An anti-terrorism court in Lahore handed death penalty on Wednesday to four men for killing a young woman in the name of family honour because she had contracted a marriage of her choice. These men – the victim’s father, brother, a cousin and former husband – bludgeoned her to death last May outside the Lahore High Court where she had gone to record her statement in favour of her husband who had been accused of abducting her. In his verdict, the ATC judge observed that the gruesome murder, reminiscent of dark ages, having taken place near the High Court created fear and outrage among people who come to courts to seek protection against oppression. It is worthwhile to note that the male relatives of the women acted the way they did because of loopholes in the law that makes so-called honour killing a compoundable offence. It has become an accepted practice for male relatives, like in the present case, to murder a woman for deciding on her own to marry somebody, even on suspicion of having a liaison. The ‘honour’ pretext in some instance has also been used to get rid of women – even men – to grab the victims’ property. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, about 900 women fell victim to honour-related crimes during 2013 alone.
In almost all cases these horrific crimes are committed secure in the knowledge that under the Qisas and Diyat laws ‘honour killing’ is a compoundable offense that can be forgiven by another blood relative. The Honour Killings Act, 2004, has failed clearly to address the issue due to the same reason, providing encouragement to people to go on killing in the name of family honour. This must change. Creditably for it, the Punjab government’s Women Development Department has undertaken an initiative to amend the relevant laws with a view to make the crime a non-compoundable offense. However, a committee discussing the proposed amendment is said to be apprehensive about religious circles’ reaction. Instead of worrying about reaction from one or the other section of society, the government needs to show the way forward. One of the proposals under discussion that makes ample sense is to amend Section 311 of the PPC under which the courts ‘may’ punish a murderer if the murder is found to be an act of ‘Fasad Fil Arz’ even if heirs of victims agree to pardon the killer(s). As per the law ‘Fasad Fil Arz’ principle applies to “brutal or shocking manner in which the offense has been committed which is outrageous to the public conscience, or if the offender is considered a potential danger to the community, or if the offense has been committed in the name or on the pretext of honour.” This section provides adequate rationale for amendment.
First of all there, of course, can be no civilised argument against this crime being outrageous to public conscience. Secondly, and more to the point, included in the crimes falling within the purview of ‘Fasad Fil Arz’ is an “offense [that] has been committed in the name or on the pretext of honour.” It is also worthwhile to note that a 2011 amendment to the relevant law provided that courts “may” punish killers pardoned under an agreement to life imprisonment (25 years), 14 years, or even hand them death sentence. And that the sentence “may” not be less than ten years. The Punjab Women’s Development Department is on the right track in putting forward an amendment proposal that seeks to replace the word “may” with “shall” in order to make so-called honour killing a non-compoundable offense. No one should be allowed to create mischief in society in the fair name of religion.