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Honour killings scandal returns

The bodies of three girls who were victims of "honour killings" are exhumed as human rights workers demand an investigation.

Human rights activists hold a protest over
Human rights activists hold a protest over "honour killings".

ISLAMABAD // The dead bodies of three girls who were buried alive in "honour killings" in Pakistan were exhumed yesterday after human rights workers demanded an investigation into their murders. The three teenage girls were shot and then buried in a ditch in July after they tried to marry the husbands of their choice. The incident was only highlighted at the weekend after a senator justified the murders as being part of tribal tradition. It has stoked horror among urban, middle-class Pakistanis. Politicians are now scurrying to condemn the act after the government initially chose to ignore it. The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) opened an investigation on Monday into the killings. Authorities said they have arrested three relatives of the women in connection with their deaths. "Police arrested four culprits, including the brother of two of the slain girls, two days ago," said Asif Nawaz Warraich, the provincial police chief.

However, human rights workers say the tribal leader who ordered the killings has not been arrested because his brother is a PPP politician. The situation surrounding the deaths, and those of two older women, are not yet clear as the incident took place in a remote tribal area of Baluchistan, Pakistan's poorest province. The killings occurred after the women defied tribal elders and asked a civil court to marry the younger girls. The elders initially refused the girls permission to marry. Human rights groups said the women had set off for the civil court from their remote village of Baba Kot, in Jafarrabad district, 450 kilometres southeast of the provincial capital, Quetta, when they were stopped by a tribal leader and six armed men belonging to their own Umrani tribe. "After reaching the deserted area of Nau Abadi, the tribal leader and his six companions took the three younger women out of the jeep and beat them before allegedly opening fire with their guns. The girls were seriously injured but were still alive at that moment. The leader and his accomplices hurled them into a wide ditch and covered them with earth and stones," a spokesman for the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said in a statement.

He said the two older women had protested that the girls were still alive and tried to stop it from happening, but then they too were pushed into the ditch. The police chief said he could only confirm the murder of the three girls, who he said were aged between 16 and 18 years old. "After completing the burial, they fired several shots into the air so that no one would come close," the AHRC statement said. The statement said the bodies of the girls had been "desecrated by the wild animals, and the provincial government has done nothing to provide a decent burial for these victims of honour killings".

"In fact, the authorities have spent more time and effort in trying to identify those who provided the information of murders than they have in trying to identify the murderers," he said. It is considered a grave crime against a man's honour in some conservative regions of Pakistan if women marry without consent or have an affair. Women and their alleged lovers have been shot, stoned to death, or as has happened in some remote areas, the woman has been raped, as punishment even for the suspicion of having an affair.

In 2005, Pervez Musharraf, the then president, signed into law a bill introducing the death penalty for honour killings. But no one has been ever been sentenced to death, and those who have been jailed have since been released. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that at 636 women were victims of honour crimes nationwide last year. The custom is also often misused. People wrongfully accuse their enemies of such "crimes" in order to angle for settlements on land disputes or to jettison unwanted wives. The killing of the three girls from Baba Kot may not have gained notoriety had a Baluch senator not angrily dismissed a parliamentary debate about their murders. "These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them," Israr Ullah Zehri, the senator, told the senate. "Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid." His remarks riled his fellow parliamentarians and prompted a series of low-scale protests that led to the opening of a police investigation. "We condemn this barbaric act," said Mohammed Ibrahim, a senator for the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party. "This is against Islam, against humanity and against civilised culture." Sadiq Umrani, a PPP provincial minister from Baluchistan, whose brother has been named by human rights groups in connection with the crime, confirmed the incident but denied his or his brother's involvement. "I challenge the human rights groups to prove this baseless allegation. The incident happened but we have no link with it," said Mr Umrani. iwilkinson@thenational.ae