“All our lives we have lived in purdah. Now that we have finally met, your locks look so beautiful,” sang four young women, sitting in a room on the bare floor, draped in dark shawls. It is a song in Kohistani, a language spoken in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The women clapped along. Away from them, a young man with bangs danced.

A video clip featuring the five started doing the rounds in May 2012. Since then, three of the four women and four brothers of the dancing man have been killed. One of the brothers, Muhammad Afzal, was murdered on March 6.

That evening, Afzal was sitting inside a passenger van in Abbottabad city’s garrison area. According to his nephew, Faizur Rehman, who was accompanying him, an armed man, Abdul Hameed, appeared there along with two others, Mosam Khan and Bazameer, and opened fire at Afzal. Hit by several bullets, he died on his way to a hospital.

Doubts on a killing

The incident took place near a police station. A policeman posted there says he rushed to the site of the gunfire – a nearby van terminal – as soon as he heard about it. When he reached there, he saw a young man trying to escape. The policeman followed him and caught hold of him. He was carrying a loaded handgun and a spare magazine with 10 bullets in it. His name, Faizur Rehman. The gun he was carrying was licensed under the name of his uncle, Afzal, who carried it along all the time.

Police officials in Abbottabad say Rehman has changed his statement about the incident several times. If there were any assailants as he claims and one of them did fire at Afzal as he describes, the police ask, how did Rehman escape the bullets given that he was sitting closer to the rear opening of the van than his uncle – thus, being more vulnerable to firing from outside.

Gul Nazar and Bin Yasir go through the case file of their brother’s killing. Credit: Shah Nawaz Tarakai/Herald Dawn

They are also sceptical of Rehman’s claim that he pulled out the gun from a holster tied to Afzal’s waist to fire back at the attackers. If so, they ask, how did he find time amid all the emergency caused by the attack to lay his hands on the additional magazine?

The police claim to have an eyewitness, Kaleemullah, a tribesman from Bajaur tribal district, to corroborate their version. Kaleemullah saw a roadside vendor – who also came from Bajaur – being hit by a bullet that had gone through Afzal’s body. When Kaleemullah rushed to help the injured vendor, he saw Rehman with the gun which he thought was the source of the bullet that had hit the vendor. Kaleemullah tried to grab Rehman and was fired at from the same gun. He ran away to save his life, he claims, but Rehman chased him and shot him on the second floor of a nearby cloth store.

A forensic report also states the bullets found in Afzal’s body and the one that injured Kaleemullah were both fired from the same pistol recovered from Rehman. The police have arrested him and lodged a case against him for the murder of his own uncle.

Dr Farzana Bari, an Islamabad-based academic and women’s rights activist, who has been following the whole video clip saga since its beginning, says Afzal came to her house to condole the death of a niece of hers only two days before he was murdered. “His nephew, Faizur Rehman, was with him,” she says and wonders why he would kill Afzal in a public place while the two stayed in each other’s company all the time.

The police have also arrested Mosam Khan, one of the two people accompanying Afzal’s attacker. He has been kept in detention for investigation for several weeks now though no case has been filed against him.

The file cover of Muhammad Afzal’s case pending in a court. Credit: Shah Nawaz Tarakai/Herald Dawn

The Afzal, who was

Afzal once lived and worked in Mansehra city, in the northeastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. He was married to a girl he loved. She came from a background completely different from his own.

Afzal was a Kohistani tribesman, born and brought up in a mountainous village in the Kolai-Palas region (which was made a district in 2017 after separating it from Kohistan district). His wife was a city dweller who belonged to a Hindko-speaking family of Abbottabad city.

Afzal was quite enterprising. At various stages in his life, he ran a tailoring shop, worked as a clerk with a lawyer, sold tickets for government-run buses that connect the Gilgit-Baltistan region with the rest of Pakistan, and even traded bee honey. He also studied law in his spare time. Two of his younger brothers – Gul Nazar, a college student, and Bin Yasir, a manual labourer – also lived with him.

Their father, Narang, had a big family – seven sons and a daughter. Narang belonged to a tribe called Salehkhel and lived in Gadaar village along Karakoram Highway some 160 km north from Mansehra. The village had only three other families that came from the same tribe as Narang’s. The members of another tribe, Azadkhel, comprised 75% of the local population of around 200 households. The rest belonged to two smaller tribes.

Before he died about 20 years ago, Narang worked as a tailor. He also owned a small patch of land in Gadaar where his sons worked hard and produced over 20,000 kilogrammes of corn every year. His large family lived comfortably, if not luxuriously.

His sons also enjoyed considerable respect among their fellow villagers. One of them would lead prayers at a local mosque. Life for his children was peaceful and decent.

The night that changed all

Sometime in 2010, Nazar and Yasir travelled from Mansehra to Gadaar to be with their family. One night during their visit, four women from Gasaar – Siran Jan, Begum Jan, Bazeegha and Amina, all from Azadkhel tribe – came to their house. They sat down in a room along with the two boys and, after a brief conversation, started singing to the beat of their own clapping, “All our lives we have lived in purdah...”

One of the young men, Nazar, danced and the other, Yasir, recorded the singing, clapping and dancing, on a mobile phone. This is at least what the families of the young women allege.

Around two years later, the video clip surfaced on the internet. As it went viral, police officials at a local police station registered a case, alleging that “Bin Yasir and Gul Nazar called the women of Azadkhel caste to their dera where they made an obscene video of the women and made public the same.” Within days, the two brothers were arrested under the Motion Pictures Ordinance and held in custody for six and a half months.

Nazar and Yasir deny meeting the women. They say someone mixed a video clip of Nazar’s dance, made at an uncle’s wedding, with a video of women singing and clapping. Nobody takes their claim seriously.

On December 18, 2012, Nazar and Yasir were acquitted after a trial court found that the video was neither obscene nor disseminated by the two.

The brothers immediately shifted to Lahore for their safety.

Two of their elder brothers, Afzal and Gul Shahzada (who worked as a tailor in a valley below his own village), had by then shifted to Allai, a former princely state, in Battagram district, halfway between Mansehra and Kolai-Palas. A powerful Allai landowner had offered them protection against any hostilities from the Azadkhel tribe. Nazar and Yasir, too, joined them there a few days later.

Three other Salehkhel families living in Gadaar also moved to Allai, leaving behind Narang’s three sons, their wives and children.

Nobody knew what happened to the women. Police in Kolai-Palas said an Azadkhel jirga (village council) assembled soon after the video clip emerged. The participants of the jirga ruled that those who appeared in the video were chor (thieves). They demanded, as is local custom in such cases, that the women in the video, the woman who took them to Narang’s house and the two young men were all liable to be killed since they had hurt the honour of the whole Azadkhel tribe.

An intervention

Afzal did not want these punishments to materialise. Soon after his brothers were taken into police custody, he started approaching journalists and human rights activists, alerting them that the lives of the women in the video were in danger. If anything, his efforts had a contrary effect: local people turned against him. They were incensed that he was disregarding tribal traditions that govern the interaction between men and women who are not related by blood. His demands for the protection of the women were seen as a transgression that brought dishonour to the whole Kohistan region and its conservative culture.

Gul Shahzada, a brother of Muhammad Afzal. Credit: Shah Nawaz Tarakai/Herald Dawn

Within days, though, Afzal’s voice started resonating elsewhere.

On June 4, 2012, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, took suo moto notice of reports that the women might have already been killed. He immediately directed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police to find out what was going on in Gadaar.

A police report presented during the next hearing refuted what was already public knowledge in many parts of Kolai-Palas. They said that no jirga had been held over the video, let alone anyone having killed the women featuring in it. Justice Chaudhry asked police officials if they had met the women. They said they had not because the tribal tradition of purdah would not permit that.

As proceedings that day moved towards a close, Justice Chaudhry spotted Dr Bari, the Islamabad based activist in the audience at his court and told the police to take her to Gadaar to investigate the case again. He also directed Rehman Malik, the then federal interior minister who was also present in Court, to arrange a helicopter to fly Bari and police officials to the village.

Bari thought that she should take some others along with her. She contacted the National Commission on the Status for Women to recommend some names for the purpose. She received three names: Shabeena Ayaz (who works with Aurat Foundation, an Islamabad-based non-government organisation focused on women’s rights), Dr Fouzia Saeed (a researcher, writer and women’s rights activist) and Riffat Inam Butt (a National Commission on the Status for Women representative).

All three women agreed to accompany Bari. With their inclusion, what originally was to be a police probe became a fact-finding mission.

In pursuit of facts

When the members of the mission flew into the Kolai-Palas area, they could not go straight to Gadaar because the village, located on a high cliff, had no suitable place for a helicopter to land. They, instead, landed in Sartay, a village nestled in the valley below.

Muhammad Afzal’s daughter. Credit: Shah Nawaz Tarakai/Herald Dawn

The residents of Gadaar had been informed about the visit but none of them arrived in Sartay to meet the mission. They were still in their village high up in the mountains. If the members of the mission wanted to meet the families of the women, they had to either climb up the mountains or wait for the villagers to climb down.

Instead of waiting in Sartay, the members of the mission decided that they would climb halfway up and asked the villagers to climb halfway down. Everyone agreed.

The trek uphill was arduous so Saeed decided to stay back. The other women, too, had to use police batons for support to climb upwards. After an hour and a half, they reached a place where one of the women from the video, Amina, was present to see them. “We were informed that other women could not come down because they were too high up in the mountains,” said Bari.

The members of the mission told the Supreme Court during the next hearing that they could only meet one of the women from the video. The court then formed a judicial commission, to be headed by an additional district and sessions judge, Munira Abbasi, to probe further and submit its report in 10 days. The commission was to also include all the three women who had met Amina.

On the day its members were scheduled to leave for Gadaar, again in a helicopter, Bari turned up at a helipad in Islamabad to find that Ayaz, Saeed and Butt were not there. In their place, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the then provincial information minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Bushra Gohar, a member of the National Assembly representing the Awami National Party that then headed the coalition government in the province, were waiting for her.

Bari said Gohar told her that other commission members had been informed about the visit’s schedule and still they did not turn up. When Bari called the three herself, they said they had not heard from the authorities responsible for arranging their visit.

(Gohar said she did not have anything to do with who should have been in the commission and who should not. The terms of reference for the commission were made by the Supreme Court and conveyed to the head of the commission, she said. “I was asked by the then spokesman of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [government] Mian Iftikhar Hussain to accompany [the members of the commission] to Kohistan,” Gohar said. Meanwhile, Hussain said he wanted to accompany the commission in order to “provide them administrative-level facilitation” and that he was “not supposed to call the members of the commission…[They themselves were] supposed to ensure their timely presence at the helipad”.)

Gohar then insisted, according to Bari, that they should leave immediately because they also had to pick judge Abbasi from Abbottabad.

Children of the four brothers murdered after the Kohistan video leak. Credit: Shah Nawaz Tarakai/Herald Dawn

A coverup?

Their helicopter landed again in Sartay. Azadkhel tribesmen, including the families of the women, were waiting for them inside a tent there. They had brought two of the women with them whom they introduced as Siran Jan and Begum Jan. Amina was not there this time around (because the earlier fact-finding mission had already told the Supreme Court that she was alive) while Bazeegha could not make it because she was reported to be pregnant and, therefore, could not travel.

“There was a strong resemblance between the girls present in the tent and those in the video,” said Bari but, she added, they were not the same. She said she immediately protested that the women showed to them were not the ones in the video. “The moment I said this, both Bushra Gohar and Munira Abbasi hastened to convince me that they were, indeed, the same girls,” she said. “I was confused but I had to go with what others said.”

Next day when Bari went to a meeting with Abbasi, she had already written a report, stating the women they had met were the same as in the video. Bari wrote a dissenting note, saying that she did not agree with the conclusion reached by Abbasi.

(Gohar disagrees with this account. She said: “The Munira Commission recommended [a] forensic analysis of the new photos [and the] old stills taken from the video and [the] verification of [the women’s] fingerprints.”)

Upon receiving the report, the chief justice closed the case by ruling that “no sign and evidence whatsoever” was found regarding the “murder of the said girls”. He cited the commission’s account of its meeting with the women and “the statements of the girls, recorded on the spot by the commission/judicial officer,” as the reason for having reached his conclusion.

But he also added a caveat: since there is a dissenting note in the commission’s report, the case can be reopened if and when any evidence emerges to contradict the report’s findings.

Case not closed

Holding on to that, Bari continued to look for evidence. She reached out to a foreign journalist to help her analyse the women’s photos. The journalist connected her with a Britain-based company, Digital Barriers, that studied the photos and reported to her on February 25, 2013, that there was just a 40% resemblance in one case and in the other, only 14%.

Bari wrote a letter to Justice Chaudhry and shared these findings with him but he did not respond to her directly. The Supreme Court, instead, informed her through the vice chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University, where she was teaching at the time, that the case could not be reopened on the basis of the facts she had provided to the court. The court’s missive issued on April 16, 2013, stated, “No further action is called for.”

Relatives of Muhammad Afzal, now living in Allai. Credit: Shah Nawaz Tarakai/Herald Dawn

While all this was happening in Islamabad, Afzal’s three brothers, Sher Wali, Shah Faisal, and Rafiuddin, who were still living in Gadaar, were allegedly killed by the members of Azadkhel tribe on January 3, 2013. The three had wrongly believed that they faced no threat because they were neither in the video nor were involved in its dissemination. Even traditions that people follow in this part of the country in matters of tribal honour did not, in this particular case, require that they are killed.

Lies and incompatibilities

On February 8, 2014, Maulana Dildar Ahmed, a former member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly from Kohistan, held a press conference. He alleged that all the four women featured in the video, as well as the one who took them to Narang’s house, had been murdered.

His allegations prompted another round of litigation. Afzal filed a petition at a court in Dasu, the headquarters of Kohistan district, for the production of the women. The families of the women moved the Peshawar High Court against his petition, pleading that no action be taken on it because another petition by him to reopen the probe into the video and its aftermath was already pending a hearing at the Supreme Court. The high court granted their request.

Afzal and the National Commission on the Status for Women, that had also become a party to his petition in Dasu, challenged the high court ruling at the Supreme Court where it was heard by Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan. After hearing the parties concerned, he set up another commission, on November 10, 2016, comprising Kohistan’s District and Sessions Court Judge, Shoaib Khan. The justice directed the commission to meet the women to verify if they were alive and well.

Shoaib Khan went to Gadaar along with a woman police officer, Shahzadi Noshad Gillani. Azadkhel tribe produced some women, one by one, in front of the two but did not allow them to be photographed.

The report that judge Shoaib Khan submitted to the Supreme Court on December 2, 2016 stated, “The girls produced were observed [to be] extremely nervous and frightened. They were hardly able to respond to queries… [They had] incompatible reflexes and face expressions. In response to most of the queries, it was commonly observed that they were supplied with words from elders …especially about their ages and husbands.”

The tribe claimed that the first girl produced before the commission was Amina. “By appearance, she was about 15 years old,” Judge Khan’s report said. “Reportedly, the video was shot back in the year 2010 and [it] surfaced [on the internet] in 2012. If we subtract the six years from [Amina’s] age, her age at the time of video shooting would be between 8 years or 9 years whereas women visible in the [video]… look to be aged between 20 years or 22 years back in the year 2010.”

The commission noted another problem as well. After it recorded Amina’s statement, she was told to verify it by putting her thumb impression on it. She could not do so because the skin on both her thumbs was burnt. Her fingerprints were all missing.

The second girl produced before the commission was reported to be Siran Jan. “Neither she nor her father was able to tell her age,” stated the report. “By appearance, she was not more than 16 years or 17 years of age… [She] would have been aged 9 years or 10 years [in 2010].” Records maintained by the National Database and Registration Authority put Siran Jan’s date of birth on February 2, 1993, which, the commission noted, “made her appearance incompatible with her age”.

The commission found similar incompatibilities in the appearances of the third and the fourth girls as well. In their cases, the ages given by their families would make them minors back in 2010. The husbands of the girls were also not produced before the commission even when it had given the tribe “clear directions” for their production.

On the basis of its findings, the commission reached the “conclusion that something was wrong”. It noted that the girls produced in front of it “are not [those] allegedly visible in the video”.

For around a year and a half after its report was presented to the Supreme Court, the case did not move forward much because of various procedural reasons. Then Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan retired on May 7, 2018.

Chhildren from Narag's family. Credit: Shah Nawaz Tarakai/Herald Dawn

More litigation

Bari later wrote to the Supreme Court to resume proceedings on the report and conduct an early hearing in the case. Justice Saqib Nisar, who was then Chief Justice of Pakistan, subsequently directed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police to inform the court about progress in the case. To comply with the order, a senior police official in Kohistan formed a special investigating team on July 7, 2018.

Since Bari did not trust the police, she asked the National Commission for Human Rights, a government entity, to include some representatives of civil society in the probe team. The commission accepted her request, directing the district police officer of Kohistan on July 20, 2018 to include her and Ismat Raza Shahjahan, a social and political activist based in Islamabad, among the investigators. The commission also told the officer to submit a comprehensive report by the end of that month.

The investigation team was finally able to find out that three girls – Siran Jan, Begum Jan and Bazeegha – had been murdered. The investigators, therefore, recommended that a case be constituted against eight people from the Azadkhel tribe.

The case was registered on July 31, 2018 at Palas police station and the tribesmen named in it were subsequently arrested. They were accused of instigating and abetting the killing of the girls as well as of giving false information to investigating agencies in order to protect their murderers.

The counsel of the accused at a trial court later contended that the girls were murdered by Shamsuddin, Siran Jan’s brother. In a strange twist to the case, Shamsuddin was already dead by then – shot in Palas on July 20, 2018. (His cousin Mosam Khan had nominated Gul Nazar and five others as Shamsuddin’s murderers. Mosam Khan himself is now in detention for his alleged involvement in Afzal’s murder.)

The defence counsel also claimed during the trial that two girls – Amina and the one who had taken the four to Narang’s house – were alive and had, indeed, appeared in the same trial court to record their statements. There is sufficient reason to doubt the second part of his contention. The commission headed by judge Shoaib Khan had raised serious questions about the identity of the girl presented in front of him as Amina. If the same girl was presented in the trial court then, of course, it meant Amina was not alive.

On February 13 this year, the under-trial tribesmen moved the Abbottabad bench of the Peshawar High Court, seeking release on bail. On March 18, the high court ruled that seven of them had hoodwinked investigating agencies by producing other girls in place of the ones in the video. Their bail applications were rejected. Only the eighth person, Habibullah, was allowed to be freed on bail.

Afzal’s death

In June 2017, a house was set ablaze in Bandi Maweshyan, a locality in Gadaar inhabited by the Azadkhel tribe. Three children and two women were burnt to death in the incident. The tribe alleged that Afzal and two other men had set the house on fire.

During his trial, Afzal tried to prove that he was present elsewhere at the time of the incident but the court did not accept his alibi. The Peshawar High Court, too, did not agree to his contention. He spent the next 16 months in jail until the trial court, on finding other evidence of his innocence, acquitted him in February.

Afzal had been home hardly for a month when he was shot dead. He had been asking for protection since the summer of 2012, says Abdul Saboor, an Abbottabad-based lawyer who represented Afzal’s brothers in the video leak case.

Two years ago, Afzal had married a second time. This time into his own Salehkhel tribe. His brothers Nazar and Yasir now take care of his widows and four children. They have also married the widows of their two brothers killed in 2013. Their other surviving brother, Gul Shahzada, who was already married to another woman, has married the widow of their third brother killed that year.

Narang’s once-prospering family now has 21 orphan children. His lone daughter’s son is facing the charge of having murdered the same uncle his own mother had designated him to guard.

Songs surely can cause grief. Some can even kill.

This article first appeared on Herald.