Pakistan: 'Pakistani couple face death by stoning threat after conviction for adultery'


A couple have been sentenced to be stoned to death for alleged adultery by a tribal court in north-west Pakistan, with the woman's life now considered in danger. The man involved, Zarkat Khan, has run away while the woman is in the custody of the court, according to residents in Kala Dhaka, a remote area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The death sentence, handed down in Manjakot village last month, will be carried out once the man is found, a member of the tribal court said. The woman, whose name is being withheld at the request of human rights groups, is being held in a nearby village, according to campaigners. She is married and believed to have three children.

"As usual, it is the woman who is made to bear the brunt of such atrocious barbarism, injustice, and inhuman, un-Islamic sentences," said the Woman's Action Forum, a Pakistani non-governmental organisation. "Why is the provincial law enforcement system neither de jure nor de facto functional? Where are the women's protection mechanisms and institutions?"

Some locals believe the verdict will not be carried out but Maroof Khan, who said he sat on the tribal court, or jirga, that heard the case said the couple were guilty and must be punished. He said they would be shot, not stoned.

"We burned down the man's house, as is our tradition," he said. "When we get hold of them, we'll kill them, there's no doubt about that. It was a clear-cut case. This is our custom. We will just shoot them. Finished."

The case is particularly awkward for the Pakistani authorities as Kala Dhaka is inside the main territory of the country, in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (formerly North West Frontier province), and not part of the Taliban-controlled tribal fringe along the Afghan border. Kala Dhaka is administered by its tribes through the jirga, rather than normal law enforcement apparatus such as the police. This anomaly dates from British colonial times because the tradition-bound region has long proved difficult to rule.

There is little or no Taliban presence there. The government has announced plans to make Kala Dhaka a regular "settled" district. There have been several cases in recent years of couples put to death by tribal courts for adultery in Kala Dhaka and the surrounding area.

"This woman is most probably still in danger. She is literally like a slave right now. It's up to them [the jirga], they can do anything to her right now," said Samar Minallah, a women's rights activist. "In so many past cases, the woman was killed later on, or married off for a bride price. They just can't let her be, there has to be revenge."

The local government administration confirmed that the jirga had passed a verdict of stoning to death, or "sangsar" as it is locally known, but claimed that it had interceded and the couple were now in safe hands.

"Both are with relatives," said Tasleem Khan, government administrator for Kala Dhaka. "The big jirga never happened, it was a smaller jirga. The verdict was stoning. But we intervened, called in the elders and nothing has happened to either [man or woman]."

The Guardian reported earlier this month that 12 Iranian women and three men are awaiting execution by stoning despite an apparent last-minute reprieve for a mother of two who had been facing the sentence after being convicted of adultery. An international campaign over the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, who was awaiting execution in the western Iranian town of Tabriz led to a volte face by the Iranian authorities. But her fate remains uncertain, and it is likely that she will still be executed.


Traditional Justice

The jirga in the ethnic Pashtun society of north-west Pakistan, and also Afghanistan, is a traditional form of arbitrating disputes and dispensing justice. Jirgas cover everything from property disputes to murder charges. The males gather but exclude women from their meeting. Everyone from the tribal chief to the humblest labourer is allowed to stand up and have a say. 

The jirga aims to produce a consensus. Its appeal is that it produces speedy and transparent justice, compared to Pakistan's courts, where corruption and delays are the norm. The jirga nominally decides cases according to Islamic law, but in practice it is often local custom that it enforces. Promises to bring back jirgas have been used as a rallying cry by the Taliban, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Pakistan today, jirga rule officially only applies in areas declared tribal districts – the federally administered areas along the Afghan border and in parts of the north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, illegal jirgas are commonly constituted in rural areas across Pakistan, handing down punishments including death sentences.

By Saeed Shah