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Missing wife sparks honour killing fears

Family accuses Foreign Office of institutional racism over reluctance to investigate British woman's disappearance in India

Surjit Kaur Athwal was planning to change her life by leaving her husband and setting up home alone with her two young children. The devoted mother had already started divorce proceedings when she mysteriously disappeared on a trip to India for a family wedding.

That was over four years ago. Since then her family have campaigned tirelessly to discover the truth of what happened to the 26-year-old. They are convinced she is the victim of an honour killing - a theory that is supported by the police.

But Mrs Athwal's body has never been found, and no charges have ever been brought amid accusations that the Foreign Office is institutionally racist in its handling of the case.

Her brother, Jagdeesh Singh Dhillon, told The Independent on Sunday there are stark disparities in the way his sister's case had been handled compared with those of other Britons, including Lucie Blackman, murdered in Japan, and Kirsty Jones, found strangled in a hostel in Thailand.

"Jack Straw [the Foreign Secretary] won't even agree to meet my family or intervene in the case," said Mr Dhillon, who works for the Race Equality Council in Slough, Berkshire.

"He intervened with the Japanese police for Lucie Blackman, the Thai police for Kirsty Jones, and met their families. However, he has failed to do anything like that for Surjit."

Mrs Athwal, a customs officer at Heathrow airport, was last seen in December 1998 when she flew to the Punjab in India with her mother-in-law, leaving her two children behind with her husband at their home in Hayes, Middlesex. Her return air ticket has never been used and the last purchase Mrs Athwal made with her credit card was a bottle of perfume on the outbound flight.

Earlier this month, 12 MPs signed a motion calling on Mr Straw to intervene personally in Mrs Athwal's case. More than 3,000 people have already handed in a petition to Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, calling for a full investigation.

Mrs Athwal's family have pressed the British and Indian authorities to carry out an inquiry into the fate of Mrs Athwal. The Foreign Office took 21 months to contact the Indian authorities, and Mr Dhillon said he is angry at the "apathetic and unequal" approach taken by the British government.

"Surjit's disappearance came as a thunderbolt to the family," said Mr Dhillon, who has spent more than four years trying to obtain a meeting with the Foreign Secretary.

"It is incomprehensible that she would abandon her children, especially her baby, who was nine months old at the time. We have had to go through a tortuous process to get the attention of the British government. What is it about us as Britons that makes our case so unpalatable to the Government?"

The Metropolitan Police has also offered a £10,000 reward for information about Mrs Athwal's disappearance, which is being treated as a murder inquiry by the Met's serious crime group.

This follows increasing concern about the rise in "honour killings" in which women - usually from Asia or the Middle-East - are murdered by their families, often for having affairs, refusing to take part in arranged marriages or for going out without their husband's permission.

Officers have been liaising with community leaders to gain information about this custom which is on the increase, according to police.

Detectives arrested Sukh-dev Athwal, Mrs Athwal's husband, as well as her mother-in-law and two other family members in connection with her disappearance, but they were released without charge.

Mr Athwal, who lives with the couple's two children aged five and 13, has denied any involvement in his wife's disappearance. He has now divorced his wife, with whom he had an arranged marriage, on the grounds that she deserted him.

The body of the missing woman has never been found, but her family have received a string of anonymous phone calls since her disappearance.

The calls have been made in London and the Punjab and they occur approximately every six months. The family said the male caller is "anxious to see justice done" and has told how Mrs Athwal was strangled by two people very early in the morning.

They have also received an anonymous tip-off that her body was dumped in the River Ravi in India. Police investigators traced one of the calls to a phone box in Cranford, west London, close to the home where Mrs Athwal lived, but have yet to establish the identity of the caller.

Mrs Athwal's family said the investigation into her disappearance had been plagued with "lies and contradictory statements".

It was hampered by the initial reluctance of Indian police to meet detectives from the Met. Then one of the senior officers in the Punjab provided a statement which he later admitted was untrue. This had included the claim that he had taken Mrs Athwal to Delhi airport and that she had stayed at his house.

The Foreign Office said every attempt had been made to help Mrs Athwal's family. A spokeswoman said the British High Commission had written to the Indian authorities to ask them to refer the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation.