Blood and Honor
Muhammad Afzal Kohistani’s family members pray at his grave (Picture Credit: Umar Bacha)
It was May 2012, exactly seven years ago, when a grainy mobile clip of four women clapping and singing inside a dimly lit dirt room and boy dancing started doing the rounds in the remote and ultra-conservative Kohistan region of northwestern Pakistan.
The grainy video, filmed in a dimly lit room with a bare floor seems pretty innocuous; however, it left a trail of blood and vengeance in its wake. Three of the four girls seen in the video and four brothers of the dancing boy have been brutally murdered over the years while the case was taken up by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on at least three separate occasions. However, such is the sway of so-called tribal traditions of honor and revenge that even the country’s apex court could not stop the killings, and took nearly six years to figure out what happened to those girls.
The “scandalous” video
Muhammad Afzal Kohistani, 31, the fourth brother was killed on 6th March 2019 in the northwestern city of Abbottabad after putting up a protracted and dangerous resistance against tribal traditions. The killings were the result of a tribal custom called chor, which is peculiar to the Kohistan region that entails killing any male or female who interacts with the opposite sex. Afzal waged a struggle against this custom and blew the whistle on tribal traditions in a bid to save the lives of the girls and his brothers. He ended up paying for it with his own life.
Kohistan is a remote region tucked up high in the mountains. The Karakorum Highway, which connects Pakistan with China passes through it. This isolation and inaccessibility has sheltered and strengthened tribal notions of honor and revenge.
Kohistan’s isolation has sheltered tribal notions of honor (Picture Credit: CerelacKhan)
Afzal was born in Gaddar village in the Kolai Palas area of Kohistan, some 300 kilometers north of Islamabad. Gaddar village was home to the Azadkhels (the tribe of the murdered girls), and the Salehkhels (Kohistani’s tribe).
Back in 2010, four Azadkhel girls, Amina, Bazigha, Begum Jan, and Siran Jan and visited Afzal’s home. In one of the rooms, the four girls sang and clapped while Afzal’s brother Gul Nazar, 21 then (28 now) danced and their other brother, Bin Yasir, 18 then (25 now), recorded it on his mobile phone. It took another two years for the video to emerge in May 2012. Soon after the video went viral, police arrested Bin Yasir and Gul Nazar and put them behind bars, charging them with making an “obscene” video.
Azadkhel tribesmen, incensed over this perceived violation of their honor called a jirga (a gathering of tribal elders), which decided that both the girls and boys should be killed for violating their traditions of sex segregation.
The Azadkhel jirga decided that both the girls and boys should be killed for violating their traditions of sex segregation.
This was the beginning of Afzal’s seven-year struggle against the ruthless forces of tribal vendetta. He managed to bring it to the attention of the media and human rights activists. In June 2012, Pakistan’s Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the killings and dispatched a commission of human rights activists and government officials to the village to ascertain the facts. The commission flew to Kohistan in a government chopper and managed to meet one of the girls, Amina. When the commission informed the courts that they had managed to meet only one of the four girls it was not satisfied and formed a judicial commission, which also flew to Kohistan and met two of the other girls, Begum Jan and Siran Jan.
There is much dispute whether the girls presented to the commission were those who appeared in the video or girls who just resembled them. A member of the commission even penned a note expressing her doubts over the identity of the girls. However, the Supreme Court laid the matter to rest, stating that the girls seemed to be alive and well.
Bin Yasir and Gul Nazar were freed from prison towards the end of 2012 after a local court acquitted them of the charge of making an obscene video, and they left town due to threats to their lives. Days after they fled for the relative safety of urban Pakistan, three of their brothers, Rafeeuddin, Shah Faisal, and Sher Wali, who had remained in Gaddar, were murdered by Azadkhel tribesmen.
Days after they fled, three of their brothers were murdered by Azadkhel tribesmen.
The girls’ fate remained a mystery till a year later, when a local political leader, Dildar Ahmed, revealed they had been murdered and buried in a mountainous area. Dildar claimed that the Supreme Court was also hoodwinked, as the girls presented to the commission were not those who appeared in the video, but their relatives.
Dildar’s claims led to a slew of litigation between the Kohistani and Azadkhel tribes that ended up at the Supreme Court in 2016, which formed another commission to ascertain the facts surrounding the girls’ fate. The Azadkhel tribe produced what it claimed were the girls, and the commission met them, but doubted that they were who the tribe said they were.
In July 2018, an investigating team was set up on the order of the Supreme Court to look into the case afresh. The team finally managed to establish the fate of the girls and declared that three of them, Bazigha, Begum Jan, and Siran Jan had been murdered on the orders of the jirga. On the recommendation of the head of the team, who was a local police officer, the police also charged eight Azadkhel tribesmen with murder and misleading investigators, and arrested them.
Even Pakistan’s Supreme Court seems powerless to prevent the bloodshed (Picture Credit: Usman.pg)
While this drama was unfolding in courtrooms, Afzal was languishing in jail on trumped up charges of setting fire to an Azadkhel tribesman’s house, resulting in the deaths of three children and two women. He was behind bars for 16 months before his innocence could be proved (despite his assertion that he was not even in Gaddar at the time of the fire).
On the evening of 6th March 2019, just a month after his release from prison, Afzal was murdered in Abbottabad, while he was sitting in a transport van.
Just a month after his release from prison, Afzal was murdered in Abbottabad.
At the time of his killing, Afzal was with his nephew, Faizur Rehman, 20, the son of his only sister. Rehman told police that three Azadkhel tribesmen opened fire at his uncle, wounding him grievously, and that he died on the way to the hospital.
However, police officials in Abbottabad have many reasons to suspect Rehman’s statement and have charged him for his uncle’s murder. Since the incident took place close to a police station, cops there rushed to the scene and saw a young man trying to flee the scene. When they caught him, he turned out to be Rehman and he was carrying his uncle’s pistol. Police investigators were skeptical that Rehman would have been able to escape unscathed despite sitting close to his uncle at the time of the shooting, and that he would have managed to pull out the gun from his uncle’s holster while they were being shot at.
Forensic analysis of the bullet pulled from Kohistani’s body proved that it was fired from his own pistol.
However, police officials are not able to explain why Rehman would murder his uncle. The Kohistani family also doesn’t buy the police’s claims and blames their Azadkhel opponents for the murder. It paid for Rehman’s lawyers, and he recently managed to get bail from a local court.
On the evening of 25th May, Gul Nazar shot his relative, Waqar Ahmed, dead. Ahmed’s other relatives told police that Nazar suspected him of having illicit relations with Afzal’s widow. The widow and her three-year-old daughter have gone missing and the police have been unable to find any trace of them.
This is likely to open a new can of worms, and the case is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.
This story is just one of many similar tragedies in Pakistan, a country where honor killings are being committed with shocking regularity.
In Pakistan honor killings are being committed with shocking regularity.
In its 2018 report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan documented more than 316 honor related crimes in the country that year. 199 of these took place in country’s most populous province, Punjab, while Sindh came second, with 118 cases. There were 72 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and 30 in Balochistan. However, human rights activists consider these figures to be tip of the iceberg, as they mostly track cases reported by the police and media. They argue that the majority of cases are hushed-up by families. Even when perpetrators are brought to trial, they say, they are often acquitted due to weak investigations and cultural biases.
Qamar Naseem, a Peshawar-based human rights activist says that in most cases the perpetrators are close relatives who are backed by the rest of the family. “Not only the accused are backed by families but society at large sympath[yzes] with killers due to [the] involvement of honor,” he said.
If Rehman did indeed murder his uncle, this reveals the extent of the problem of honor killings in Pakistan. A member of a family that had already lost four of their own over honor ended up killing another relative for honor.
The killings are likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence. “The Azadkhel can now argue that if Kohistani’s family was right in murdering someone for honor, then they too were right in murdering [members of the] Kohistani family for their honor,” Naseem said.