British Sikh Bachan Athwal, 70, has been jailed for life for the so-called "honor" killing of her daughter-in-law Surjit, while holidaying in India nine years ago. The life sentence accompanies a 27-year sentence for her son Sukhdave, Surjit's husband.
Surjit had been having an extra-marital affair and had filed for divorce from her husband. Soon after, she was sent to Punjab to attend a family wedding with Bachan Athwal.
The mother of two, and a customs officer at Heathrow, subsequently vanished never to be seen again, in the third week of December 1998. Her mother-in-law and husband then falsely claimed she had left the family to enjoy an adulterous liaison with her boyfriend. They issued huge advertisements in Indian newspapers seeking her return. Her body was never found.
It has now being proved without doubt that Bachan had ordered her brother to strangle Surjit and throw the body into the river.
Two years after she vanished, British police arrested Surjit's mother-in-law and husband. The case, which dragged on for nearly a decade, involved close cooperation between British and Punjab police forces. In spite of this, the murdered woman's family made a strong statement on Wednesday to condemn the Indian authorities' allegedly lackadaisical attitude in securing justice for his murdered sister. In a powerful statement outside the London courthouse, Surjit's brother Jigdeesh declared that India was no less guilty in the slow march to justice, for his murdered sister.
The judge sentenced Bachan and Sukhdave on Wednesday with these words: "The pair of you decided that the so-called honor of your family members was worth more than the life of this young woman. You, Bachan, were head of that family. I have no doubt you exercised a controlling influence over other family members."
The case of the murdered Sikh daughter-in-law for adultery and shaming the family with impending divorce hinged on Bachan Athwal's reported statement that she would allow such dishonor only "over my dead body".
The sentencing of the Athwals is bound to emphasize the disturbing concept of "honor killings" within Britain's ethnic minority communities. Though more endemic within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, the Athwal case is sure to underline that British Indians are not immune to honor killings.
The slow progress of the Athwal investigation is understood to be partly because the British authorities refused to take up the case at first. Later, the Punjab police's stalling make the search for justice painfully slow for the bereaved family. It was seven years before British police finally charged Athwal's husband and mother-in-law with plotting her murder. The murdered woman's brother was quoted Wednesday that the agonizing slowness put the family through a "nine-year cycle of torture and pain". He insisted, "With greatest of respect to them, all the leading police investigators at the beginning were white, English officers who did not quite appreciate the subtleties and the unseen aspects of honor violence, the details around honor and family and practices within a Punjabi family culture".
Currently, there is a vigorous British government campaign to stamp out the practice of honor killings. The crime has gained official recognition in Britain, in the last decade. Honor killings were previously classified as 'incidents of domestic violence within ethnic communities'.