One man’s fight for justice after a song brought death to a Pakistani village
When tribal elders reportedly ordered five girls killed in remote northern Pakistan for singing and clapping, outraged media coverage prompted the Supreme Court to order an investigation.
The deeply flawed investigation concluded the girls were alive and the matter was dropped. But new killings – and new evidence collected by Reuters – suggests the girls are dead.
Now one man is fighting to bring the Kohistan killers to justice. Like his country, he is wavering at a crossroads, torn between traditional tribal vengeance and the faint hope of justice from a troubled young democracy.
His path may hint at whether the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people can emerge from decades of bloodshed into a nation secure in the rule of law.
“I have gone to get justice from the court,” said Mohammed Afzal, the slender, brown-eyed brother of the three men recently killed in the feud this January.
“But if they fail me, I am also a Kohistani. I will hunt down my brothers’ killers myself.”
Twenty-five-year-old Azfal says five women and two of his brothers were sentenced to death last year by a jirga, a gathering of tribal elders. Jirgas date back centuries in Pakistan. They resolve local disputes and can help calm violence, bypassing the moribund formal court system.
But the jirgas often also order men and women tortured, mutilated, raped or killed. There is no appeal to the decisions made by the all-male gatherings. For a woman, just an accusation of impropriety often merits a death sentence.
Jirgas order many of the 1,000 “honor killings” in Pakistan recorded each year by the Aurat Foundation, Pakistan’s leading women’s rights group.
More than two years ago, two of Afzal’s brothers used a cellphone to record themselves and the four older women sitting on the floor singing softly and clapping.
A year ago, the video began circulating in Sartay, the remote and deeply conservative village in the mountainous region of Kohistan where they lived.
Afzal says a jirga headed by Maulana Javed, an uncle of two of the women, ordered the men and women killed. Shaheen was sentenced since she had been talking to the women, he said.
Afzal was far from home, but Reuters interviewed a witness to the funerals of four of the women who was too frightened to give his name.
He described one sunny morning at the end of May, when four bodies were brought to the centre of the village in white sheets. They were buried in the corner of the churchyard but he believed they were later dug up and moved because the door that had originally been placed on top of their bodies was later used at another funeral.
Amina, who had been married off young to a rival family to settle a blood feud, was pregnant. The witness said he had heard she was spared until she had given birth, then killed somewhere else.
Afzal said after the killings, the women’s families told the village that his brothers were next.
“They said, ‘we have killed our girls, now we will kill the boys’,” he said.
The case caused an uproar. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, famed for personally intervening in high-profile human rights cases, ordered activists to visit the village. A number of officials accompanied them.
Their investigation was deeply flawed.
At some points the investigators used members of the women’s family as translators – the same people accused of killing them.
The women were asked to verify their identity by picking themselves out of stills from the video – an easy task for a relative or friend who had grown up with them since childhood.
Investigators did not meet with the women alone. They did, however, gather the men of the village and ask anyone with information about the murders to raise their hand.
No one did. Anyone who had would likely be killed after the investigators flew away on their helicopter.
While Reuters was investigating the case, Afzal supplied two photographs of one woman who was allegedly killed, Begum Jan.
The two photographs were compared to a picture taken by investigators of a woman claiming to be Begum Jan.
It is highly unlikely they are the same woman, according to an analysis by Digital Barriers PLC, a British company whose facial recognition software is used by military and law enforcement agencies around the world.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court accepted the tentative conclusion of two of the three investigators – that the girls were probably alive.
Afzal and the two brothers who made the video went into hiding. But in January the girls’ relatives shot dead Afzal’s three brothers as they were preparing to pray on a mountainside.
Twelve men – including Maulana Javed – have been charged with killing Afzal’s brothers.
Several of the accused told police they killed Afzal’s brothers over the video, contradicting their sworn statements to investigators that the video was a minor matter and not worth killing over.
Afzal fears the court may soon release the accused, some of whom are powerful local leaders, unless the Supreme Court re-examines the girls’ case.
Last month, Afzal submitted a petition to the court naming the women that he says impersonated their dead cousin, sister and sister-in-law and asking for a hearing.
“We all failed. The courts, the journalists, the civil society,” said Dr. Farzana Bari, the dissenting investigator who recently petitioned to have the case reopened.
“We are all responsible for protecting the rights of these women and we failed them and ourselves.”
The case is theoretically still pending. It has not had a hearing since June. Afzal’s petition for a further date has been rejected. Bari’s is still pending.