Grandmother jailed for daughter-in-law's murder

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A grandmother was jailed for life today for ordering the murder of her cheating daughter-in-law.

Bachan Athwal, 70, was told by an Old Bailey judge that she must serve a minimum term of 20 years in prison before she is eligible for release.

The court heard that her daughter-in-law Surjit Athwal disappeared "off the surface of the earth" after going to a family wedding with her in India in December 1998.

Bachan, a mother of six and grandmother of 16, ordered Surjit's death at a family meeting after discovering her daughter-in-law, a Heathrow Customs officer, had been having an affair and wanted a divorce.

Her body was never found but Bachan boasted to her family that she had arranged for her brother to strangle her and throw the corpse into a river.

It was years before frightened relatives came forward to police, giving them the evidence they needed to charge Bachan and her son Sukhdave, Surjit's husband.

Bachan and Sukhdave Athwal, 43, both of Willow Tree Lane, Hayes, west London, were found guilty of murder in July.

Sukhdave was also jailed for life today, with a minimum term of 27 years in jail.

Bachan stood with her hands clasped together and her head bowed as she received the sentence.

Judge Giles Forrester told mother and son: "The pair of you decided that the so-called honour of your family members was worth more than the life of this young woman.

"You, Bachan, were head of that family. I have no doubt you exercised a controlling influence over other family members."

The victim's brother said the Athwals tried to eliminate all traces of Surjit, telling visitors to their home not to mention her name, and her children, who were aged nine months and six years when she disappeared, that she had gone away.

Jagdeesh Singh, in a victim impact statement read in court, said: "In life, as in death, Surjit was the victim of the Athwals' venomous anger.

"Surjit's reputation and disappearance was rubbished both to us and amongst the local Sikh community in Hayes and Southall.

"Bachan and Sukhdave and the Athwal family sought to rid the world around them of all discussion and mention of Surjit.

"All signs, memories and photos of her were removed from Surjit's own home. Relatives visiting the Athwals were told never to mention Surjit. Sukhdave proceeded to replace her with new wives and partners."

Surjit, who would now have been 36, had "high hopes of getting out of her tragic marriage", Mr Singh said.

"Surjit was punished by the Athwals for standing up to their suffocating control and being assertive. The Athwals' perception was that she belonged to the Athwals and everything was to be done the Athwal way.

"She had no rights, not even to complain."

Surjit's disappearance left her family devastated and "stricken with anxiety". They were "disorientated" by the fact no body was ever found.

Her family said they battled with the "incompetence and disinterest" of the Indian police, the "apathy" of the Foreign Office and the "slow" initial response from the Met.

"The Athwals had managed to murder my sister and it appeared that with their manipulation and planning, they were going to get away with it. Surjit's murderers were going about their life as if nothing had happened."

Following the murder, Bachan and Sukhdave "set about creating a fog of malicious lies and misinformation about Surjit", claiming she was "prone to going off with men" and probably with a boyfriend in India, Mr Singh said.

"Remorselessly and cruelly, they both fed us lie after lie, all in a sadistic attempt to cover their crime."