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  • Family and friends of Surjit Kaur Athwal outside British PM's residence in London. (Getty)
Sarbjit Kaur Athwal froze when she heard her mother-in-law utter those words, and within three weeks her sister-in-law was dead after being lured from London to India, her body dumped in a river.
English
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22 Aug 2018 - 5:42 PM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2018 - 2:42 PM

'Honour killing' isn’t a subject often discussed in the wider Indian community, let alone within the Punjabi community.

But it grabbed international headlines in the UK and around the world when British Indian Sarbjit Kaur Athwal became the first person to give evidence in an open court for so-called 'honour killing' of her sister-in-law - without a body ever being found. 

For nine years, Sarbjit had been threatened by her mother-in-law to keep quiet about the murder of 27-year-old Surjit Kaur in 1998.

But finally Sarbjit finally spoke out and in 2007, after three separate investigations, 70-year-old Bachan Athwal and her 43-year-old son, Sukhdave - Surjit's husband - were handed life sentences for conspiring to murder. 

Now Sarbjit, has revealed every detail in her book ‘Shamed’, which has already been translated into six languages including Punjabi. 

Currently touring the major cities of Australia, Ms Athwal visited SBS’s Melbourne studios and recounted her harrowing tale. To hear our full interview with Sarbjit Kaur Athwal, click here or on the audio link above. 

Surjit’s story 

"Surjit was only 16 years old when she was married to my brother-in-law, who was 10 years older than her," Sarbjit tells SBS Punjabi.

"It was a typical arranged marriage, as was mine. I was married into the same household when I was 19. It was a very religious family which was well respected in the community.  Things were wonderful when our father-in-law was alive. We even laughed and joked and with him. But after he passed away, things changed and my mother in law took control. She was extremely strict and controlling. 

"As daughters in law, we weren’t allowed to wear western clothes or go out looking for a job. But Surjit was very beautiful, well educated, smart and intelligent, who wanted a career. She was able to get a good job as a Customs Officer at the Heathrow airport, but my mother-in-law resented the fact that Surjit wore a uniform - a blouse and a skirt - to go to work. 

"Time and again, she was pressured to leave her job and stay home. After years of this, Surjit decided to file for divorce, so she could leave the family and pursue a life that she dreamt of. But that was unacceptable to my mother-in-law because she thought a divorce would bring dishonour to her family.

‘We must kill her’

"My mother-in-law called a family meeting. She told my husband, my brother-in-law and I that Surjit was bringing disrepute to the family, and this must be stopped. She said, "It's decided. Surjit must be killed." 

"At first, I didn’t believe those words – I thought my mother-in-law was angry, because no one would ever do anything like this. Also, she was a baptised Sikh and a deeply religious woman - how could she actually do something like that?

Sarbjit says her mother-in-law persuaded Surjit to accompany her to India, asking her to meet all the relatives one final time before filing for divorce in England.

Surjit agreed to go without her children.  

"In the days before they left for India, I wasn’t allowed to speak to my sister-in-law. So I couldn't forewarn her about what I had heard - and that thought still haunts me. 

"Just before leaving, my mother-in-law pulled me aside and threatened me that I shouldn’t breathe a word about her plan to anyone, otherwise I will have to face severe consequences. 

But as soon as they flew to India, Sarbjit says she informed Britain's Crime Stoppers telephone helpline.

"I even wrote a letter to the Police – describing the threat and giving the details of the place where my mother-in-law would be. I hoped the police would stop this from happening.

‘We strangled her’ 

"My mother-in-law returned alone from India. When I asked her about Surjit, she just dismissed it. A few days later, she sat me down and told me that they initially drugged Surjit, then strangled her, and threw the body in the Ravi river. 

"They chose to dispose of the body in the Ravi river because it flows towards Pakistan, and this way, there was very little chance of the body being found.  And my mother-in-law threatened me again, asking me to refrain from saying a word about this to anyone."

To family and friends, a story was concocted that Surjit had a boyfriend in India and she had eloped with him – that’s why she hadn’t returned home.

                                      

‘Mentally Unstable’ 

But Surjit’s family suspected something was terribly wrong and filed an official complaint. The initial police investigation revealed nothing. 

"The second time around, each of us – my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my husband and I were detained and each of us was questioned by the police separately. 

"Whilst the other three said they had no idea about Surjit’s whereabouts, I mustered all the courage I had and told the Police what my mother-in-law had said to me. 

"When the Police asked my mother in law about what I had said, they were told I was mentally unstable, and that my account was not reliable. We were all released and I went back to living with the family.

'No one believed me' 

"The next seven years that I stayed with the family were sheer hell. My mother in law would threaten me every day that if I ever repeated the account I gave to the Police, then my parents and I will suffer – and that I should know what she is capable of.  

"She was very religious and greatly respected in the wider Punjabi community. In fact, the community started to call me names for trying to sully her reputation. No one believed me. 

"It’s only after I became extremely unwell and was admitted to the hospital that I finally met my father and told him everything. He was the first person to have faith in me and was worried about my well being. I thought I won’t leave the hospital alive and told him to fight for justice if anything should happen to me. 

"Then in 2005, the case re-started again, and this time, the investigation was carried out more thoroughly. The letter I had written to the police seven years ago was eventually found – which finally validated my version of events. 

Judgement 

Even though Surjit’s body was never found,  investigators had enough evidence to take the matter to court.

"The case went to the jury and I was the main witness. The jury found both of the accused guilty – my mother in law is now serving a 15 year prison sentence and my brother in law has been jailed for 20 years. 

"All this, for an 'honour killing' – because my sister-in-law asked for a divorce. 

"Now when I look back at the terrible ordeal I went through, I feel vindicated that I did the right thing. If I could reset the clock and go back in time, I would do the same thing again – because it is the right thing to do. But it was a terrible ordeal to live through.

"If you see something like around you, please speak up"

"And this is my message to people in Australia as well – if you see something like this around you, please speak up. My sister-in-law isn’t the only woman killed to ‘protect a family’s honour’. But this must stop and each one of us must bear the responsibility to put an end to this. 

"And my heartfelt message to the Punjabi community is – please support those people who need help. Please don’t punish them by disbelieving or isolating them.  If even one life is saved after hearing my story, I will feel I have achieved what I've set out to do."

Sarbjit now runs a charity called True Honour, which supports other victims.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, you can seek help by calling 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732

If you are experiencing stress, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636

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