PESHAWAR, Pakistan — More than a dozen leaders of a small village in northwestern Pakistan were arrested Thursday and charged with burning a teenage girl to death because she helped one of her friends elope, security officials said.
The crime, which is renewing attention on Pakistan’s horrific record of protecting women and children from abuse, took place on the outskirts of Abbottabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Khurram Rasheed, police chief for the northern district of Abbottabad, said Thursday that the body of Ambreen Riasat was found in a burned van in the tourist resort of Donga Gali on April 29, the Associated Press reported. Her exact age was in dispute.
A graphic photo of the teenager’s charred remains quickly circulated online. It appeared as though the girl’s arms had been bound before she was set on fire.
Initially, police suspected that she may have been raped by a scorned boyfriend or as part of a family dispute. But Saeed Wazir, the regional police chief in Abbottabad, said Thursday that the killing was a “pre-planned act” involving 14 village leaders. Wazir said the entire village council had sanctioned the act to send a message to other minors.
“They said she must be burnt alive to make a lesson for other girls,” he said.
In an act of defiance against Pakistan’s strict Islamic and paternal customs, Wazir said, the victim had helped one of her friends secretly marry her boyfriend. The bride “didn’t obey her father’s will and did a love marriage at court with a guy,” he said.
After the bride’s father found out, he requested that village elders investigate. In many parts of Pakistan, women and girls are expected to receive their father’s consent before marrying.
The village elders called a meeting, which is referred to as a Jirga. Under Pashtun culture in Pakistan and in neighboring Afghanistan, such gatherings are often held to try to reach consensus on how best to resolve local disputes. At times, the meetings also become a form of street justice.
According to Wazir, the village elders investigating the marriage quickly discovered that the victim had helped her friend evade her father’s will. The elders decided the victim needed to be punished for not disclosing her role in the marriage.
Several men then dragged the teenager out of her house and tied her into the van, Wazir said.
“Despite the requests and pleas from her parents, villagers forcibly brought her out and set her afire while roping her to the seat of the vehicle,” he said.
Both the leader of the Jirga and the father of the newlywed girl were arrested, Wazir said. A dozen other men who participated in the Jirga also were charged, he added.
It was not immediately clear whether the new bride or her husband were punished.
The case represents a troublesome expansion of mob-like tactics that women can face in Pakistan when they disobey their parents or extended family members.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 8,694 girls and women have died in so-called honor killings here between 2004 and 2015. Those crimes involved revenge killings for dishonoring a family, village or local custom.
About one-fourth of those cases involved the death of a minor. Although most common in remote areas, honor killings still occur in Pakistan even in larger, more progressive cities. The problem was highlighted recently in the Oscar-winning film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.”
The documentary profiles a 18-year-old woman who was beaten and shot by her father and uncle in Punjab province after she married a man against their wishes. The woman, Saba, survived. Her father and uncle were arrested but later freed, according to HBO Documentary Films.
After he saw the film, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to end honor killings.
Earlier this year, Sharif’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, pushed through a women’s rights bill in Punjab province. The legislation, strongly opposed by the religious community, establishes a 24-hour domestic abuse hotline and network of shelters offering housing, first aid and counseling for women.
Still, a horrific wave of abuse continues.
On Sunday, Punjab police arrested a man and charged him with killing his wife, who was seven months pregnant, the Express Tribune newspaper reported. Using a club, the man apparently beat the woman to death after she refused to allow him to take a second wife.
Also in Punjab over the weekend, a man tossed acid onto a 37-year-old woman, resulting in burns over 30 percent of her body. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the woman’s nephew is the main suspect. The man apparently wanted to marry one of the woman’s daughters – his cousin — but was refused.
“He was annoyed with his maternal aunt for turning down his marriage proposal,” Azhar Akram, a police officer in Multan, told Dawn.
Craig reported from Kabul.