All suspicious deaths involving young Asian women and men are to be re-examined for evidence of so-called honour killings, the Crown Prosecution Service announced yesterday at a special conference aimed at combating the scandal.
Police and prosecutors have identified 117 cases, including suicides and disappearances, that are believed to have been murders committed for, or by, families who believed their girls had disgraced them or refused a forced marriage.
One Asian teenager from West Yorkshire is believed to have been killed by her family because a love ballad was dedicated to her on the radio by a suspected boyfriend.
Suicide rates among British Asian girls and women aged 16 to 24 are nearly three times higher than the national average, possibly driven by fear of dishonour and their families' reaction. The scale of the problem is only beginning to emerge and the CPS and homicide detectives fear many murders have gone undetected. There were 12 prosecutions for honour killings in the London area last year, the highest number on record.
The CPS has yet to finalise plans for the national review of inquest cases, but Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said: "There is a significant level of crime which needs to be unearthed, investigated and prosecuted. It's about reassuring people that when they come forward as witnesses we will look after them." He added: "All societies practise violence against women and we don't want to lose sight of that, but we're talking here about crimes of murder in dreadful circumstances. There is no defence of honour to this kind of crime; when they are uncovered these crimes will be prosecuted relentlessly."
The Home Office is considering a new law that will make it an offence, punishable by imprisonment, for anyone to force someone into marriage. A forced marriage, unlike the traditional system of arranged marriages, is when one or both partners do not give their full and free consent. This can include families placing emotional, as well as physical pressure on their daughter or son.
Most British cases involve Muslims from south Asian families, but the police have also dealt with forced marriages involving Turkish, Roma, Bosnian, Kosovan, west African and Middle Eastern families. Delegates at the conference in London also heard that a specialist Foreign Office unit dealt with about 250 cases of British women forced into marriage every year and rescued about 70, many of whom were provided with a police guard.
Heather Harvey, a case worker for the Foreign Office, said they had dealt with women and men aged from 11 to 39, but the majority were aged 15 to 24. The women were often raped by their new "husbands" and some can be forced to have genital mutilation, also described as circumcision.
Her unit offers confidential advice to young people who believe they are about to be taken abroad and forced into a marriage, usually with an older man they have never, or rarely met. In many cases they are advised to leave home, or use anti-harassment laws to prevent them being taken overseas. The Foreign Office also has safe houses where they can be sheltered.
When a woman goes abroad and is told she is going to be married against her will the Foreign Office unit does, in extreme circumstances, perform "rescue missions", Ms Harvey said. Every year, 60 to 70 young people were rescued and brought back to Britain.
"In every case where someone runs away, there is the potential for an honour killing," Ms Harvey added. "This is not about culture or religion; this is about human rights abuses."
The West Yorkshire police force and a national support group handle a further 300 cases of forced marriage a year. But the full scale of the problem is not known because national statistics are not kept.
Nazir Afzal, the CPS director in west London, said the 117 cases being re-examined covered 10 years. "In many of these we just don't know who is responsible," he said. "We want to learn the lessons from these cases and make sure future prosecutions can be improved. We hope that someone, somewhere, will tell police that they saw what happened and we can finally secure justice." He said several ethnic minority community leaders had refused to attend the conference, saying they were more concerned about the issue of racial abuse.
Commander Andy Baker, head of Scotland Yard's homicide unit, said there was anecdotal evidence that some communities or extended families staged informal "courts" to decide the fate of young people considered to have dishonoured their families. Police define an honour killing as a murder motivated by perceived dishonour to a family or community.
Raped woman was murdered for bringing shame on family
The full scale of so-called honour killings has only started to emerge in the past few years. One of the first cases that alerted authorities to the issue was that of Rukhsana Naz, aged 19. She was murdered by her mother and brother after she became pregnant by her boyfriend.
Shakeela Naz, 45, and her eldest son, Shazad, 22, were tried and jailed for life in 1999 for holding down Rukhsana, who was seven months pregnant at the time, and strangling her.
Rukhsana's crime had been to fall in love with a childhood sweetheart and to harbour hopes of a divorce from the man whom she married at the age of 15. As the husband waited in Pakistan for permission to travel to Britain, his teenaged wife had an intimate affair with the boyfriend whom she had dated since school and became pregnant.
Another case highlighted at the conference involved a young woman who was raped by a stranger in 2002 in Newham, east London.
The victim contacted the police about the attack, but was understood to have been killed by family members who believed that the incident had dishonoured their family name. The suspected murderers have fled Britain and no charges have been brought.
Love song was kiss of death for missing girl
A love ballad dedicated to an Asian teenager on the radio is thought to have been the catalyst that led to a young woman being murdered abroad by a killer hired by her family.
The family of the woman, aged 18 or 19, were tipped off about their daughter's possible romance after hearing the dedication to her on an Asian radio station. The victim was taken overseas, probably to Pakistan where her family has relatives, and is believed to have been murdered. The police are thought to have been contacted by a friend of the woman when she did not return from Pakistan or remain in contact.
Despite an investigation by West Yorkshire Police, no one has been charged and detectives have run out of leads, partly because few people have co-operated. The woman's extended family have remained in Britain.
Nazir Afzal, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "Nobody is being helpful, as is so often in these cases. She disappeared in circumstances that suggest she was murdered."Reuse content