Blood from a stone

One woman is killed a week in Swat over uninvestigated suspicions

Blood from a stone
When a man claims he found his sister-in-law with a man in flagrante delicto at his uncle’s baethak or guest lounge, you would not be wrong in assuming the matter merited a police investigation. Reason would normally dictate that if you’re having an affair, the last place you’ll hold a tryst is at a relative’s house—in Swat.

This was, however, the motive for murder Salim gave to the Shamozai police on August 23, after he and the woman’s father were arrested along with three other suspects. The victims are a 27-year-old taxi driver called Bilal who the police brought dead on arrival to a Barikot hospital along with Salim’s 22-year-old sister-in-law Sara (not her real name), who has survived. The five men have been accused of stoning and strangling Bilal and Sara who was initially taken for dead. She has been treated for her injuries and moved to a safe place. Her statement has been recorded by a civil judge. She is married to Salim’s brother Khan and they have a two-year-old child.

Salim told the police that on that day he thought Sara left home to buy some clothes in the neighborhood but because he felt she took longer than usual, he took it upon himself to look for her. He claims that he found Sara and Bilal at his uncle Jehan Bakht Bacha’s baethak. He says he locked them inside and called Sara’s father Raham Bacha and brother Anwar.

The Shamozai police have nominated Salim, Sara’s brother Anwar Ali, Sara’s father Raham Bacha, Salim’s uncle Jehan Bakht and Akbar Ali in the case. “Out of them four are in the custody of the police,” said an officer. One man is in hiding. “Both of them were tied up with ropes and were hit with stones; the man died while the critically injured woman survived.” The police have taken the stones and ropes smeared with blood as evidence.

A doctor at Barikot hospital said that Bilal appears to have died from being hit by stones and sticks and strangled with a rope. His body did not have any knife cuts or bullet wounds. Sara’s medical report notes “strangulation marks on her neck; severe body aches, painful movements of the left shoulder and arm”.
Rights activists say that due to social pressure doctors are pressured to declare murders as simple suicides during postmortems

Two days after the incident, Sara recorded her statement before a civil judge. She says that after a long vacation her husband had returned to Dubai where he works on August 20. On August 23, she went to visit her doctor at a clinic in Kausar Colony to get some tests done. On her way back, in the afternoon, she took Bilal’s taxi. Bilal, whose name she discovered later, was a friend of her brother Anwar. When they reached Vela Qabar Shah, she saw her brother Anwar standing there. “He stopped the car and sat in the driving seat.” As they reached home she saw her father Raham Bacha standing there. “Both [men] took me to the veranda and started beating me. Then they took me out to the bethak of Uncle Jehan Bakht where I saw Bilal lying with blood all around his body.” Salim was already there and he, Anwar and Raham Bacha started hitting her with stones. “Salim removed the cord from Bilal’s neck and put it around my neck and squeezed it till I fell unconscious.”

Bilal’s father, Muhammad Hilal, who has driven a trailer in Saudi Arabia for 20 years, rushed home after the murder. “It was a brutal, barbarous, savage act,” he told The Friday Times. “Everyone knows that the boy was dragged from the street to the bethak. First he was hit with stones and then strangled.” Bilal’s mother Arsh Bibi is distraught. “My son was innocent,” she said. “He would pick anybody who would hail a taxi whether it was a female or male.” Their emotion is echoed in his village of Zarakhela, but people are tightlipped in the nearby Ghari Shamozai. Many people did not speak out of fear and in order to avoid being called as witneses in the case.

Bilal, who is a Gujjar by tribe, drove a taxi and worked at a tube well in the fields of a landlord, Gran. His actual age is 23, says his mother, even though his CNIC says he is 27. But it is not uncommon for people to declare a different age in order to get passports to work abroad at a younger age. Malak Raza Khan Gujjar, a local elder and social worker, from the area vouched for Bilal. “I knew him since his childhood and he was nice person; he drove a taxi and would regularly visit my hujra. I can guarantee he was man of character. He would have never been killed had he not been poor.” Gujjars are perceived as poor and illiterate people in the area.

Bilal and Sara’s case is not isolated. Indeed, the little data that is available indicates an uptick in cases in Swat and other parts of Malakand division. The Awakening, an organization working for the protection and promotion of human rights with a special emphasis on women in Malakand, has noted that 39 cases have taken place Swat alone from January to August. Thirty-six women and three men have been killed. “That’s one every week in Swat,” says the organisation’s Erfaan Hussein Babak. Then there was the August 25 case of a man who shot his daughter-in-law in Kabal because she would leave home without his permission while her husband was in Dubai.

Not only are the numbers high, but these murders are dogged by obfuscation as the statements in Bilal’s case showed. Take the example of a new case in Swat where a class 9 girl was murdered allegedly by her relatives. “According to her mother, her son was cleaning his pistol when he pressed the trigger by mistake and the bullet hit the girl,” Babak added. Rights activists say that due to social pressure doctors are pressured to declare murders as simple suicides during postmortems.

One doctor spoke of his experience in one of the hospitals in Batagram district in 2012 when a 25-year-old woman was shot in the shoulder by her relatives because she refused to marry an eight-year-old boy. In her childhood she had been engaged to a boy of her age who later on became disabled in an accident and now her family was interested in arranging her marriage with his younger brother. According to the doctor, the family claimed that she had tried to commit suicide by shooting herself. “But it was not possible for her to get an angle to shoot herself in the scapular region,” he explains. The local elders and police were trying to hide the real story.

These cases are under-reported and usually hidden from the media, police and public only to be secretly settled between families through jirgas. “Most of the data in honour killing comes from the media but it is not enough,” says Shad Begum, a social activist from Dir Lower. “We don’t have access to primary sources.” Dr Fazal Rabi, a social activist from Shangla region, adds that “honour killings” should not be called the crimes of the poor or illiterate as they are just as much a crime of the rich, elite and privileged families. The only problem is that they are better at hiding such cases from the media and law.

When it comes to the legal process, Swat-based activist Ghazala Rehman said people involved in such cases always escape punishment which just encourges the crime. “In such cases usually the police help the culprits by registering a weak First Information Report,” she says. “It is very difficult to win a battle with a weak FIR even if the case is taken to the superior courts.”

For his part, though, Swat DPO Saleem Marwat defends the force, saying that they have even prevented funeral prayers for victims from taking place to insist on a postmortem. “Cases determined as honour killing, suicide, homicide and murder are properly investigated and legal formalities are fulfilled,” he told The Friday Times.

Fortunately, there is some cognisance of the epidemic. On July 21, a committee of lawmakers from both houses unanimously approved two bills on honour killings and rape which will be put up for approval at a joining sitting of parliament. If passed, under the new law, relatives of a victim would be only able to pardon a murderer facing capital punishment but the killer would still face a sentence of 12.5 years.

Renowned Pashtun poet and scholar Professor Abaseen Yousafzai says that apart from marriages of their own choice and suspicion over nonconformist misbehavior, women were killed for other motives, including inheritance. “Pashtuns mostly follow Islam except in two cases—while giving property shares to their females and while killing them on charges of honour.” In Malakand division a very small number of women are properly given their share of property. And even in those cases, if a woman’s share is one million rupees she would be lucky to see one-tenth of it.

“Islamic Shariah demands eyewitnesses in [such] cases but the Pashtun do not have investigations or follow the proper legal process and kill them on the spot,” says Prof. Yousafzai. “Here Pashtun culture trumps Islamic values.”

Tahir Ali is based in Islamabad and he tweets @tahirafghan