Qandeel Baloch was Pakistan’s first celebrity by social media who defied the country’s conservatism and came to define the bold aspirations of a woman from a lower middle class background, until she was murdered by her brother Waseem Azeem in the name of “honour” in 2016. After confessing to the murder, Azeem changed his plea, but was found guilty in September 2019 and given a life sentence. On February 14, 2022, however, he was acquitted, said his lawyer, after serving less than six years in jail following his initial arrest.

Here is an excerpt from Sanam Maher’s book, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, which investigates the entire incident.

...[U]p until July 2016, when Waseem confessed to killing his sister Qandeel, the laws remained the same. A murder committed for honour in Pakistan was still the perfect crime: when a brother shot his own sister or a father bludgeoned his daughter or a mother burned her daughter alive, there was rarely any punishment. Families protected their own.

However, Qandeel’s case appeared to be different. Here, a father accused his sons of conspiring to murder their sister, and he wanted the harshest punishments possible meted out to them.

Qandeel’s father had stated in his FIR that his son Aslam had encouraged Waseem to go through with the murder. However, Waseem proudly accepted all responsibility. “It’s just me,” he told the media after his arrest. “I did this all alone.” He seemed to want to take all the credit for “saving” his family’s honour.

In an interview three months later, his mother would say that Waseem thought he would be in jail for “two to three months and then after he will be free”. Her son, she said, “was not aware that this would become a high-profile case”.

Muhammad Azeem was praised when he told the media that his daughter had been the “best son of all sons” – she had taken care of her parents and supported the family when none of their sons stepped forward to do so. Azeem wept in an interview with BBC Urdu as he thought of how Qandeel must have called out to her parents for help on the night she was killed.

“I say shoot my son on sight,” Azeem said. “He suffocated my little one.” Even in October, when Azeem’s right to pardon his son for Qandeel’s murder was taken away from him, he reiterated, “There is no pardon from our side.” He wanted his son to be punished “at the earliest” and said Waseem “should get life imprisonment or death – I will feel happy”.

It’s a statement that Azeem would repeat often, as in his last major television interview in October 2016, he said he would never bow to pressure from his family to forgive Waseem – even though he and Anwar bibi no longer had the financial support that Qandeel had provided. He swore he would never take a rupee from his sons. “God will provide for me,” he said. “I don’t need these sons... I will never take anything from them.” When Anwar bibi, sitting next to him in the interview, told him to be quiet, he raised his voice. “I am the petitioner in this case,” he grumbled. “I will never forgive him.”

However, when I met Qandeel’s parents in November 2016, Azeem’s resolve seemed to be crumbling. After an initial sum of money from a crowdfunding campaign run by a few activists had come through, donations had all but dried up. One activist I spoke with confessed that she was hesitant to send Qandeel’s parents money through their intermediary Safdar Shah – there was no way to account for where the money was being spent once he had it.

Azeem told me that Waseem’s friends have visited him in jail. He was now facing the death penalty or a life in prison.Waseem’s friends told Azeem that his son cried out in his sleep, and sometimes, woke up screaming. He dreamed of his sister. Waseem now said that he was intoxicated the night that he planned to kill Qandeel.

When he tried to strangle her, he could not do it because he felt so weak. When she screamed in fear, he was startled and wanted to run away from her room and that house. And so, it fell to his cousin Haq Nawaz to choke Qandeel. Waseem claimed he had only held Qandeel down so Haq Nawaz could go through with it. Haq Nawaz had already surrendered to the police in Dera Ghazi Khan on 25 July.

In December 2016, a month after I met Qandeel’s parents in Multan, Waseem and Haq Nawaz were formally charged with the murder of Qandeel Baloch, while a third, Abdul Basit, was charged with conspiracy to murder for his role in driving the getaway car. The three men pleaded not guilty.

In January 2017, Muhammad Azeem retracted his statement against his other son Aslam – he no longer believed that Aslam had encouraged Waseem to carry out the murder. A criminal case was registered against Azeem and Anwar bibi, accusing them of trying to save one of their sons. If the charges are proved, they face a possible jail term of seven years and a fine.

The police officer who brought the charges against Qandeel’s parents insinuated that they had been bribed. He claimed he saw Aslam give “a sealed envelope to his father and mother and said he had fulfilled their demand, and they should now give a statement in his favour in court”. Speaking with the media, Qandeel’s parents denied the accusation. “We wrongly nominated Aslam in Qandeel’s murder,” they said. “We were enraged at that time.”

In an interview in July 2017 with Adil Nizami – the reporter who broke the story of Qandeel’s murder, and who has since moved up in the media industry as the host of his own show – Safdar Shah explained that there was no foul play and no bribe from Aslam. Speaking for Qandeel’s parents, he said that Aslam had arrived in Multan more than a month after Qandeel’s death. “He called me and pleaded with me to get him a meeting with his parents,” Shah claimed.

“When I took him to the parents, they clung to him and wept... Aslam said, ‘Baba, why did you put my name as a suspect in the FIR?’” What Shah saw next amazed him. “I have never seen a father beg for forgiveness from a son,” he said. “Azeem asked his son for forgiveness and said, ‘I made a mistake. I had gone mad.’”

Shah said that Anwar bibi confided in him that on the day the murder was discovered, the police had treated her and Azeem badly, and had immediately demanded to know who had murdered their daughter. In their grief and shock, they could only think of their sons’ names.

The district prosecutor, Jam Salahuddin, had initially claimed that the murder trial would be wrapped up within three months. Today, close to a year since hearings first began, another suspect has taken precedence over Waseem or any other member of Qandeel’s family: Mufti Abdul Qavi.

On 12 October 2017, a court in Multan issued non-bailable arrest warrants for Mufti Qavi after police officials claimed he was not cooperating with them. Mufti Qavi refuted the allegations, and on 17 October, appeared in court for the first time for a hearing in Qandeel’s case. “We will accept whatever decision the judiciary announces,” he told the media outside the courtroom.

However, the very next day, Mufti Qavi was in court for a verdict regarding his bail, but fled from the courtroom before the verdict could be announced. He was arrested by police on the highway leading out of Multan.A sub-inspector of the police was also arrested on charges of helping Mufti Qavi “escape”. Mufti Qavi’s lawyer insisted that the cleric was simply on his way to a funeral at the time of his arrest.

Hours after he was taken into police custody, Mufti Qavi complained of chest pains and was admitted to a hospital in Multan. On 30 October, it was reported that Muhammad Azeem testified that Mufti Qavi had offered him money to drop the charges against him. He claimed that Mufti Qavi had ordered Qandeel’s murder. There were rumours that Mufti Qavi had transferred money to Qandeel’s brothers’ bank accounts in Dera Ghazi Khan before she was murdered. He has denied all charges.

As Qandeel’s family and Mufti Qavi continue to squabble over whose honour was avenged by her death, the legislation that was praised as a game changer for cases such as Qandeel’s has been criticised as toothless and mere lip service by the government to the cause of women’s rights. After all, as one critic asked, “Why did it take a documentary that won international acclaim to prod the prime minister’s conscience on this matter? Aren’t the hundreds of corpses each year enough?”

Some see the amended legislation as part of the government’s push to brand itself as “pro-women” in order to attract more female voters in the general elections in 2018. While that ploy may fail, these “feminist policies”, noted one critic, “help garner the support of educated urban elites and project a good liberal face for the international community...”

More than a year has passed since the amended legislation, and yet, activists and researchers say there has been no change in the number of killings.The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates that at least 524 cases of “honour killings” took place between October 2016, when the new legislation came into effect, and October 2017. According to one activist, the number can be significantly higher, as culprits can now claim a motive other than honour in these killings in order to avail the pardon that is still offered for other murder cases.

Even in cases where the killer confesses to an honour crime, critics say that the threat of the death penalty or life imprisonment is not enough to counter the fear of losing one’s “respect” or “honour” within a tribe, community or family, thereby becoming a pariah. In March 2017, it was revealed that Saba, the subject of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar-winning documentary, feared for her life as her uncle “never forgot the dishonour she had brought on the family”. When her uncle reportedly saw a trailer for the documentary, Saba said, he came to her house at night and “started shooting from his pistol”.

In some cases, the victim’s family may be compelled to commit an honour crime. In September 2017, a teenage couple who tried to elope were captured and electrocuted to death by their families in Karachi after a jirga or council of elders in their parent’s village, hundreds of miles away, declared that the boy and girl had brought dishonour to the community and had to be killed.The families say they had no choice but to comply if they wished to remain a part of the community.

While the new legislation reinforces the court’s discretion to punish those found guilty of honour crimes even if they are pardoned by the victim’s family, some lawyers say that judges are hesitant to impose harsh punishments. In some instances, the judges’ remarks regarding honour crimes leave much to be desired.

The HRCP notes that 149 of the “honour killings” recorded between October 2016 and October 2017 took place because of the victim’s “marriage choice”. Even so, in February 2017, it was telling that a Sindh High Court judge, when presented with a couple pleading for police protection from their families after they had married of their own choice, scolded them. If “love marriages don’t succeed in films, then how will they succeed in real life?” the judge asked. He further noted, “Those who contract love marriage come in the court after some time for divorce.”

The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch

Excerpted with permission from The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, Sanam Maher, Aleph Book Company.