NEW YORK - Human Rights Watch, a prominent international watchdog body, has asked the Pakistani govt to send a message of “zero tolerance” by urgently investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the recent spate of “honour” killings in the country. 

“So-called honour killings have been a long-festering problem in Pakistan, and the recent escalating trend makes it clear they won’t go away on their own,” said Brad Adams, Asia director, said in a statement, referring to a series of incidents around the country.

“The govt needs to step up its prosecution of these horrific cases and send a message of zero tolerance.”

In Pakistan, HRW noted, murders to protect family or community “honour” have received widespread attention in recent weeks.

On June 8, 2016,  the rights body referred to Zeenat Rafiq, 18, who was burned to death in Lahore by her mother for “bringing shame to the family” by marrying a man of her choice. On May 31, family members tortured and burned to death a 19-year-old school teacher in Murree, Punjab province for refusing an arranged marriage proposal.

On May 5, the body of Amber, 16, was found inside a vehicle that had been set on fire in Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, after a jirga, or traditional assembly of elders, ordered her death for helping her friend marry of her own choice.

Pakistani law allows the family of a murder victim to pardon the perpetrator, HRW said.

This practice is often used in cases of “honour” killings, where the victim and perpetrator frequently belong to the same family, in order to evade prosecution. The 2004 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act made “honour” killings a criminal offence, but HRW said the law remains poorly enforced.

In February 2016, a documentary about “honour” killings by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, “A Girl in the River,” won an Academy Award.

The film prompted Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif to speak out publicly on “honour” killings, stating that he would look into the issue and seek reform.

In March, Pakistan’s Senate passed an anti-honour killing bill, which is now pending National Assembly approval.

HRW urged Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to support the bill, which seeks to eliminate the option of murder committed in the name of “honour” to be “forgiven.”

“Pakistani law literally allows killers to get away with murdering the women in their families,” Adams said. “The law should be protecting women from these vicious acts – not enshrining an escape clause for their killers.”

Legislative changes are only a part of the solution, HRW said, adding, the Pakistani govt should ensure that police impartially investigate “honour” killings without bowing to political or other pressure from local and religious leaders. The govt should also ensure that safe emergency shelter, protection, and support is available to any woman or girl who may be at risk from her family.

In May 2016, HRW noted the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) proposed that men should be allowed to “lightly” beat their wives, “if needed,” and prohibited the mixing of genders in schools, hospitals and offices.

During a June 10 television programme, a Senator from an Islamist political party, JUI-F, verbally abused and attempted to physically assault Marvi Sarmed, a human rights activist, for criticising the CII.

“Statements from the governmental Council of Islamic Ideology are making an already toxic environment for women in Pakistan worse,” Adams said.

“The Pakistani govt should act quickly and decisively to ensure that no interpretation of religious or cultural norms prevails over basic rights.”