The Qandeel case

Published in Dawn

There’s a passage towards the end of Sanam Maher’s riveting book, The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, ‘When Wasim returned to Shah Sadar Din after Qandeel was murdered, news of what he had done quickly spread. People in the village say his cousins, uncles, and friends congratulated him. They said he had done the right thing…“Beghairat ko ghairat kissi bhi waqt aa sakti hai.”’

They were referring to the fact that Qandeel, ‘Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social-media’, was strangled to death by her brother. She was 26.

Some societies give themselves away: Qandeel was the most searched-for Pakistani in 2016, the year of her death. While many complained she was spreading bad morals, there was a bit more at play; the jokes about her accent, her surname, her broken English. At the heart of the Qandeel outrage wasn’t character; it was class.

Not that the Western press cared; it dubbed her Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian anyway. It didn’t matter that a professional brat like Kim – the posterchild of material success (forged in the perverse afterglow of the O. J. Simpson case) ­– hardly breathed the same air as a working-class abuse victim from DG Khan.

But after the murder, the public stopped sneering, and called for justice. The trouble with punishing honour killings, however, was the same as the trouble with punishing any killing at all: blood pardons. This contributor has already written in these pages about its origins: how the Zullah Court demanded that such pardons be legalized in 1989.

Yet unlike the Court’s judgment, the law that arrived made no distinction for deliberate murder: it too could be settled via compromise. And though it remained at the Court’s discretion – under Section 311 of the penal code – to reject compromise and punish the offender, it rarely so happened.

It was only a generation later, when Qandeel was murdered, that Islamabad woke up. Having passed the original act, the Nawaz government moved to amend it with 2016’s anti-honour killing bill: it expanded Section 311, so that honour killings mandated a life sentence, even in case of pardon.

But the new law was also a massive climb-down. Prior to the murder, an older draft by Ashtar Ausaf Ali, the special assistant to the prime minister, had made honour killings non-pardonable, while even moving to mend the blood pardon dilemma itself – distinguishing between murder and deliberate murder. Yet, as is well-documented, the centre ended up caving to its far-right coalition buddies, the JUI-F. The draft was shelved.

And the newer, weaker amendment had an obvious loophole: a murderer could just claim he’d never killed for honour, receive a pardon for a routine murder, and walk free. To merit an exception under 311, prosecutors would have to prove it was an honour killing.

In Qandeel’s case, the trial court held as much: that though Wasim had been pardoned by his parents for murdering his sister, it had been an honour killing. The trial court referred to the motive Wasim had given in his confession, i.e. ‘her photos and videos’, and handed him a life sentence.

But Wasim retracted his confession, and appealed to the Lahore High Court. Per the judgment recently issued by Justice Sohail Nasir, the legal question the High Court set itself was plain: if the court below had deemed the murder to be an honour killing based solely on Wasim’s confession, could it still be held to be an honour killing?

Bear in mind the main question was no longer whether Wasim did it. The prosecution had produced DNA, polygraph tests, recoveries, and as many as 35 witnesses to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt at the trial stage. The question in appeal had to do with intent: was Wasim driven by honour?

‘No doubt that in the last line (of his confession) he gave a reason of murder of his sister due to pictures and videos,’ held the LHC, ‘but still it does not mean that murder was on the pretext of honour killing as the same was not specifically pleaded by appellant in his alleged confession.’ The verdict also pointed out the confession’s other flaws: the lack of time, the handcuffs, the presence of too many court staff, and English-Urdu issues.

Per the Court’s reasoning, if the confession was the only evidence that pointed to honour, and since it ‘cannot be considered more than a piece of paper’, it could no longer be established that Qandeel’s murder was an honour killing.

If it wasn’t an honour killing, it was a routine murder. If it was a routine murder, 311 didn’t apply. If it didn’t apply, the pardon – from his own parents, for murdering their other child – was enough: Wasim was acquitted. In any case, all private witnesses had turned hostile.

In its verdict, the LHC quoted from Teen Vogue on celebrity deaths, and compared Qandeel’s murder to Sharon Tate’s. Yet Tate’s killers, the Manson Family, either died in prison or continue to rot there half a century later. Wasim walks free.

Hence our current crisis: for deliberate murder, compromise must be cut out entirely. Otherwise society will keep falling in on itself.

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