Human Rights Watch today denounced death threats against two Pakistani human rights defenders and urged the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to press Pakistani authorities to guarantee their security. The organization called for the government of Pakistan to provide immediate protection for the two renowned activists, Hina Jilani and Asma Jehangir, threatened with death for their defense of a twenty-nine year old woman murdered by her family for trying to obtain a divorce.
Ironically, Ms. Jehangir is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings.
The death threats were issued by a number of religious groups, most notably the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, and backed by a group of individuals who are members of the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce. The threats follow upon the "honor killing" of twenty-nine year old Samia Sarwar, daughter of Haji Ghulam Sarwar, president of the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Sarwar was seeking a divorce and was shot to death in the chambers of Jilani and Jehangir, her lawyers. The killer was retained by her family and came to the office with her mother and paternal uncle. He also shot at Jilani, narrowly missing her. In the wake of the attack, Jilani and Jehangir have received death threats from Mr. Sarwar and his supporters, who have reportedly offered a reward to anyone who assassinates them.
Despite public protests and demonstrations, Pakistani authorities have yet to make arrests in the case. "It's outrageous that the culprits remain free and publicly visible," said Regan Ralph, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "Even worse, they are actively threatening and harassing Samia Sarwar's attorneys."
Pakistani authorities have traditionally taken a lenient stance on so-called "honor killings." In many cases perpetrators are not prosecuted. Those who are brought before the courts often receive disproportionately light sentences.
"This murderous custom must stop. The Pakistani government cannot simply dismiss this practice as a long-standing social evil," said Ralph. "The failure to punish "honor" crimes signals government acceptance of a social and legal system that devalues women's lives." She urged the government to make the arrest of Ms. Sarwar's father, mother and uncle a top priority and to ensure the safety of Jilani and Jehangir.