Pakistan tackles honour killings after student death

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The Independent Online

Unlike Shakespeare's Juliet, who died by her own hand in the classic romantic tragedy, Afsheen Musarrat was allegedly killed by her father for love and honour.

He confessed to strangling the 23-year-old computer student after she eloped with her college sweetheart last month, and claimed that only her death could recover the family's sullied reputation.

"I gave her sleeping pills in a cup of tea and then strangled her with her scarf," Musarrat Sahu admitted to police in a signed statement this week. "Look sir, when I have no honour, I have nothing else," he said. "Honour is the only thing a man has."

Handcuffed in the police station, Mr Sahu, a lawyer, recalled Afsheen's final moments with anguish. "I can still hear her screams; she was my favourite daughter. I want to destroy my hands and end my life," he sobbed.

Hassan Mustafa, her lover, was also the bride's second cousin and has been hiding since her murder on 12 November. Feudal custom demands that he also be killed for defying the clan. Police are trying to find him and put him in protective custody.

More than 450 honour killings have been recorded this year but the majority go unreported. Although illegal, these murders are rarely prosecuted, because police are reluctant to meddle in family affairs.

Brothers, fathers, or uncles routinely kill women who appear to have flouted the strict tribal code, and they often stand to gain money or property instead of punishment for their crime. Islamic law allows a victim's heirs to pardon the murderer in exchange for "blood money".

The case is extraordinary because the President, General Pervez Musharraf, who presents himself to the west as a moderate Muslim who protects human rights, was challenged by the local media to bring the killer to justice according to Pakistan's secular law. Once he ordered the body to be exhumed, and warned that murder charges would be pressed if post mortem analysis showed foul play, the Punjab police suddenly took an interest. An official autopsy noted bruising on her neck caused by strangulation.

Afsheen's ill-fated romance began at university, where she dated Hassan Mustafa, a distant cousin from the same village in the Punjab. There was an old rift between the relatives back home, and rumours about the pair distressed her grandfather, Allah Ditta.

A marriage with a more suitable cousin was arranged for Afsheen but she, distraught, ran off with Hassan to Rawalpindi. The family tracked them down early last month. Five days after she returned home, she was dead.

"Her family swore they would not harm her but they didn't keep their word," Hassan told reporters by telephone. "My life is in severe danger."

Allah Ditta, the family's 75-year-old patriarch, and ten others are suspected of a role in the murder, according to Hamid Mukhtar Gondal, the Multan police chief. But the grandfather says the army and police are pursuing him for political reasons.

"The girl was ill, she had a breathing problem," he told reporters. "It was because of this illness that she died." While this test case dominates headlines, several other honour killings have occurred since Afsheen's body was exhumed.

Rana Ijaz Ahmed, Human Rights Adviser to Punjab's chief minister, said, "the government will not allow anyone to torture women."

But Pakistan's parliament deferred legislation against honour killings last month, after a group of powerful lawmakers insisted it is a feudal tradition and walked out before the vote. Whatever the verdict is for Afsheen Musarraf's killer, analysts predict that feudals will continue to get away with murder.

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