Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Is this Britain's first white honour killing victim? The happy but headstrong girl, 17, whose love across the racial divide had a tragic end
Laura Wilson was just 17 years old — a happy but headstrong girl whose love story across the racial divide would have a tragic ending.
‘She was feisty — if she had anything to say she would speak out,’ her mother Margaret says, as she showed me a picture of a smiling, mischievous teenager.
Laura’s Asian boyfriend, Ashtiaq Ashgar, also 17, was born in Britain but when Laura challenged his family’s traditional cultural values by confronting them with details of their relationship, she had to be silenced.
One night in October 2010, Laura was lured to the banks of a canal in Rotherham in South Yorkshire, where Ashtiaq attacked her before throwing her into the water.
He was subsequently arrested and found guilty of Laura’s murder last June and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
So does this mean that Laura was the first white victim of an honour killing in Britain?
Margaret Wilson has never spoken publicly before, but she told me she is convinced her daughter was murdered because she challenged the code of honour which some ethnic communities still follow in the UK.
‘I honestly think it was an honour killing for putting shame on the family. They needed to shut Laura up and they did,’ she says.
In today’s multi-cultural Britain, the majority of young people from immigrant communities are well-integrated. Yet in many households, old traditions are still a powerful force.
In south Asian and Middle Eastern communities, controlling the behaviour of women is seen as key to the family’s honour.
Refusing to consent to marry the husband chosen for you or leaving an abusive marriage is often seen as dishonouring the family.
As I found when investigating the issue of ‘honour killings’ for BBC1’s Panorama, women are suffering in silence.
Behind closed doors, beatings, kidnap, forced imprisonment, rape and even murder are being committed in the name of honour.
The Government admits it does not know the true scale of the abuse. The latest survey of police statistics show that 2,823 honour crimes were reported in 2010.
But a quarter of police forces could not provide the figures and many crimes go unreported, meaning that the real tally is much higher.
Laura Wilson’s murder had the brutal hallmarks of an honour killing.
She lived in Ferham Park, an Asian and white community in Rotherham.
Although only a teenager, Laura already had a baby by an Asian man, Ishaq ‘Zac’ Hussein, a 20-year-old.
However, he refused to recognise the child and Laura was really in love with his friend, Ashtiaq Ashgar.
Her mother says: ‘Ashtiaq was her first love, she adored him.’
But stung by Zac’s rejection of her and their child, Laura decided to confront the men’s families and told them she’d had sexual relations with both men.
Sheffield police believe this was the trigger for a plan to kill Laura.
Detective Superintendent Mick Mason told me that Laura’s decision to go round to the families and to confront them was not welcomed in the Pakistani community.
He says: ‘An argument broke out — one of the mothers tried to hit Laura with a shoe.
Police know from analysing records of the two men’s phones that after the heated exchange they held several meetings. There were even text messages about buying a gun.
DS Mason, now retired, took me through the desolate industrial area where Laura took her last walk after Ashtiaq texted her three days after she confronted the families. He had asked her to meet him by the canal.
Police believe Ashtiaq began a frenzied knife attack on the girl before throwing her, badly wounded, into the canal.
‘I have seen many murders in my time,’ said DS Mason, ‘but this was the worst.’
The two men were arrested and tried for her murder. The pathologist in court revealed that Laura had been stabbed in the top of the head repeatedly as she tried to struggle out of the water.
Ashtiaq was found guilty and sentenced to 17 years in prison and Zac was acquitted.
‘I think it was all about shame,’ DS Mason told me. ‘In their eyes, Laura had brought shame on the family by coming round. Their son had also brought shame on the family.’
As Laura’s mother lays flowers on her daughter’s grave, she cannot forget the face of the accused in court: ‘He never showed remorse.’
Laura’s tragic case is made unusual by the colour of her skin — but her experiences are mirrored by those of young south Asian women who fall foul of their families’ sense of honour.
The suicide rate among women of south Asian descent is three times the national average as many women take what they see as the only way out of abusive family situations — by killing themselves.
Jasvinder Sanghera, a British-born Sikh, took me round the streets of Derby, where she was brought up and where her parents tried to force her to marry a man she had never met.
She was only 14 at the time but she was imprisoned in her room and when she ran away she was disowned by her family.
‘Girls are taught from a young age that cutting your hair, wearing make-up and having a boyfriend are all dishonourable acts,’ she says. ‘You understand that if you engage in this behaviour, you put yourself at risk. It can be a trigger for a forced marriage or even murder.’
Following her experience, Jasvinder decided to campaign against honour crime and set up Karma Nirvana, which runs the UK’s helpline for victims. Calls have doubled in the last four years.
‘The 500 calls we receive every month are just a drop in ocean,’ says Jasvinder.
‘There are hundreds of thousands of women out there we have yet to reach.’
At the helpline centre I met Neina, a British-Asian volunteer who was a victim of honour crime.
She was beaten by her husband and her own father and mother took his side, blaming her and refusing to help her. Neina fled to a refuge and her family cut all ties with her.
Nationally, the police response to honour crime has been patchy and serious mistakes have been made because of a failure to understand the risks women and girls face.
Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode, of the Metropolitan Police, is involved in training other officers about honour crimes.
She says: ‘Every single one of these cases involve extreme violence because the murders are committed to send a message to the wider community.
'Often there is a high degree of organisation often precipitated by a family meeting.’
DCI Goode spent four years investigating and bringing to justice four men, all relatives, who were involved in the case of Banaz Mahmoud, a 19-year-old Kurdish girl who was murdered at her family home in South London in 2006.
DCI Goode pursued two of the suspects to Iraq and they were extradited back to Britain and tried in court. Banaz’s fate was sealed when she was spotted kissing her boyfriend outside Morden Tube Station in South London.
She had been allowed by her family to leave her violent husband but when she started seeing someone else, it was too much for their honour.
Her father first tried to kill her after her murder had been sanctioned at a meeting of the extended family. That attempt was unsuccessful and Banaz ended up in hospital.
DCI Goode said Banaz recounted her terrible ordeal to the police.
She said: ‘The officer simply did not understand or believe what she was being told and had no knowledge of honour-based violence.
The detective showed me a letter Banaz wrote and sent to the police in which she named the relatives she believed were out to kill her. But Banaz was terrified and refused to press charges. With no where else to turn to she went home.
Less than a month later, Banaz was killed on the floor of her own living room in the most shocking and violent way involving rape and strangulation.
Two of her relatives were arrested and taken into custody where they were secretly recorded boasting that they had hidden her body more than 100 miles away.
‘Banaz’s body was buried six feet under a house,’ DCI Goode.
‘They had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure we did not find her.’
A ccording to Nazir Afzal, of the Crown Prosecution Service and who is the lead prosecutor on honour crime, there are between ten and 12 honour killings a year in Britain.
‘But we don’t know the true figure, how many unmarked graves there are,’ Mr Afzal admitted.
He described a conversation he had recently had with a 20-year-old man.
‘He told me that in his society, a man is like a piece of gold, a woman is like a piece of silk. If you drop gold in the mud, you can clean it. But a piece of silk is ruined.’
At the national helpline for honour crime victims, many of the calls involve Asian girls afraid of being forced into marriage.
I listened as staff tried to arrange protection for a frightened 15-year-old taken out of school by her parents and beaten after they found a text on her mobile they believed was from a boy. She was terrified she was about to be taken to Pakistan and married off.
The Coalition government is now considering making forced marriage a criminal offence on the basis that many experts say it is the root cause of honour crime.
Many believe that the key to preventing honour abuse in the long term lies in education.
Yet Jasvinder Sanghera approached more than 100 schools before finding one that was prepared to let her talk to pupils about forced marriage and honour-based abuse.
She says: ‘The schools all say the same old thing — we don’t want to offend communities.’