London : In yet another case of suspected ‘honour killings’ in families of South Asian origin, a court was told that a Sikh woman sentenced her daughter-in-law to death after finding out that she was having an affair.
This is the latest in a series of cases in which individuals of South Asian background have been attacked or killed for allegedly bringing dishonour to the family.
In the case currently being heard at the Old Bailey, Bachan Athwal, 70, arranged for 27-year-old Surjit Athwal to “disappear off the surface of the earth” for allegedly having an affair.
Michael Worsley, prosecuting lawyer, said there had been no sign of Surjit since December 1998 when she went to India believing she would attend a family wedding with Bachan. The body of Surjit, believed to have been strangled, has never been found.
Bachan and her son, Surjit’s husband Sukdave Athwal, 43, have denied murder and conspiring with others to commit murder.
Worsley told the court that Surjit, a customs officer at Heathrow, was a vivacious young woman whose western ways had annoyed the family. “Family honour had become at stake,” he said.
Surjit, whose family came from Coventry, told colleagues that when she returned from India she intended to set up home with a married man with whom she was having an affair.
Bachan, a mother of six, was widowed but she was the most senior and dominant member of the Sikh family.
Worlsely told the jury: “She (Bachan) was in a matriarchal position with all the authority that goes with it in a tight-knit community. It was hanging over the family – something that would be disgraceful to it.”
When Bachan returned from India, she said Surjit had been strangled by her brother or a friend of his, it was alleged. She and her son, a Heathrow bus driver, forged letters pretending to be from the Metropolitan Police to their Indian counterparts to throw detectives off the scent, said Worsley.
One of the letters reportedly said: “She was terrified of her father because Surjit’s lifestyle is very modern, she cuts her hair short, smokes and drinks alcohol. He is a very violent man.”
Sukdave said Surjit was still alive and had called him to say she had left him and was staying in India with a new lover, said Worsley. Mother and son also faked a document transferring the ownership of a home Surjit part-owned into their names, he said.
Worsley said the police were eventually contacted when some members of the family had a “prick to their conscience. They were frightened that if they told anybody the same sort of thing might happen to them as they believed happened to the victim”.
Surjit reportedly met her husband on her wedding day in 1988, at the age of 16. The marriage was unhappy and she started an affair with an immigration officer at the airport and wanted a divorce, the jury was told.
But she would not have gone off and left her two young children, said Worsley.
Sukdave had remarried after Surjit’s disappearance. Surjit had been reported missing to police, but elaborate investigations failed to find her.