Pakistan’s parliament on Thursday tightened a legal loophole that allowed perpetrators of honor killings to avoid justice. Under the new law, a pardon granted by the victim’s family can spare the convicted perpetrator from capital punishment – but not from a mandated minimum sentence of life in prison.
In the conservative Pakistani society, encounters between males and females are strictly monitored. Any deviation from the defined code of conduct, especially by a woman, is considered shameful. The punishment can be death.
Hundreds of Pakistani women die each year at the hands of relatives in so-called honor killings. Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission estimated last year that 860 honor killings were committed between January 2012 and mid-September 2015.
The supposedly offensive behavior may or may not include a sexual act. In a notorious 2012 case in the country’s remote, northern Kohistan region, village elders reportedly ordered the killing of at least four young women – and other family members – after seeing a mobile phone video of them clapping and singing while two young men danced during a celebration. The case reached the Supreme Court but was “left unresolved due to local complications,” the BBC reported in a 2014 story on honor killings.
The July death of Pakistani celebrity model Qandeel Baloch – choked to death by her brother for uploading risqué videos – helped spur efforts to pass the new legislation.
Under Islamic influence, Pakistan’s current law defines murder as a crime against a person rather than a crime against the state. It gives the next of kin the right to forgive or to seek revenge.
In the case of honor killings, the next of kin typically consents to the retribution. Therein lies the problem, according to human rights activist Tahira Abdullah.
"So what happens is that in dishonor killings, it's family members who kill the woman ... and then the male relatives forgive each other," Abdullah said. "So if the father has done the dishonor killing, the son will forgive. If a brother has done it, the other brother will forgive. Likewise, uncles forgive."
She’s among women’s rights activists who say there is no honor in murder, so they’ve revised the phrase.
The new law curbs blanket immunity for the convicted perpetrator. Even if the family grants forgiveness, that would only provide relief from capital punishment, not from life imprisonment.
But members of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, as well as several women’s rights activists, objected to the clause and said those who kill women in the name of honor should not be given a break.
Pakistan passed its first anti-honor killing law in 2004. That law contained several loopholes like the one allowing family members to pardon the accused. In 2014, Pakistan’s Senate passed another bill to try and plug those loopholes, but it lapsed when the National Assembly failed to take it up within 90 days.
Thursday’s joint session took up the same bill, albeit with some changes that watered it down, according to the opposition.