Femicide in Gilgit-Baltistan – Part I

Long read: In-depth narrative report

By Shahana Shah

               “I have made this mistake,” Nazir Ahmed says in a video interview. “I raped the girl in the bathroom. Then I hanged her.”

This is the vocabulary of the patriarchy. Raping a girl, killing her and then disguising the crime as suicide – all these are summarized as a ‘mistake’.

This mistake, as termed by the perpetrator, occurred in June 2021. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) were shocked to hear reports of the suicide of a minor girl, around 12 years of age, in village Kochdeh of Ishkomen valley. Suicide seemed to have reached endemic proportions in the region. The situation was truly alarming now that even children were taking their own lives. What could have pushed a little girl towards the unimaginable step of committing suicide? Nothing in this case, as it turned out, because this was no suicide.

The police revealed within days that they were investigating the case as a rape-murder based on the medico-legal examination and autopsy report. “The doctor who conducted the autopsy played a commendable role despite facing pressure from some powerful people,” shares Mumtaz Gohar, a child rights activist previously associated with Sahil and Child Rights Movement, organizations that work for child protection on a national level. He met the victim’s family, offered his support and facilitated access to free legal aid through Sahil. He cautioned the victim’s father about potential pressure from community members or religious leaders for ‘sulah’ or compromise, as had happened in some other rape cases. “The father wanted justice for his daughter. He was not willing to settle,” Mr. Gohar says.

The police detained a number of suspects from the village, tested them for traces of evidence and obtained their physical remand. Nazir Ahmed, the victim’s close relative and neighbor, soon emerged as the main suspect. He had been observing her and knew when she would be alone at home. According to Sahil’s report Cruel Numbers 2021, statistics on child sexual abuse show that acquaintances are most likely to be involved in abuse, along with service providers and family members. Out of 3, 852 incidences of abuse reported from all over the country last year, 92 cases involved murder after sexual abuse.

Mumtaz Gohar emphasizes the importance of timely reporting and medical examination, preferably within 12 to 24 hours of rape. Unfortunately, challenges were faced by the police in collection and dispatch of evidence to a forensic laboratory in Lahore. The family had to be convinced to allow exhumation of the body for fresh samples. They were persuaded with difficulty.

A breakthrough came when the accused confessed to his crime on video. He was charged under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code for murder and Section 376 for rape. Nazir Ahmed was convicted in August 2022. The sessions court awarded him the death penalty. The victim’s family breathed a sigh of relief.

The case has reached its logical conclusion. Yet, a conviction at district and sessions court level is not a guarantee that a murderer would actually be executed. Loopholes remain in the form of ‘compromise’ and ‘forgiveness’. The convict has the right to appeal in the Chief Court. Despite these apprehensions, Mumtaz Gohar is hopeful. “The decision is very clear,” he says. “There were 14 witnesses. Their statements and other evidences were clear. Even if he is not hanged, he cannot escape a life sentence.”

A year of struggle by a poor family to get justice for their daughter resulted in a decision applauded by all. Activists, lawyers and the police all played their roles. What a criminal deemed his ‘mistake’ was declared a heinous crime by state and society.  Ghizer police have been successful over the last few years in proving multiple reported suicides of women as actual murders. In the Kochdeh case, the Senior Superintendent Police Ghizer Abdul Majeed took a particular interest in ensuring a thorough investigation. “The victim’s father said to me ‘She is not just my daughter, but also yours’. It was a matter of personal honor for me,” the SSP told the media with feeling.

Deputy Speaker of Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly Nazir Ahmed recently announced that GB government had allocated Rs 50 million in the Annual Development Program 2022-23 for prevention of suicides, and that law enforcement was conducting autopsies in all cases reported as suicide.

While acknowledging these improvements, Assistant Inspector General (Establishment) Tahira Yasub recognizes that there would always be need for better resources for the police, including financial, logistical and human. Capacity building is also important as newer forms of crime appear, such as cyber crime, making it imperative to help officers keep up their skills with emerging technologies.

Social and procedural hurdles

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) Israr Uddin shares that around 25 percent of suicides reported so far in 2022 later turned out to be murders during police investigation. “This is a much higher rate than previously thought,” he says.  

Motive for women’s murder is rooted in misogynistic norms and the patriarchal family’s desire to punish any perceived slight to their name. On the other hand, once a crime has been committed, structural issues may hinder even the most dedicated police officer’s efforts. Major weaknesses include the absence of a forensic laboratory in GB and specifically designated medico-legal officers. “It is imperative to address these gaps to ensure scientific investigation in these cases,” Mr. Israr Uddin insists.

The public’s awareness of proper complaint methods and police procedure is murky. In some minor cases of domestic violence, women are reluctant to pursue the case formally even after reaching out to the police. They also do not understand the difference between cognizable and non-cognizable offences. In the absence of a shelter or Darul Aman in all of GB, women’s police stations serve as temporary shelters for women fleeing forced marriage or honor killing. The Deputy Commissioner/District Magistrate declares the police station a temporary Darul Aman in order to provide women a safe haven.

AIG (Establishment) Tahira Yasub assures that the police are working under strict levels of accountability. “Every formally lodged complaint becomes part of our management system and due action is bound to be taken on it,” she says. Efforts are also reported to be underway for the authorization of a forensic laboratory in GB.

As per the statistics (2017-2021) shared on the official website of GB Police Department[1], recorded attempts to murder have been decreasing in the region over the last five years. During this period, murder rate was at its lowest (39 cases) in 2021 while crime recorded as ‘honor killing’ showed a five-year peak at 66 cases. This begs the question whether honor killing is regarded as a distant type of crime, instead of a category within murder. The highest reported incidence of rape was in 2018 (4 cases), decreasing every year till only one case was recorded in 2021. Only one case of gang rape was recorded during the last five years. Fifty-six suicide cases were recorded in 2017, decreasing every year since then, with 17 cases recorded in 2021. It is possible that better investigation of reported suicides has helped properly categorize them as murders, bringing the number of suicides down. While it is appreciable that GB police is providing public access to these figures, analysis of crime trends would benefit from the inclusion of more variables such as gender of perpetrators and victims, and district-wise segregation of the information.

While some murders are disguised as suicides, there are also cases in which culprits present themselves at the police station after having killed in the name of honor. A senior woman police officer who served in GB for a number of years recalls two honor killing cases from Baseen and Kashrote localities of Gilgit city. “The modus operandi in these cases is that the family tries to catch together the woman and the person she is involved with. They are cornered and then killed together. A case of mistaken identity once resulted in the murder of a taxi driver who had no involvement with the woman in question,” she recounts.

On the one hand she observed reluctance from families of victims to pursue honor killing cases, and even attempts to hide the facts, on the other hand she found that “GB police is very thinly resourced. Officials sometimes undertake operational and investigative duties simultaneously. They also need better sensitization on dealing with victims of serious crimes like rape, and about securing all available trace evidence, whether hair and skin samples, finger prints, loose fabric threads, or anything at all that can be of evidentiary value. When they are provided equipment such as forensic kits, their proficiency in using them properly should also be built.”

Currently forensic samples of murder cases of GB are sent to Pakistan Forensic Science Agency (PFSA), Lahore or to Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), Peshawar. Long distances, costly transportation and risk to chain of custody of evidence are serious issues. Additionally, the bulk of samples from within Punjab awaiting analysis is enormous in comparison, since the entirety of total FIRs from all over GB hardly match those registered at any single police station in a big city like Lahore.

There is little awareness on court procedure and the importance of crucial documentary evidence. District and Sessions Judge Amna Zamir Shah points out that doctors are not well versed in proper presentation of findings before the court during cross examination. Without the crucial role of medical examiners, the line between suicide and murder can remain blurred.

Judge Shah remembers being presented with heaps of files declared as suicides while she was posted in Ghizer. A thorough reading would soon present indications of foul play. She would send the files back, marking them for reinvestigation.  These so-called suicides were later established through autopsy to be murders. Furthermore, it was revealed that some of the victims were pregnant.

               In a career spanning over 15 years, first as a lawyer and then as the lone female judge in all of GB, Amna Zamir Shah has seen her share of disconcerting scenes in the courtroom. When male lawyers huddle close together, the woman lawyer present usually stands aside due to gendered etiquette norms and is unable to participate. The men may not even be aware that their domineering body language infringes upon the personal space of their women colleagues. “How can a woman lawyer represent a client when she feels harassed herself?” Judge Shah asks rhetorically.

In one case she was hearing, a fifteen-year-old boy had been killed by the family of a girl because of what they deemed to be his ‘bad intentions’ for her. On the day of the verdict, they brought along guns to the court for celebratory aerial firing in anticipation of an acquittal. There was no cause for celebration. The accused were convicted.

Does she face pressure from powerful allies of criminals and the risk of retaliation? “Of course,” she concedes. She has faced death threats. She knows that having an armed guard with her is no guarantee of safety. “But I am not afraid of anyone!” she declares.

One step forward, two steps back – A daughter’s ordeal

Eighteen-year-old Sadia[2] is from district Ghizer. Her parents had married for love, but her father already had a wife and children. Both wives and all the siblings initially lived together but later split into two separate households. Sadia’s older half-brother shifted to Gilgit for work. She herself moved to her maternal grandparents’ house in another village to attend school. She would visit her mother during the holidays.

“I went home in July 2018,” she recounts. “My mother told me that my half-brother’s attitude towards her was bad. He was also not happy about my moving to my grandparents’ village. We would hear that he was in the village but he wouldn’t come to meet us. One night my father was in Gilgit and it was just me, my little sister and our mother at home. My little sister hung a curtain in one corner of the room and we both played behind it. We turned the pedestal fan on. My mother lay down on the other side of the room and went to sleep with her back to us. That was last time I saw her alive.”

Waking up the next day, the sisters discovered that their mother had been shot during the night “My father used to neglect his first family. My mother would try to persuade him to take care of them so that they would not feel ignored. My father told the police that he suspected his brothers and older son to be involved in the murder,” Sadia recounts.  

The suspects were arrested. Sadia’s half-brother confessed to the murder. He told the police where he had hidden the gun. Sadia appeared in court multiple times to give testimony over a period of two years. The defense tried to prove that she, 14 years old at the time, was complicit in the crime because she stated that she had not heard the gunshot. “It was difficult to look my brother in the eye in court,” she remembers. “At one point he gestured to me to stop giving my statement. I struggled hard to be strong.”

Encouraged by the judge, lawyers and her relatives, Sadia thought that the prosecution would win the case. Everyone told her that the murderer would get the death penalty or would be imprisoned for life. She was in for a shock. “Finally, I was told that we were going for the last hearing,” she says. “When I got to court, I heard for the first time that my father and the men of my mother’s family had decided to settle the case in return for monetary compensation. Our lawyers and some community members were also there. They asked me and my grandmother to sign a document declaring that we had forgiven the murderer.

“I sank down to the floor and started to cry loudly. I refused to sign anything. Our lawyers and relatives told me that I should obey my father. When I didn’t listen they started to berate me that I was acting like an illiterate person and a disobedient daughter. I retorted that I would not obey my father in this. They pressurized my grandmother, telling her not to be stubborn. They forced her to sign the document, while she was crying. The case was closed. My half-brother paid 3 million rupees as compensation with support from his uncles. The money was supposed to be distributed among my grandfather, my father and us sisters. But I don’t know anything about where that money ended up. Now the murderer is free. My mother is gone. My brother and uncles who supported him seem happy. Nothing bad has happened to them.”

It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. ‘Maafi’, ‘sulah’, ‘razni nama’ – the meanings of these words have been turned on their heads. The value of a woman’s life is erased with coerced signatures. Why do victims’ families give up the fight for justice?

District and Sessions Judge Amna Zamir Shah has disallowed ‘sulah’ or compromise at the bail stage in various cases. Yet she knows that settlements can happen at any stage further down the road, as cases move from court to court. Honor killing is considered to fall under the category of fasad-fil-arz – offences that spread social injustice and propagate crimes. In theory these are non-bailable offences. Still, loopholes are found. If not anything, the defense only has to wear down the plaintiffs’ patience.

Cumbersome legal procedures fatigue the witnesses. Cases stretch over decades, until the witnesses start to forget details or are pressurized to retract their statements. The longer the trial continues, the more likely the plaintiffs are to become mentally and financially exhausted. Their initial anger and pain is dulled as the years pass. They become stuck in an unending cycle of hearings. They may face pressure from the community and threats from the suspect’s side. If the plaintiff’s financial and social standing is weak, they may crumble under the stress. When this point is reached, Judge Shah says, the men from both sides gather to discuss matters and reach a compromise or ‘sulah’ – no one asks the women what they think. “The defense uses delaying tactics to gain time,” she says. “This was also observed in the well-known murders of Shahzeb Khan and Noor Mukadam.”

Part II will be posted tomorrow.

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