Ambreen is no more. But her tragic death has left behind dozens of questions for local police authorities, law-enforcement agencies and human rights watchdogs.
The most important one is: how can a local council of elders – a jirga – order a death sentence for a young woman at a whim in a country that follows a written constitution?
Ambreen was burnt alive for helping her friend out in managing a marriage of her own choice. The teenager was dragged out of her home at midnight, drugged and then tied up to the seat of a car before being set ablaze.
Some eyewitnesses have said that they could hear the screams of the young woman set on fire. This hair-raising case, which took place in a small village Makool that is hardly at an hour drive from the famous tourist resort Nathiagalli in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, raises many questions on the performance of the police department. This department has been a relative success story of the KP government, which the PTI-led government has been spelling out when it comes to pointing out its achievements.
The politicians are not left behind in this, as always. Almost all of them have condemned this brutal and inhuman act of the local jirga by issuing statements in national media outlets. As usual, the police are investigating the case. They have, reportedly, arrested some culprits involved in the case including a local councillor who headed the jirga.
How much hope can be placed in the law-enforcement agencies bringing the culprits to justice? Our past experiences speak well for the truth. The day the shocking news of Ambreen broke, the same day a sexual assault on another teenager by a custodian of the law traumatised the nation. Allegedly, a deputy superintendent of police sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl in Kahna village, in the suburbs of Lahore. Most of us believe that the police official in question will soon be seen making a victory sign while at court or in prison.
This is not just the story of Makool and Kahna. Ambreen represents millions of helpless women who succumb to this kind of social and domestic violence but hardly report it.
On the first day of Eidul Azha, one Neelam Bibi was shot dead by her husband in a neighbourhood called Rustam in the Mardan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The killer easily managed to go abroad after silencing his wife forever. The distraught father of the deceased says he went from pillar to post to seek justice from almost all the relevant quarters during all this while but all in vain. Sick of what he called the ‘typical’ police attitude, he gave up on seeking their help from and tried to go his own way.
The aggrieved father then turned to human rights watchdogs but their attitude was not much different from the police. Despite his continuous efforts, his application has not been entertained by the provincial commission on the status of women. After exhausting all his options to find justice, the bereaved father established a memorial centre in the name of his daughter – the Neelam Memorial Centre. He says it is not only a skill-training centre where poor and helpless women can attend various training courses but also the starting point of a movement that will empower women to raise their voices against domestic and social violence in our male-dominated society.
We must appreciate his efforts but we should also remember that every distraught father will not necessarily be Gohar Ali who opted to contribute to strengthening the existing system, rather than raising a standard of revolt against it. When people lose confidence in state institutions, they tend to take the law into their hands. They naturally rise up against the system that neither protects them nor guarantees their rights.
The obvious manifestation of this is people killing and setting ablaze criminals in the busy bazars of Lahore, Sialkot, Karachi, Peshawar and elsewhere in the country.
Known for his honesty, dedication and professional commitment, the IG of police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is, no doubt, a competent police official who is out to purge the department of incompetent and corrupt officials.
The IG has done a commendable job by introducing these long-awaited reforms in the police department. But he still has a long way to go to continue the good job and restore people’s lost confidence in the system and its managers. Does the system need even more dead bodies like Neelam Bibi and more fathers like Gohar Ali? Do we need more Ambreens to finally wake up?
The writer heads an independent research organisation in Islamabad.