Five years ago, Zoora Shah was convicted of the murder of Mohammed Azam in Bradford. At her trial she had declined to give evidence. But here, in an extraordinary interview given in prison, she tells her shocking story
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YOU MAY remember the name Zoora Shah. The headline writers called her the "arsenic murderer". Shortly before Christmas 1993, she was jailed for life for lacing the food of a man called Mohammed Azam with poison. We learnt that she was a mother-of-three who had killed Mr Azam out of greed, so she could take over his house in Bradford. Locally, the media took a close interest in the murder victim, the brother of one of the Muslim community's most prominent and powerful leaders, Sher Azam, who had led British opposition to Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses. Nationally, the story made the newspapers mainly because the murder trial had the dubious distinction of being the first in Britain for 23 years to involve arsenic.

Few other details of the story emerged. Zoora Shah, an illiterate woman from Mirpur in Pakistani Kashmir who had been brought over to Bradford as part of an arranged marriage, spoke almost no English. At her trial she pleaded not guilty and declined to give evidence. Her silence was sealed by shame about the life she had lived - not just the murder, but the events leading up to it, bound up in sexual exploitation and abuse. Foremost in her mind was the belief that if anyone knew what had really happened her daughters would never be able to find husbands.

It has taken five years for her story to emerge, and the terrible details of her account have now won her an appeal hearing next month in the High Court. The simple motive, greed, which convinced Leeds Crown Court the first time round, is now complicated by details of sexual abuse and violence, set against a backdrop of gangsters, heroin trafficking and contract killers. This was the world that Zoora came to know after the husband who had brought her to a new life in Britain left her, their two children and their unborn child. Struggling in the margins of the criminal underworld, the only community to offer her any support, she fell into the hands of a man who raped and beat her, tried to force her to act as a drugs mule and attempted to sell her to his friends for sex. In the end she killed him.

Zoora Shah came to Britain a teenage Mirpuri bride. Now she is in Holloway Prison serving a sentence with a 20-year tariff for convictions including murder, attempted murder and solicitation to murder. This is her story of what happened in the 25 years in between.

IN THE noisy visiting-room at Holloway Prison in north London, inmates and their families are pointing at Zoora Shah, who sits with her head covered and bowed on the red chair designated for prisoners. "They have found out that I am here because I am a murderer," she says, through an interpreter. Although she has been in prison for more than five years, she was only transferred here from Durham in late 1997 - and since arriving in London, she has tried to keep her story secret from the other inmates. She feels afraid because of the pointing, but this manifests itself in a flickering, nervous smile, which served her badly when she faced the Leeds jury. The same half- grimace flashes again when she recounts the very worst parts of her life story: the poisoning of Azam, the times he beat her badly, the burial of a child stillborn because of the beatings she had endured during pregnancy.

Her eyes have sunk deep into her face and her traditional salwar kameez has been washed to the same dull grey as her skin. The jury may also have found her tough in appearance, wiry and angular with fierce eyes which dart about underneath heavy black eyebrows. The years of brutality have taken their toll.

There are further problems in piecing together her story because Zoora doesn't know how old she is and her recall of events, a ragged stream of consciousness locked into specific memories, lacks chronology. All she really knows is that she is tired and frightened and that she wants to be with her children, now aged 23, 19 and 17.

"I didn't want to come to England," she explains. "I ran away from my husband and my mother-in-law when we were still in Pakistan because they were cruel to me and used to beat me. But in the end my family made me come here with my in-laws to start a new life." She was probably a teenager - although she cannot be precise - when she arrived in Bradford to share an overcrowded house with her husband's family. She says she was expected to act as a servant for all of them and bitterly wished she was back in Pakistan. Her husband wanted sons, but Zoora had only one boy, conceiving girls instead. Several abortions came between the births of her two daughters and she also lost two children, one in childbirth, the other to illness. She recalls those lonely early days of domestic servitude and violence in an alien culture, as if in a dream. It is only when she remembers that her husband's mother said she was too fat to conceive, that she starts to cry. It is as if the insult still smarts, but the idea of being beaten no longer holds any meaning for her.

In 1980, when Zoora was pregnant with her third child, she and her children found themselves homeless and destitute after her husband married another woman (under Islamic law). She went to stay briefly at the home of one of her husband's relatives, but while she was in hospital for the birth, her other two children contracted tuberculosis and the relative asked them to leave.

She found a new place to rent which was barely habitable, with an outside toilet, no bathroom and only a tiny heater. The family huddled into one room, the new-born child and the sick children living off watered-down milk and Weetabix. After a few months, a kindly Asian neighbour noticed her watering down the children's milk and invited her round. The two became friends and a male relative of the woman began to bring Zoora gifts of fresh fruit - which Zoora was desperate to give to her undernourished children.

It was a decent enough gesture but, in the eyes of some women in Bradford's Mirpuri community, it was this simple act that led to Zoora's downfall. "She invited a man into the house," one local woman told me last week. "What does she expect?" Zoora, destitute and struggling to feed her three children, saw it differently. "It was like he was sent from God," she says. When he offered to help her to get a decent place to live, she agreed willingly.

The man, Mohammed Azam, a wealthy, married businessman and property owner, bought a house in the Lidget Green area of Bradford and offered to rent it to Zoora. Leaving her children with the neighbour, she went to see the house with him - and it was there that her life changed irrevocably. On that first viewing of a different sort of life, a new start for her children, he forced her to have sex with him. He said that if she told anyone he would tell the community that she was a whore. While she was in the bath cleaning herself afterwards she realised that a kind of transaction had taken place. The house was hers to rent - but only in return for sex. In her own eyes she had nothing further to lose: having sex with a married man meant she was a fallen woman; in marriage she had failed; her family were thousands of miles away; and she didn't have a single friend, except the neighbour whose relative had just raped her.

"After that, I didn't try to stop him having sex with me," she says, wiping her eyes with the edge of her headcovering. "I moved into the house with my children and he came round whenever he chose. I went along with it." Whenever she tried to refuse sex - which Azam wanted two or three times a day, sometimes in the backs of cars while another man drove - he beat her violently. She even went to Azam's female relations to ask for money to pay for frequent abortions.

There was a knife in Azam's car and she knew he kept guns. Slowly, she realised he was a drug dealer. He encouraged her to visit her family in Pakistan - from where she was to return with a jacket stuffed with heroin. Customs officials, he told her, would not search a woman and her young children. Too terrified to argue, Zoora went along with the plan, but failed to carry out her role after being sent home early from Pakistan by her family before the jacket arrived. Her father had become suspicious of the purpose of his daughter's visit after learning the identity of the man who was bringing the "gift". Azam, who had lost money on the deal, became violently angry. He exacted revenge by taking Zoora to the cemetery where her children were buried and raping her there.

When Azam was eventually arrested for his drug activities, Zoora was relieved. But even from prison he continued to dominate her life, using threats and his position as her landlord. Although there was at least some respite from his sexual demands, his associates began turning up at her door with the expectation of sex. Azam was pimping her from his prison cell.

IN COMING to Bradford as a bride, Zoora Shah followed in the footsteps of thousands of Mirpuris, who make up the majority of the Asian population in Bradford, originating from the Pakistani part of Kashmir known as Azad or Free Kashmir. Asian community workers describe Mirpuri attitudes as among the most conservative and traditional of all the different Muslim groups in Britain. Mohammed Azam was a Pathan, from the north-west frontier of Pakistan, also known as a particularly conservative area.

Asians and community workers in Bradford are reluctant to comment on Zoora Shah's case, partly from an understandable reluctance to wash dirty linen in public. "We don't need people like you coming here to light up the negative side of the Muslim community," said one worker last week. "We are sorry for Zoora Shah but we don't find it helpful for outsiders to dig up her story because it is better that we deal with these problems internally." The barrage of media images of Bradford's Muslims which followed the public burnings of The Satanic Verses, as well as the Gulf war, have taken their toll, and people are tired of bad publicity, of being portrayed as a community disfigured by repression and chauvinism, where women with their heads bowed and covered are forced into marriages.

Zoora's life story - like the tale of Jack and Zena, screened by the BBC earlier this month, which portrayed a young Asian girl from Bradford and her white husband living in permanent disguise and fear of being killed by the girl's brothers for breaking with tradition - has the potential to feed into Islamophobia in Britain, giving bigots new weapons with which to breed racism. Yet, at the risk of damaging community relations, some Asian women are prepared to speak out, saying simply that while the community which closed ranks around Mohammed Azam's death keeps silent, a woman whom justice has eluded remains in jail. "Not washing one's dirty linen in public has been an excuse for hiding domestic violence and sexual abuse in Asian families for too long," says one woman community worker.

These women tell of forced marriages in Bradford, of threats to kill made by families to daughters who are seen to have brought them shame, of bounty hunters paid to return those daughters who flee and of networks of Asian taxi- drivers and DSS workers who are only too happy to help in tracing missing brides. The place for those stories is not here, but it puts into context the dilemma faced by those who campaign on Zoora's behalf. In exposing the underbelly of Asian life in Britain today, they risk alienating the community with which they are working. And they also risk violence. All too recently, the house of an Asian lesbian youth worker was firebombed in Bradford, and local domestic- violence workers have faced abuse and threats from Asian men warning them against trying to "break up" Muslim marriages.

The Southall Black Sisters, a pressure group comprised of black and Asian women community workers who are leading the campaign on Zoora's behalf, see the legal system as having penalised her unfairly by failing to be accountable to "the range of women's experiences of domestic violence by reflecting the complex realities of women's lives". A spokeswoman says: "Her history of physical and sexual degradation cries out for recognition and understanding." But the group also acknowledges that the Bradford Asian community has been complicit in her betrayal. "It demands a new legal thinking and the courage to end the injustice that she faced at the hands of her family and community, and now at the hands of the law."

In the Eighties, when Zoora and Azam first met, the Muslim community in Bradford was beginning to establish its own political voice through the powerful Council of Mosques, which was established mainly to ensure that Muslim children could receive an education in line with the teachings of Islam. Several key figures in the community were rising quickly to national prominence and among them was Mohammed Azam's brother, Sher. By 1989, Sher had become a figurehead for the British campaign against The Satanic Verses, as the leader of the Council of Mosques for almost half its first decade.

It was around this time that Zoora Shah says she went to see Sher Azam at his family home. In Mirpuri tradition, the place to turn for help is to elders of the community and, realising Sher Azam was Mohammed's brother, Zoora had come to him for help. Mohammed Azam, now released from prison, had threatened to evict her from his house.

"I put my hands up to him," she says, making a gesture of prayer, "and I begged Sher Azam to please help me. He refused and left the room."

Sher Azam is no longer president of the Council of Mosques, but he remains one of the most respected voices in the Muslim community. Last week he would only say that he "wouldn't want to make any comment" on Zoora's story. Other people in the community followed his lead. "Is Zoora Shah that one who killed Sher Azam's brother?" asked one Asian woman from Lidget Green. "In that case, I have nothing to say. He is a friend to this community."

BACK in Holloway, time is getting short as the warders glance pointedly at the clock on the wall. Zoora explains quickly and animatedly that after going to Sher Azam she fell back on the only other people she knew in Bradford - the criminal associates of his brother. One night, facing eviction once again, exhausted by Azam's relentless demands for sex, and publicly humiliated by him, she asked a local gangster whether he could have Azam beaten up to give her a few days' respite from him. When she met the man again he said he had decided it would be better to kill Azam because he would place himself in less danger. Zoora agreed and handed over all her money and jewellery as payment. Later that evening, Azam rang to say he knew what she was up to - the man had taped the conversation with Azam's prior knowledge. On the advice of yet another man, Zoora - who expected to be killed - ran to the police, inventing the story that the hitman had raped her in the hope that he would be arrested. Azam also went to the police - to report that Zoora had conspired to murder him.

In the end all parties were rounded up by the police and appeared the following day in court. Zoora remembers that the magistrate was bemused by all these noisy Asians counter-accusing each other of rape and threats to kill and conspiracy to murder, and, unable to get to the bottom of the fracas, bound all three over for one year.

Rather than leave her alone after this incident, Zoora says Azam became increasingly obsessed with humiliating and terrifying her, with the help of his associates. Around this time she contemplated suicide - not for the first time - but could not carry it through for fear of what would happen to her children. Anti-depressants and painkillers were, by this time, a continuous element of her life.

In 1992, Zoora bought arsenic in Pakistan - which, she says, relatives told her could in small doses make a man temporarily impotent. She says that putting tiny amounts in his food gave her a month's freedom from sex that February, but that his impotence caused him to beat her so badly she was hospitalised.

By April, Zoora was at snapping point. "I was used as a mattress by all the men in the community," she says. She became convinced that Azam now had sexual designs on her daughters, and despite marrying one of them off quickly to Pakistan, lived in constant fear that the other could be in danger. She upped the dose of arsenic, placing it in some halva sweets. "I didn't care whether he lived or died," she says.

Azam died but doctors found nothing suspicious until his wife, suspecting foul play, brought a bag of his vomit to the police. Azam's body was exhumed and the arsenic discovered. Zoora went to prison for 20 years.

ZOORA SHAH's children, who have chosen to remain anonymous in this story, have stood firmly by their mother. "It rips us apart to visit her in prison and then to leave her," they say. "We are not justifying what she did, but she only wanted to give us a normal upbringing and to protect us. She's not a threat to anybody - she's such a kind person and it's not fair; it's not only her who's getting punished. We love her."

It was while she was in Durham prison that the Southall Black Sisters came to hear of Zoora's case. A fellow prisoner had heard about Kiranjit Alhuwalia, an Asian woman who had murdered her husband after years of domestic violence and who was eventually set free after her verdict was reduced to manslaughter. The Sisters had been instrumental in Alhuwalia's release and the fellow prisoner wrote to them for help. They visited Zoora and engaged lawyers to begin an appeal process. Rohit Sanghvi, the lawyer who acted for Alhuwalia and for Sara Thornton, a white woman who had also killed her husband after years of violence, now hopes also to overturn Zoora's verdict in an appeal which is finally to be heard in the High Court on 30 March.

Kiranjit Alhuwalia will be at that hearing. "When I heard her story, I knew I had to be involved," she says. "He was blackmailing her, beating her for years and years, using her as a prostitute. Then he turned his dirty eyes on her children. That is more than any mother can bear. I remember I was called a murderer. Now people call me a battered wife." Whether Zoora manages to transcend the labels attached to her by her family, her community and by the justice system is ultimately for the court to decide.