault.
Rugby league continues to be dogged by domestic violence, despite efforts to shake its shameful reputation.
The sport has spent millions of dollars on programs tackling violence against women, such as the recent Voices Against Violence community program that encouraged men from 1300 grassroots league clubs to help break the silence around domestic violence.
Young elite players take part in sex and ethics workshops and experts have been employed to advise the NRL on how to implement cultural change.
However, at least a dozen past and present players have been in court recently, charged with various domestic violence offences.
Zane Tetevano and Addin Fonua-Blake were sacked this year after being convicted for assaulting women. Kirisome Auva’a, Cody Walker and Robert Lui have also faced allegations of domestic assault recently.
Roosters player Shaun Kenny-Dowall recently pleaded not guilty to assaulting his former girlfriend.
And Wests Tigers dumped Matthew Lodge this week following his arrest in New York for allegedly stalking two women, assaulting a man and trashing an apartment.
El Masri surfaced on Tuesday afternoon at Bankstown police station, reportedly trying to get his phone back from officers.
He declined to comment outside and his wife’s family didn’t answer the door at their Greenacre home.