Five girls killed for dancing in Pakistan

Five girls killed for dancing in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD,Dec19:  It was just a few seconds, a video clip of several young women laughing and clapping to music, dressed for a party or a wedding in orange headscarves and robes with floral patterns. Then a few more seconds of a young man dancing alone, apparently in the same room.

The cellphone video was made six years ago, in a village deep in Kohistan, a rugged area of northwest Pakistan. It was the last time the young women, known only as Bazeegha, Sareen Jan, Begum Jan, Amina and Shaheen, have ever been definitively seen alive.

What happened to them remains a mystery. Their fates have been shrouded by cultural taboos, official inertia, implacable resistance from local elders and religious leaders suspected of ordering their deaths, and elaborate subterfuges by the families who reportedly carried out those orders.

Even in Pakistan, where hundreds of “honor killings” are reported every year, the details of this case are extreme. According to court filings and interviews with people who have investigated the case, the families confined the disgraced girls for weeks, threw boiling water and hot coals on them, then killed them and buried them somewhere in the Kohistan hills.

Later, when several groups of investigators appeared, relatives and community leaders insisted that the girls were still alive and produced a second set of similar-looking local girls to prove it. They even allegedly went so far as to disfigure one girl’s thumbprints so she couldn’t be checked against the government identity card of the victim she was supposed to impersonate.

The story illustrates many of the reasons Pakistani authorities have failed to curb the persistent problem of honor killings. These include the cruel sway of traditional tribal councils, known as jirgas, over poor and uneducated Muslim villagers; the lengths to which such leaders may go to defy intrusions by the state; and the casual worthlessness they often assign to the rights, lives and even identities of young women.

Today, the truth is finally beginning to come to light, mostly as a result of determined efforts by a few individuals, in particular a 26-year-old man named Afzal Kohistani whose brothers were killed as a result of the incident. He spent years seeking help from local and provincial officials, then petitioned the Supreme Court twice. In 2012, his case was dismissed, but last month the high court suddenly reopened it and ordered an investigation that has produced a chilling report.

“This has destroyed my family. The girls are dead, my brothers have been killed and nothing has been done to bring justice or protect us,” said Kohistani, a poised but somber man who has received death threats and is no longer able to visit his home area. “I know I will probably be killed, too, but it doesn’t matter,” he said in an interview last week. “What happened is wrong, and it has to change. Someone has to fight for that.”

Renewed judicial interest in these long-ago events in the hamlet of Gadar-Khota Koat coincided with another encouraging development: the passage of a new law in Pakistan’s parliament that strengthened judicial powers in honor-killing cases. Often, even when such crimes manage to reach the courts, there is no punishment because the law allows victims’ families to “forgive” the perpetrators – who are often their own relatives.

The new law, passed in October, gives judges more ammunition to impose life prison sentences for honor killings in extreme circumstances, allowing them to overrule personal deals by making the murder a crime against the state as well. But women’s rights advocates said other factors, including traditional culture and political timidity, will continue to weigh against the odds of justice being done.

“We don’t know yet whether the law will make much difference. Punishment is still not mandatory, and forgiveness can still negate justice,” said Benazir Jatoi, a lawyer with the nonprofit Aurat Foundation in Islamabad, which promotes women’s rights. “Until there is more political will, I don’t think the lives of ordinary women threatened with honor violence will change.”

According to legal filings and interviews with Kohistani and half a dozen other people who have worked to investigate the case, this is what they believe happened:

In a conservative rural region where social mingling between genders was taboo, the girls’ participation in a coed singing party was risky enough. But someone posted the video on the Internet, where it spread rapidly, bringing shame on their community before the vast virtual world.

For the sin of dishonoring their tribe, the head of the local jirga, who was also a Muslim cleric, allegedly issued a religious decree ordering the five girls to be killed, along with the boy seen dancing and every member of his extended family. There was no resistance from the community. After the girls were disposed of, several brothers of the dancing boy were also caught and killed. The rest of the family, including Kohistani, had to flee the area, abandoning their farmland.

There things stood for more than a year. No crimes were reported, no charges were filed and no one came to investigate. Kohistani, a college graduate from one of the wealthier families in his home district, said he repeatedly approached local and provincial officials, reporting the killings and seeking protection for his family, but he said he was told that it was shameful for him to be challenging the jirga’s decisions.

“No one in my district or my province has ever spoken against honor killing. They tell me I have defamed my culture, my religion, my tribe,” Kohistani said in an interview last week, adding that political, religious and tribal ties among leaders in the region also thwarted his efforts. “Everybody knows what happened, but no one is ready to come forward. This an illegal, unconstitutional and un-Islamic tradition, but people don’t even consider it a crime.”

Finally, with assistance from a lawyer in Islamabad, Kohistani appealed directly to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a liberal activist, personally took up the case in 2012 and ordered two fact-finding missions sent to the remote area by helicopter.

But when the choppers landed and the visitors demanded to see the girls, the families and community leaders at first refused, saying their culture forbade it. Eventually, they were shown three girls and told they were the ones in the video. With no chance to speak to the girls in private, they tried to compare their faces to the images from the video. Two members said they were sufficiently convinced of the likenesses; the third, Farzana Bari, said she had doubts.

“I was upset and confused. We had no translators who knew their dialect, and everyone there insisted these were the same girls,” recounted Bari, an academic and women’s rights activist in Islamabad. “When we got back the second time, I filed a dissenting report, but the judge closed the case. I still feel terrible about our first visit. If the real girls were still alive then, we might have been able to save them.”

After that, life apparently returned to normal in the isolated herding community for several years. At one point, a journalist sent photos of both groups of girls to forensic analysts in England, who reported that there was only a 14 percent chance they were the same individuals. That evidence was taken to a provincial court, but it declined to take action. Kohistani, in the interview, named each of the original girls and their replacements, who he said were similar-looking sisters, cousins and sisters-in-law.

Finally, last month, Kohistani’s five-year crusade got an unexpected break when the Supreme Court, under a new chief justice, agreed to accept his habeas corpus petition and reopen the case. Once more, a fact-finding mission was sent to the village, with a mandate to discover if the five girls were alive. This time, the delegation was headed by a district judge, included two police officers, and was armed with government ID records with the heights and thumbprints of the missing girls.

What they encountered was hair-raising.

In the report he submitted to the Supreme Court, Kohistan Judge Shoaib Khan said the village elders were “unanimous” in insisting that the girls were alive. But two of the girls they produced were much younger than the victims, according to their official birth dates. A third could not be identified because both thumbs had been burned; her parents insisted that it was from a cooking accident. The delegation concluded that at least two girls did not match the ones in the video and that the others were probably also not who they claimed to be.

“All this leads to the suspicious conclusion that something is wrong at bottom,” Khan wrote. The case, he advised, “needs exhaustive inquiry.”

One day last week, Kohistani, wearing a conservative suit and carrying a copy of the judge’s report, walked up to the Supreme Court. He smiled slightly as he shook hands with his attorney, and they went inside to wait for the next hearing.