The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Pakistani man told me he feared he’d be killed for exposing ‘honor killings.’ His worst fear just came true.

Afzal Kohistani, photographed in 2016, spent years fighting a coverup of honor killings in his village in Pakistan, forcing the Supreme Court to reopen the case. He was shot dead on March 7, 2019. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

KABUL — I met Afzal Kohistani late one night in the winter of 2016 in a cheap restaurant in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He was 26 then, well-dressed and polite, but his eyes had the intense look of a driven man who knew he was taking on implacable forces and racing against time. He did not touch his tea.

Instead, he told a story, the same story he had told many officials before, from police and magistrates in his remote mountainous district in northwestern Pakistan all the way up to the Supreme Court. It was an almost unbelievable tale of village “honor killing,” a horror story long buried under the northern snows until one young man had the courage to dig it up.

As he talked, periodically glancing toward the restaurant door, Kohistani said several times that he expected he might one day be killed for exposing what had happened in his ancestral village in 2012. As he described it, five girls were murdered for bringing shame on their tribe, after someone posted a video of them singing and clapping at a wedding.

This video of five young women clapping to music in a mountainous area of northwest Pakistan was the last time the women were definitively seen alive. (Video: The Washington Post)

The entire community conspired to cover up the murders, he said, and several young men from his family, who had appeared in the video dancing at the wedding, were hunted down and killed.

“This has destroyed my family. The girls are dead, my brothers have been killed, and nothing has been done to bring justice or protect us,” he told me. “I know I will probably be killed, too, but it doesn’t matter. What happened is wrong, and it has to change.”

On Wednesday night, Kohistani was gunned down by unknown assailants in Abbotabad, Pakistan, police officials said. News reports described him as a “whistleblower” who was killed for bringing attention to the notorious case. 

The reports said he had told officials of receiving “constant death threats” from tribal vigilantes since last July, when four men were arrested and later convicted of killing several of the girls. He had asked for police protection, but none was provided, the reports said.

As I read those brief accounts Thursday, our grim, late-night conversation over his untouched tea came flooding back. I had been incredulous at first, because even in Pakistan, where honor killings continue to take hundreds of lives every year, this story seemed too grotesque to be true: 

A village council, headed by a Muslim cleric, ordering that young women be killed for dancing and clapping. Their own relatives burning them with hot coals and burying their corpses in the mountains.

A plot by local elders to replace them with other, related girls, who were ordered to claim that they were the murdered girls if police or others came asking questions. A local legal system that rejected Kohistani’s petitions for an investigation, telling him he was dishonoring sacred tradition by challenging tribal decisions.

“No one in my district or my province has ever spoken against honor killing,” he said, leaning forward intently and speaking in a low, rapid voice. “They tell me I have defamed my culture, my religion, my tribe. Everybody knows what happened, but no one is ready to come forward. This is an illegal, unconstitutional and un-Islamic tradition, but people don’t even consider it a crime.”

I was impressed by Kohistani’s sincerity and determination, but it wasn’t until later, when I spoke with others, that the story seemed plausible. A judge’s report contained a chilling detail: One girl, who was presented to investigators as proof that no murders had taken place, could not be identified because her thumb prints had been allegedly burned off in a kitchen fire.

I had written about honor crimes before in Pakistan, notably the gruesome case of a woman whose jealous husband had carved off her nose and gouged out her eyes. I had met her, silent and disfigured, sitting on a bed. I had met her husband, a burly prisoner in chains outside a courtroom, who told me through an interpreter that he had no regrets because he had avenged his honor. 

I had thought a lot about the word “honor,” how it could become conflated and confused with male pride, with control over the lives and choices of women, with tribal traditions trying to survive in a rapidly modernizing world.

I had met many people in Pakistan who were working to change these customs, but most were female professionals or activists. Afzal Kohistani was a young man with no expertise or influence, but he had a clear, unshakable notion of what honor should mean.

When we met, he had come to Islamabad, about 14 miles from Rawalpindi, for a hearing at the Supreme Court, which would take up his case and start the chain of events that led to the arrest and prosecution of some of the suspects in the killings. He said he was worried about being followed and attacked, but he was poised and resolute. 

At one point, Kohistani came out of the Supreme Court building holding the arm of another man who was shy and poorly dressed. The man was carrying photographs of a young boy whose face had been horribly burned, allegedly by a wealthy neighbor in a dispute over a property line.

Kohistani explained that the man was the boy’s father and had come to court seeking justice but had no idea what to do. Kohistani looked at the photos of the burned boy and smiled reassuringly at the father.

“I thought,” he said, “that maybe I could help.” 

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