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Last Updated: Monday, 5 February 2007, 16:59 GMT
'Honour killers' expect to walk free
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Bahawalnagar district, eastern Pakistan

The Maachhi brothers; Mohammad Aslam (left) and Maqbool Ahmad
Mohammad Aslam (left) and Maqbool Ahmad
They don't look like murderers - but the two frail-looking, lower-caste brothers in the village of Khatan in eastern Pakistan are self-confessed killers.

Mohammad Aslam and Maqbool Ahmad admit killing their sister Elahisen and a neighbour, Ghulam Nabi Shah, when they found them together in Elahisen's room on the night of 27 January.

They smashed their skulls with a brick and then strangled them with a rope. Then they gave themselves up to the police saying they had redeemed their family honour.

The event has a familiar ring to it.

According to official figures, more than 2,700 women and about 1,300 men have been killed in honour-related offences in Pakistan since 2001.

Human rights organisations put the number much higher, saying that most honour crimes are never reported to the police.

'Menace'

Sexual indiscretion on the part of men is seldom treated as dishonourable in Pakistani families, but women are expected to be chaste.

Blood stains on the wall of Elahisen's room.

As such, the killing of women is hardly ever reported because the perpetrators are usually close male relatives.

Men, on the other hand, are killed by the family of the "dishonoured" woman and their families are more likely to seek justice from the courts.

And this is the dilemma that Mohammad Aslam and Maqbool Ahmad face.

Ghulam Nabi Shah, the man that they killed, belongs to a family of Syeds, said to be descendents of Prophet Mohammad and treated with reverence by rural folk.

Mr Shah's paternal cousin and step father, Syed Akhtar Hussain Shah, has lodged a complaint with the police claiming that he personally saw four people, including the two brothers, murder the victims.

The brothers themselves belong to the Maachhi caste, traditional menial labourers.

Despite this social difference, the people in Khatan, 30km north-east of the town of Bahawalnagar, appear to side with the Maachhis for what the local councillor, Ahmad Riaz Sukhera, calls "obvious reasons".

District police chief Zafar Abbas Bukhari
They are not so dumb as to repeat that confession before the judge
District police chief Zafar Abbas Bukhari

"Mr Shah murdered a village bully more than 10 years ago and became a hero. Then he started jumping into people's houses to sleep with their women. Everyone felt threatened. The Maachhis have rid them of the menace," he says.

But the Maachhi brothers took a long time to "redeem their honour".

"People had been taunting us about Elahisen's affair for a year. We knew that Ghulam Nabi Shah visited her at nights. But he was six feet tall and always carried a gun. We were scared of him," says Mohammad Aslam.

Those who taunted the Maachhi brothers are now all praise for them.

"They have restored their family honour - the deceased deserved to die," says Ghulam Abbas Bhatti, a resident of Khatan village.

The brothers themselves are oozing confidence and dignity even in fetters and handcuffs. "We have done no wrong and the law will not treat us unkindly," says Mohammad Aslam.

Legal experts believe the brothers may be right.

"They have confessed to the murders before the police, but they are not so dumb as to repeat that confession before the judge," says the Bahawalnagar district police chief, Zafar Abbas Bukhari.

Loopholes

"Honour" killers in Pakistan have several cushions within and outside the law, say experts.

Only son of Ghulam Nabi Shah (left) with a cousin, Akhtar Hussain Shah, the complainant in the case
Ghulam Nabi Shah left an only son (left) from a divorce 10 years ago

Popular opinion in Pakistan has usually remained sympathetic to the perpetrators of such crimes.

This is also reflected in the attitude of the police and judges who are often biased in the offender's favour.

In addition, successive governments have created legal loopholes by mixing Islamic and British colonial laws.

Even the original British law of 1860 contained a clause that prescribed leniency in cases of "sudden and grave provocation".

In 1990, the government introduced the Islamic law of retribution and blood money that allowed the aggrieved party to pardon an offender either "for the sake of God" or in return for an agreed sum of money.

Many believe that this law privatised crime and undermined the principle that crime was an offence against the state.

It also annulled the provocation clause, but judges continued to lend weight to the concept of justifiable anger in honour crimes during the 1990s.

Inspiration for this came from a judgement of the Federal Shariat Court, a parallel court created by the military government of Gen Ziaul Haq in 1980s to interpret Islamic laws.

The judgement laid down that the killing of a person who attempted to approach another family's woman with dishonourable intentions could be considered an act of self defence.

In January 2005, the parliament finally defined honour killing and amended some laws to bring the offence on a par with wilful murder.

Even in the event of an out-of-court settlement under the Islamic laws, judges are now bound to punish an honour killing with no less than 10 years' imprisonment.

Few convictions

But figuring out ways to get around the system is a favourite pastime of people in Pakistan. And the villagers sitting in the Maachhi brothers' courtyard are doing just that.

Villager Ghulam Abbas Bhatti (facing) says the Maachhi brothers have done a good job
Many villagers appear to side with the Macchi brothers

They believe Ghulam Nabi Shah's stepfather would be willing to accept 200,000 rupees (about $3,200) as his price to forgive and forget. "He was a pain in the neck for him as well," says one villager.

An equal sum offered to the police may persuade them to withhold the evidence they have collected, they speculate.

Villagers say the Maachhi brothers can raise up to $8,000 by selling a little under two acres of land they own.

The drift of the conversation is obvious.

If witnesses retract their evidence and the police show a lack of interest, the Maachhi brothers could simply deny the charges and the court would be left with no option but to acquit them.

And this is not mere speculation, considering the conviction rate in honour crimes is less than 5%.

As for Elahisen, the only woman in the case, the Maachhi brothers need have no fear about any of their own family complaining about her murder.


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