ISLAMABAD // A group of Pakistani women reported to have been killed on the orders of a village council for defying honour codes are alive, a fact-finding mission informed the Supreme Court yesterday.
A jirga, or tribal assembly of elders, had sentenced four women to death after a video filmed on a mobile phone purportedly showed them clapping at a wedding along with two men in Gada village in the remote north-western Kohistan district.
The video, which was filmed three years ago, shows four women wrapped in traditional long chadders clapping. From the footage itself, it is not clear that the men and women celebrated together. Nor are the women shown dancing, but clapping while seated.
Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on Monday ordered authorities to produce the women before the court after reports emerged from the village that they had been killed for violating tribal customs that disallow mixed gatherings of men and women.
Government officials denied that the four women and one of their sisters had been killed but Pakistan's Supreme Court took up the case to check on their well-being.
The court on Wednesday sent a fact-finding mission to Kohistan, which lies 175 kilometres north of the capital, Islamabad, to ascertain the facts.
"We have met two of those girls. We could not meet three others because they live in a very remote area," said Farzana Bari, a woman-rights activist who was a member of the mission.
She also handed a video film of their meeting with the women but said they could not be brought to the court because their conservative families did not want them to appear before the court.
"It's a tribal society and they don't allow their women to appear before the strange people … I am not happy with this. They should have been brought before the court but it is the responsibility of the government to do so," she told reporters outside the court.
Mr Chaudhry directed the authorities to meet the three other women and adjourned the case until June 20.
"This incident has defamed the country in the world and government should take measures to discourage such speculations," he said.
Main Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister of Khyber-Pukhtoonkhuwa province, where Kohistan is situated, said the video was fake and was result of intra-tribal rivalry. Police claim the video, which is available on YouTube, was edited in an attempt to implicate the men and women.
"The Supreme Court must now take action against those are responsible for this forgery. They should be punished for maligning Pakistan," Mr Hussain said during a news conference in the provincial capital, Peshawar.
"The girls said they are fine. They are under no threat and they have no fear," Mr Hussain said, quoting the activist Ms Bari. "The village elders assured us that the girls would suffer no harm," he added.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who yesterday wrapped up a four-day visit to Pakistan, said while the facts have yet to be established, the allegations show the restrictions and dangers faced by many Pakistani women.
"The very low literacy rate of women and girls especially in areas such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is very worrying and calls for immediate actions and interventions," she said during a news conference.
She said the case also illustrated the problem of parallel justice systems such as jirgas, in which key protections contained in the constitution do not apply.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says at least 943 women and girls were murdered last year after being accused of defaming their family's honour.