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August 14, 2020

A tale of three murders

Peshawar

August 14, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Arooj Iqbal had a dream. She wanted to become the first women owner of a newspaper. She got it registered and named it Choice. She was all set but a single shot to the head took her life only a few hours before publication of the newspaper’s inaugural edition. Instead of becoming the first woman owner, she became the first woman journalist to have been murdered.

Her family wanted to bring the killer to justice. Her brothers started receiving death threats soon after registering FIR. Six weeks after the murder, they were forced to broker a patch up with, who they accused, the killer, Arooj’s former husband who also runs a newspaper. Thus three murders in a row -- murder of Arooj Iqbal, murder of her dream to be a media entrepreneur and murder of the grieved family’s desire for justice. This is the story of a Lahore-based journalist killed in November last year. Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF), a Paris-based organisation working for the safety of journalists, retraced her steps, questioning her family, her colleagues and the police in order to shed light on a murder that has gone completely unpunished. The RSF published its report on Tuesday.

Arooj, 27, was very excited to launch her newspaper’s first edition. With this, she would become the first woman to have founded a media house. “The last time we spoke, she told me she had everything ready to open her office the next day. Unfortunately, she was murdered just before she could do this,” her mother recalled. Her body was found in a pool of blood on a street in Lahore. Arooj’s brother, Yasir Iqbal, received the tragic phone call at 10:44pm on November 25 informing him about her murder that left family devastated. He had an FIR filed next day at Qilla Gujar Singh Police Station.

According to the family, the prime suspect was and is still Arooj’s ex-husband, Dilawar Ali, who was also running a local newspaper, Anti-Crime, a paper focusing on crime stories. Arooj used to work there before she decided to launch her own. “He wanted her to drop the idea of launching her own local newspaper,” Yasir told RSF a week after the murder. His FIR quotes him as saying: “I am dead sure that Dilawar killed my sister or had her killed.”

Three days before her murder, Arooj had lodged a complaint at the same police station where her murder was reported. In the complaint, she had accused Dilawar Ali of beating and mistreating her. Her FIR is a long list of acts of harassment and violence against her by Dilawar. She visited her family the next day, 23 November, and told them she was scared because Dilawar had threatened to kill her. Arooj had worked for Anti-Crime for a year and a half before accepting the owner’s marriage proposal. According to Arooj’s mother, her ordeal began as soon as they were married, because Dilawar immediately proved to be violent and to be “a very bad husband.”

He was never arrested or charged, evidence against him notwithstanding. He provided the police with an alibi to claim that he was in the Maldives on the evening that Arooj was murdered and did not return to Pakistan until the next day, November 26. But the fact that Dilawar was in the Maldives does not mean he could not have arranged for her to be murdered. “This is certainly possible,” RSF was told by Muhammad Iqbal, a police investigator who was involved in the Arooj murder investigation. He said he knew of other cases in which “the accused went abroad or even got themselves arrested for a petty crime in order to strengthen their case for non-involvement.”

As Yasir pursued the murder case, he became the target of threats. “I was constantly receiving threats from Dilawar and his associates, and my younger brother was even confronted on a road by a group of thugs who told him there would be dire consequences if I did not back off,” he told RSF. The persistence of the threats ended up scaring Tahira Begum, the mother of Arooj and Yasir. The quest for justice for her daughter was turning into a nightmare. “We kept on getting new threats,” she said. “I was terrified. I did not want my family to suffer another tragedy. The period after Arooj’s murder had been very stressful for me and had given a heart condition.”

The role of police was questionable throughout. In the complaint that Arooj had filed, she accused certain police officers of “protecting Dilawar’s interests.” Those at the bottom of the social scale are often reduced to suffering the consequences of what the powerful do, as the fate suffered by the Iqbal family has shown. To avoid any possibility of being charged in connection with Arooj’s murder, Dilawar developed a two-fold strategy, using death threats to terrorise her brothers and mother while at the same time taking advantage of his contacts within the Punjab Assembly. He approached an MPA, Chaudhry Shahbaz, and asked him to use his influence on the family and get them accept an out-of-court settlement. The MPA used the “panchayat,” to settle the murder case. Things moved quickly. Six weeks after the murder, on January 15, 2020, an agreement was signed by Arooj’s brother Yasir, by her mother, Tahira Begum, and by the leading suspect, Dilawar Ali. RSF obtained a copy. At one point, it says: “I hereby swear that my family and I regard Party No 2 (Dilawar Ali) as the culprit, that he killed my sister Arooj Iqbal or had her killed. In Panchayat, Party No 1 (Yasir) and his family decide that they all forgive Party No 2 so that he may obtain God’s clemency. Signed: Yasir Iqbal.”