PESHAWAR - A teen girl in Abbottabad district was drugged, strangled and then her body set ablaze because she helped her friend elope, police said Thursday, announcing the arrest of 14 people in a twist on the grim practice of ‘honour killings’.

Ambreen, 16, was set ablaze last week in the town of Donga Gali, about 50km northeast of capital Islamabad on the orders of a village jirga (council), said district police chief Saeed Wazir.

The girl’s mother, Shamim Bibi told police her daughter had helped elope a couple from the nearby village of Makol in defiance of cultural norms.

“The jirga then (on April 29) took her to an abandoned place outside the village and made her unconscious by injecting her with some drugs,” said Wazir.

“Then they seated the girl in a Suzuki van in which the couple had escaped. They tied her hands to the seats and then poured petrol on her and the vehicle.” The vehicle was set ablaze. “I hadn’t seen such a barbaric attack in my whole life,” he said.

The honour killing was ordered as punishment for what the council deemed irreparable damage to the village’s reputation. The couple appeared to have escaped.

“Police have arrested 13 members of the jirga who ordered the murder of the girl,” district police chief Khurram Rasheed said. The victim’s mother and brother were also arrested because they supported the jirga’s decision.

A local anti-terrorism court on Thursday remanded the suspects into police custody for two weeks on murder and terrorism charges.

Locals said the couple ran away on April 23. They believe they have contracted a marriage and are now living in hiding.

According to the statements of the accused, an elected nazim of a village council (Pervez) headed the jirga at the house of the owner of the van (Naseer Ahmed) on April 28 where they discussed the elopement of Saima.

The jirga in its decree accused Ambreen of facilitating Saima to elope with a boy she loved. It also found Naseer guilty as his van was used by the eloping girl. The jirga decided that both Ambreen and Naseer must be punished for earning a bad name to the village and an example should be set so that no girl can dare marry without consent of their family.

As per the decision, Ambreen was called outside her house on the night of April 28. She was first given drugs to make her unconscious and then strangled. Later her body was tied to the back seat of the van and the van was set ablaze at Donga Gali last Friday. Another vehicle parked near the gutted van also caught fire and was burnt out.

Ambreen’s father Riasat, a labourer who works in Balochistan’s Gadani area returned to his village soon after the incident. Sources said that victim’s family is stated to be the poor one, while family of the girl who has eloped is relatively well-off.

Graphic images of Ambreen’s mutilated body made rounds on the internet and sparked outrage among people. After seeing those pictures, a local resident approached journalists to highlight the issue and present the true story, so that justice could be done.

Soon after the tragic incident, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights ordered stern action against the culprits.

CM’s adviser on information Mushtaq Ghani, who also belongs to Abbottabad district, met with victim’s family. He condemned Ambreen’s killing in strong words and said that the jirga was illegal and it has no status, because it was not consisting of elders but of infamous people.

Locals said that holding jirgas is a common practice in the area but this is the first time an incident of this type has taken place. Women are being killed in the name of honour in Pakistan, but it is rare to hear that a facilitator of an eloping couple is punished to death.

DPO Khurram Rasheed said that head of the jirga, Pervez, had confessed to the crime. He said that police traced the accused through mobile data and they were picked up one after another. He said that FIR has been registered against the jirga members in the case under Section 302 of Pakistan Penal Code and Section 7 of Anti-Terrorism Act.

Jirgas, or tribal councils, are often called parts of Pakistan as a means of local conflict resolution, but their edicts have no legal standing under country’s law.

More than 500 men and women were killed in honour killings in the country last year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Many of those crimes are carried out by relatives who say the victims have brought shame on the family.

Few cases go to court, but among those that do, attackers are often forgiven under a clause of law rooted in Islamic law. Legislation is currently pending at Pakistan’s parliament to close the loophole, which many say encourages such attacks.

Activist Samar Minallah said such jirgas can make such decisions to teach a lesson to other women in the community. “Until and unless you take strong action against these jirga members and their supporters in the community, no law can help to stop the brutal killing of women for honour,” she said.

Pakistan amended its criminal code in 2005 to prevent men who kill female relatives escaping punishment by pardoning themselves as an “heir” of the victim. But it is left to a judge’s discretion to decide whether to impose a prison sentence when other relatives of the victim forgive the killer - a loophole which critics say remains exploited.

“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” - a film telling the story of a rare survivor of an attempted honour killing - won the Academy Award for best documentary short in February. Amid publicity for the film, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to eradicate the evil of honour killings but no fresh legislation has been tabled since then.

SAID ALAM KHAN/agencies