A murder-without-a-body case out of Britain/India

Last night I read a book called Shamed: The Honour Killing That Shocked Britain – by the Sister Who Fought for Justice, by Sarbjit Athwal, describing the “honor killing” of her sister-in-law, Surjit, and the subsequent missing persons investigation and eventual prosecution of two of the people involved: Surjit and Sarbit’s mother-in-law, Bachan Kaur Athwal, and Surjit’s husband, Sukhdave Singh Athwal.

What it amounted to, basically, is that the Athwal family were very conservative Sikhs living in Britain, and Bachan Kaur had a high reputation in the community as a very devout woman. In fact, within the family she was an absolute tyrant and her sons were terrified of her, to say nothing of her daughters-in-law. When Surjit wanted a divorce from her abusive husband, Bachan Kaur decided she couldn’t have her daughter-in-law shaming the family like that.

So she convinced Surjit to go on a trip to India with her to attend a family wedding. When they were in India, some goons Bachan Kaur had hired drugged Surjit, kidnapped her, strangled her, removed her gold jewelry and dumped her body in the river. It was never found — at least as far as anyone knows. That particular river runs into Pakistan, which doesn’t have the greatest relationship with India, and corpses dumped in from India tend to wash up in Pakistan and never get identified.

Sarbjit Athwal had been at the family meeting where Bachan Kaur announced what she was going to do, and she called the police with an anonymous tip hoping they would stop Surjit leaving for India, or rescue her once she arrived, but the police did…nothing. After Surjit “disappeared”, Sarbjit wrote the police an anonymous letter describing exactly what had happened, in great detail, and the police did…nothing. Then she confided in her sister, who went to the police and gave a statement, and they did…nothing. And so on.

Sarbjit was too afraid to actually go to the police openly, because the Athwals made it clear they would kill her too. Something like a decade passed before the case broke open, and Sarbjit started cooperating with the cops. They went to her house and arrested everyone, including her (in order to trick the Athwals into thinking it wasn’t her who spilled the beans), but instead of taking her to the station they took her to her parents’ house. She was in witness protection for ages before the trial, staying in grimy hostels with her baby whom she was nursing.

I wouldn’t say justice has been entirely achieved in this case. The identities of the people who actually killed Surjit in India are known, but they have never been prosecuted and for legal reasons they weren’t even named in the book. (Media reports I found said one of them was Bachan Kaur’s brother.) Sarbjit’s husband, Hardave, was at that original family meeting and passively let the whole conspiracy unfold, repeatedly lied to the police, and threatened Sarbjit when he found out she was going to testify, but he wasn’t prosecuted either.

Surjit’s daughter, Pawanpreet “Pav” Athwal, had been told her mother abandoned her. She was a teenager when she found out the truth. Pav has been active in Britain speaking out against honor killings and set up a hotline for women who are afraid of being the victim of an honor killing or being forced into marriage.

I would recommend the book if you’re interested in this kind of thing. I’m glad the US isn’t the only country that prosecutes no-body homicides.

And of course it’s always worth saying there is no honor in murder.

Aftercare for families of the no-longer-missing?

An interesting idea out of Wales: they’ve launched a pilot scheme to provide social support for families where a person had gone missing but then returned home alive:

“We have recognised that when a person comes back there can be a whole new set of problems and issues that can arise from that.

“In some circumstances, it can be like having a stranger in the house.”

I am reminded of the comment I’d copied into this blog entry, where the woman said her brother’s disappearance continued to traumatize the family even after his return, they couldn’t reconnect and the family never forgave him for leaving.

On the face of it, this seems like a good idea. I do however wish the article was more specific about just what kind of social support will be provided. Family therapy? Individual therapy for the not-missing-anymore person and those relatives that want it? Maybe job training and education, if it’s someone who ran away and was living on the streets or whatever?

Siblings of the missing

This is a fascinating article from the always wonderful Guardian about what it’s like to be the brother or sister of a missing person. They interviewed people from several different families — all British, of course, but I’m sure they would have the same feelings as American families do. It’s rather wrenching to read. At the bottom, though, they interviewed a guy who was missing for over a decade and then came home.

In the comments section I saw this:

my brother disappeared for 19 years, we hired a detective, registered him with the Salvation Army (they have a missing persons register) and after 16-17 years we had a note from the SA telling us our brother was alive but did not want to be in touch with us. It was simultaneously a relief and further torture and frustration. A year later I had a woman contact me via Facebook to say she knew my brother and wanted to let me know he was fine but didn’t want contact. Another year passed and he agreed to meet me on the condition I not let the rest of my family know. I agreed and met him for three hours, we cried and cried and cried when we met and hugged each other endlessly. It was a one-way street he wanted to know everything about the family but would tell me nothing of himself and his circumstances. To cut a very long story short, he agreed to meet my family and had an emotional reunion. It was fine for a few months but my family found it very hard to forgive him the decades of pain he had caused them. He continues to ‘disappear’ to this day for months/a year at a time and my father now says he wishes he had never returned at all. Sometimes there is no happy ending.