LONDON: The Pakistani parents of a teenage girl have been found guilty of murdering a daughter who rebelled against a forced marriage to her cousin – a conviction that was clinched with the girl’s younger sister testifying that she saw her parents suffocate her older sibling.
Justice Roderick Evans Friday sentenced Iftikhar Ahmad, 52, and his wife Farzana, 49, to life for killing their daughter, Shafilea, in 2003. The couple – first cousins from the Pakistani village of Uttam – were ordered to serve a minimum of 25 years in prison.
“She was being squeezed between two cultures – the culture and way of life that she saw around her and wanted to embrace, and the culture and way of life you wanted to impose on her,” Evans said during the sentencing at the Chester Crown Court in northwest England.
In Britain, more than 25 women have been killed in so-called honor killings in the past decade. Families have sometimes lashed out at their children, often believing they have brought them shame by becoming too Westernized or by refusing a marriage.
Shafilea was only 10 when she began to rebel against her parents’ strict rules, according to prosecutor Andrew Edis.
The young girl would hide makeup, false nails and Western clothes at school and then quickly change before her parents picked her up.
But it was the last year of her life that proved to be the most traumatic for Shafilea.
During the trial that began in May, jurors were gripped by testimony from Shafilea’s younger sister, Alesha, who said she witnessed the murder when she was 12.
After an argument about Shafilea’s dress, her parents pushed her down on a couch, stuffed a thin white plastic bag into her mouth and held their hands over her mouth and nose until she died, Alesha testified.
As she was struggling, her mother said, “just finish it here,” according to Alesha’s testimony.
Although Shafilea’s other siblings contradicted the testimony, the last-minute emergence of a diary convinced jurors.
The diary belonged to a friend of one of Shafilea’s sisters, Mev. In the diary, the friend relays conversations she had with Mev about the night Shafilea died – details that supported Alesha’s testimony.
“The strong message goes out and should be very clear: if you engage in honor killings – if you engage in forced marriages – you will be caught and brought to justice,” said Mohammad Shafiq, chief executive of the Manchester-based Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim organization.
When Shafilea became a teenager, she became interested in boys – something that spurred punishment from her parents.
School officials also alerted social services after Shafilea repeatedly told them of regular beatings and a looming forced marriage. Despite multiple reports to social services, Shafilea’s file was closed in 2002.
In February 2003, she ran away and told council officers she needed emergency accommodation as her parents were trying to force her into an arranged marriage.
Some of Shafilea’s own words also proved compelling to jurors.
In the application form to move out, she said she had suffered from regular domestic violence from the age of 15.
“One parent would hold me while the other hit me,” she said.
In was also in 2003 that her parents drugged her and took her to Pakistan against her will to seal the arranged marriage to her cousin, Alesha said.
In protest, Shafilea drank bleach.
When she returned to Britain in May 2003, she was admitted to a hospital because of damage done to her throat.
She was eventually released, but arguments over her clothing continued. One night, her parents complained she was wearing a T-shirt and wasn’t properly covered up, according to Alesha.
Alesha described that after the attack, her siblings ran upstairs and she watched as her father carried Shafilea’s body to the car wrapped in a blanket.
She was reported missing shortly after, with her parents making a teary-eyed media appeal for information leading to their daughter.
But police were suspicious – so much so that they bugged the house.
Shafilea’s decomposed remains were eventually discovered in the River Kent in Cumbria in February 2004, but it wasn’t until 2010 that Alesha provided the key testimony.
Last year the government’s Forced Marriage Unit investigated more than 1,400 cases of forced marriages, most of which occur in Muslim communities. Britain is home to more than 1.8 million Muslims, most from Pakistani roots.