Grandmother gets life for 'honour killing'

By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor
Published: 20 September 2007

A grandmother has been sentenced to life imprisonment for arranging the murder of her daughter-in-law, whose adultery she claimed had brought shame on the family.

Bachan Athwal, 70, and her son Sukhdave, 43, were found guilty at the Old Bailey of the "honour killing" of Surjit Athwal, 27, a Heathrow customs officer, who went missing during a trip to India in 1998.

The court heard that Bachan Athwal was the matriarchal head of the west London family and she exercised extraordinary influence over the other members.

When Bachan, who has sixteen grandchildren, discovered Surjit had been having an affair and wanted a divorce, she decided to settle the matter in her own way.

Family members later told the police that she had held a meeting with relatives where she vowed a divorce would only take place "over my dead body".

During a trip to a family wedding in the Punjab in India in 1998, she arranged for Surjit to be killed.

She later boasted to her family that she had got rid of Surjit by getting a relative to strangle her and throw her body in a river. Surjit's body has never been found.

Bachan and Sukhdave then pretended Surjit had run away. They forged letters supposed to be from the Metropolitan Police to their Indian counterparts to block any local investigation. The mother and son then faked a document transferring ownership of the home that Surjit part-owned into their names.

Sukhdave took out a 100,000 insurance policy on his wife the day she left for India. It did not pay out.

He later divorced Surjit in her absence, claiming she deserted him, and then he married someone else.

Sentencing them both to life imprisonment, Judge Giles Forrester yesterday told the mother and son: "The pair of you decided that the so-called honour of your family members was worth more than the life of this young woman. You, Bachan, were head of that family. I have no doubt you exercised a controlling influence over other family members."

Bachan, 70, and her son, both of Hayes, west London, were found guilty of murder in July. Bachan was told she must serve at least 20 years in jail and would not be considered for parole until she was 90. Her son was jailed for a minimum of 27 years.

Surjit's brother said after the case that the eight-and-half-year lapse between his sister's murder and the conviction and sentencing of her killers was "a long time coming". He added: "The long journey of Surjit's case has exposed serious inadequacies in policing practice and government policy in the UK as well."

He called for a public inquiry into his sister's death and that of Banaz Mahmod whose father and brother were found guilty in June of her murder.

The Government has said it intends to crack down on those who play any part in so called honour killings. Earlier this year the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) set up teams of specialist prosecutors to work in parts of the country where honour killings have been reported before.

Detective Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll, who led the Surjit Athwal inquiry, said the police had worked closely with Surjit's family, the defendants' extended family and the Sikh community to secure the conviction. "For Surjit's family and friends, the pain of losing her in such a cruel way will continue but I hope they are comforted by the fact that her killers are now behind bars," he said.

CPS teams are now working in Lancashire, London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire to identify and monitor forced marriages and so-called "honour crime" cases. In London, four boroughs have been selected: Newham, Tower Hamlets, Ealing and Brent.

Nazir Afzal, CPS honour crimes lead adviser and sector director for west London said: "We need to have a clearer picture of these offences so we can provide the best support to victims and prosecute those who are committing them as robustly as possible. By flagging up these cases as early as possible, we and the police can make sure that specialised support and expertise are brought in quickly."


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