Even though Pakistan declared ‘Jirgas’ or tribal councils unconstitutional in 2004, they continue to issue honor killing decrees
[Islamabad] – Six years after the “honor” killings of five girls in Palas, a remote area of Kohistan in northern Pakistan, police have arrested four suspects. Aziz Khan, a senior investigator involved in the case, confirmed to The Media Line that the men have been charged with murder, criminal conspiracy and misleading government officials.
The accused appeared before a judicial magistrate that ordered they be remanded for eight days, during which time they are being questioned about the location of the girls’ unrecovered remains, Khan added.
On November 7, Pakistan’s Supreme Court gave the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government four weeks to complete the investigation, which includes inquiries into the disappearance of two boys.
The tragic tale began when a mobile phone video showing five girls and two boys clapping and dancing during a 2010 marriage ceremony went viral on social media.
In the conservative tribal area of Kohistan, where social mingling between genders is taboo, the girls’ participation in wedding festivities was considered unforgivable. For their purported “sins,” the head of the local tribal council, the Jirga, issued a decree ordering the five girls be killed, along with the boys seen dancing.
It was reported the girls – ranging in ages between 12 and 25 – were killed in 2012 by their fathers, brothers and some other close relatives in accordance with the Jirga’s decree.
Haseeb Khawaja, a human rights activist, was the first investigative journalist to break the story, traveling to remote Palas to dig up facts in the case. Following threats to his life and physical attacks, he fled the region.
Khawaja told The Media Line that the teenage boys shown in the video went into hiding. However, three brothers of the murdered girls were themselves killed by avenging tribesmen.
The video was leaked to the local media by Muhammed Afzal Kohistani, 27, another brother of the deceased females, exposing the Jirga’s murderous decree.
In an exclusive interview with The Media Line from an undisclosed location, Kohistani claimed that following the edict sentencing the boys to death along with the girls, local people further inflamed the tense situation by provoking the girls’ families.
Kohistani said his own three brothers – Shah Faisal, Rafiullah and Sher Wali – were shot to death while preparing for daily prayers.
“They destroyed my family. The girls are dead, my brothers have been killed and nothing has been done to bring justice or to protect us. I know very well I will probably be killed someday, but it does not matter; someone has to fight,” he said.
Dr. Farzana Bari, an Islamabad-based female rights activist who has played a role in seeking justice for the victims, told The Media Line that she is satisfied with the arrest of four of the perpetrators after six years of tireless effort.
Justice in this case, Dr. Bari added, “would convey a strong message across the state about the protection of women and their rights.”
After the intervention of the Supreme Court in 2012 – when investigators began their inquiries – relatives, community leaders and even political leaders insisted that the girls were still alive and produced a set of similar-looking local girls to prove it, Bari explained.
“We compared their faces to the images on the video, but I was not satisfied. I filed a dissenting report as I believed they were not the same girls… but the judge closed the case,” she said.
In 2016, another judicial commission formed by the Supreme Court revealed that the families had not produced the girls seen in the video, and instead had shown some other underage girls.
In July 2018, Bari asked the Supreme Court to reopen the case. “Eight human beings were slaughtered and after six years not a single person was held responsible for this insane brutality,” she concluded.
Shaista Yasmeen, a project coordinator with UKS, an organization that fights against the discriminatory treatment of women, told The Media Line that “in the eyes of the tribal Jirga, killing a woman in the name of honor is not a crime.”
Referring to a recent UN Human Rights Watch report, Yasmeen added that there were no credible official figures on honor killings because they often go unreported or are treated as suicides or natural deaths.
In the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, 94 women were murdered last year by close family members, she claimed, adding that any honor killing must be investigated without political or religious pressure.
Niamat Ullah, a former judge and prominent lawyer, told The Media Line that in 2004 a law amendment made honor killings a criminal offense, but it remains poorly enforced.
“As Pakistani law allows the family of a murder victim to pardon the perpetrator, this practice is often used in cases of honor killings,” he said.
Yasir Bashir, a senior lawyer practicing in the Provincial High Court, told The Media Line that women in rural Pakistan are favorite and soft targets for the Jirgas, which he described as a parallel justice system overseen by influential local personalities.
Because Jirgas were declared unconstitutional in 2004, those found in breach of this law “must be tried for contempt of court, but the silence of the judiciary makes it an accomplice to the perpetrators of such crimes,” Bashir added.
“This insane system serves to further empower criminals, particularly regarding violence against women. The Jirga system denies justice and equity in favor of nepotism and monetary gains, and only serves to destroy society’s moral and Islamic values,” he concluded.