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Kohistan girls case remains a mystery

Ayesha Shahid

ISLAMABAD: Despite clear instructions by the Supreme Court to produce the five women reportedly killed on the orders of a tribal jirga in Kohistan for dancing with boys at a wedding ceremony, Wednesday saw the court quibbling with a line of government officials over their failure to present substantial proof that the girls are alive.

Without doubt the greatest irony is that even though the alleged murders reportedly took place a week ago, on May 30, the claim has still not been substantiated despite best efforts of the government and Supreme Court.

Officials claim it did not happen.

No wonder then that Wednesday’s morning saw an unhappy bench — composed of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Justice Jawwad S. Khwaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain — unwilling to understand the versions of various officials who had returned from the first investigative mission and reported that they had not found any evidence of the reported murders.

One by one, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Secretary Ghulam Dastgir, Home Secretary Azam Khan, the deputy inspector general of Hazara, Divisional Commissioner Khalid Umarzai and other officials came on the podium to inform the court what they had found in their investigative trip to Kohistan. They all said the same thing again and again, “The murders have not happened.”

And again and again the chief justice replied with the same question, “Have you talked to the girls? Do you have any proof they are alive?” In fact at one point, an exasperated Justice Khawaja asked everyone in the courtroom, “Has anyone here talked to the girls?” and got complete silence in reply.

The proceedings were a game of cajoling details out of the officials at hand who were convinced that the murder reports were false.

The DIG Hazara informed the court that state investigations started as soon as the reports had emerged. “We talked to people from three villages, we wanted to meet the girls and we took a Kohistan official, we talked to the local people and visited the graveyard. No one came forward to tell us that such an incident had taken place.

“We found the religious scholar who is supposed to have given the fatwa; he denied giving any such decree. We even took him to the village and he said that the last time he had visited that village was three years ago,” the DIG said.

The court also questioned a very cooperative Rehman Malik, the PM’s adviser on interior affairs, about the investigation of the day before, who had to repeatedly explain why no women were taken on the helicopter if the area was a conservative one where women did not meet outsiders.

“This is a problem of mindset – a number of men went to investigate, talked to more men and came back. If you had taken women with you and talked to them, the problem would have been solved,” Justice Khwaja said.

It certainly does not help that the incident took place in a place that no-one seems to be able to place on a map.

The KP chief secretary and home secretary found themselves explaining to the court repeatedly how Sartai village was a two days’ walk from the Karakoram Highway with the nearest location, Pattan. The only quick way to approach it is on helicopter and that too if weather conditions are favourable.

The conclusion, however, was that the women need to be found if they are alive. The court declared to the commissioner: “If you are a commissioner, go get the women or go home.”

Within hours a helicopter was prepared with four women, including Riffat Butt and Farzana Bari, accompanying officials to find the girls and bring them back by evening the same day.

According to most recent updates from Ms Riffat, the team had reached Pattan and talked to a number of people, but had to postpone further travel to the actual village until Thursday morning because of weather conditions.

While the Supreme Court put the investigative process on the fast course with sheer determination, another aspect of the case unfolded with regard to Muhammad Afzal, the man who broke the news to the media and brother of the two men who were dancing in the video along with the five women.

Both Afzal and his brother Bin Yamin (one of the brothers from the video) came to the court and recorded their versions.

“These women have been killed,” they said and gave the names of all five. They also gave the names of four men who, according to them, had been appointed as witnesses for the murders of the women.

In a flurry of quick comments with the press outside the court, Afzal elaborated that some influential people, including government officials, were part of the jirga and they were trying to cover up the incident.

“Around hundred members of my family have left their land and village and moved because they are in danger from the tribe that killed those women. I am not here without reason, my life is in danger,” he said.

“Dancing is not such a big sin to warrant punishment by death, but the fact that it was recorded and leaked out made it a matter of reputation, and now I am in danger from local officials who want to cover up the whole thing and this is why I came here to find security in Islamabad,” said Afzal as he was rushed off.

The truth will come to light as the current team brings latest news from the village of Sartai which has come under the spotlight for a crime that cannot be substantiated.