Afzal’s killing

Updated March 11, 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

WHAT began with a song and a dance continues in a seemingly endless spiral of violence. The killing of Afzal Kohistani — who in 2012 made the apparent ‘honour’ killing of five women in Kohistan public — is not surprising. Afzal himself had feared it for many years.

But it should still shock us for both its audacity and inevitability, and for what it indicates about the extent to which the Pakistani state’s writ has eroded (if it ever existed, that is).

Afzal was shot last week in a crowded area of Abbottabad. Tragically, his killing is only the latest episode in a tale that has dragged on too long in an ostensibly democratic country hoping to thrive in the 21st century.

Since that fateful wedding party, during which some women and men were filmed clapping, singing and dancing, a horrifying sequence of events has unfolded: a jirga met and decided to torture — by some accounts, by burning with hot coals — the women filmed to death. Afzal’s decision to reveal the ‘honour’ killing to the media and local authorities fuelled the cycle of violence; three of his brothers have since been killed by members of the girls’ family, his house was firebombed, and now he has been murdered.

The saga highlights all the weaknesses of the state.

There have been other outrages too. Local officials — entrusted with law enforcement — attested to the girls being alive. Local authorities denied Afzal’s demands for investigations on the basis that his actions were undermining tribal codes. A suo motu Supreme Court investigation was stymied by the presentation of women meant to pass as the ones filmed. The brutality of this cover-up presents its own suite of human rights abuses: according to one judge’s report, one of the girls presented in lieu of those murdered had her fingerprints burned off to prevent accurate identification.

Afzal received persistent death threats; he claimed a jirga had decided that he should be killed whenever the opportunity arose. The Supreme Court’s orders for him to receive police protection were ignored, leading to his untimely, unnecessary murder.

Admittedly, there have been some flickers of light in this dark case: the reopening of the case in 2018, the arrest of several men from the girls’ family, testimonies from some local officials willing to speak the truth, the media’s ongoing attention to the story. But these pale in comparison to the mounting tragedies.

These events have over the years primarily been examined through the gender lens, with a focus on the original ‘honour’ killing and the anachronistic codes that enable such violence. This is a valid emphasis in a country where around 1,000 women die each year in the name of ‘honour’ (that’s the reported figure, likely a significant underestimate).

The case has also stirred debate about the clash between tradition and modernity in the context of Pakistan’s rapid development: the mobile phone versus the cleric, social media versus tribal codes, the young versus the old.

But the saga is about so much more. It highlights all the chronic weaknesses of the state: the continuing grip of parallel justice systems; the weaponisation of Pakistani society and ease of conducting extrajudicial killings; the collapse of rule of law; the complicity of state institutions such as local authorities and the police; the inability of the media to deliver accountability; the failures of civilian law enforcement.

Pakistan has spent the past few days engaging in grandstanding: its prime minister is statesman-like, its F16s are better than their MiGs, it is decisive in its crackdown on proscribed groups. But this seems inappropriate in the face of Afzal’s killing. What’s the value of sovereignty if your police can’t protect, your courts can’t deliver justice, and your news outlets can’t reveal the truth?

Human rights groups have been calling for a judicial inquiry into Afzal’s killing. It is ironic that their only recourse is to a system that has already and repeatedly failed Afzal and his family members, a system whose gaps have been highlighted first by the jirgas that rejected its mandate but also by its failure to prosecute those who flout the Constitution (six men accused of killing Afzal’s brothers were convicted in 2013, but ultimately acquitted at the high court level in 2017).

Our leaders are obsessed with big-ticket infrastructure projects, the endless scheming that geopolitical relations demand, the conspiracy theories, and the existential crises that prop up our security policies well beyond the reach of critique.

But matters such as Afzal’s death cause little more than a storm in the proverbial teacup because they are perceived to be the normal state of affairs. Until the killing of every Pakistani citizen is deemed an equal — and equally unacceptable — outrage, and until the state takes responsibility for delivering justice to all, all its other claims to glory will ring hollow.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2019