‘Honour’ killing claims its second victim
“She was my present, my future, my hope. She was the best thing that ever happened to me … [now] there is no life. My life went away when Banaz died”
The tragic suicide of 38-year-old Rahmat Sulemani, partner of ‘honour’ killing victim Banaz Mahmod, is a devastating loss for campaigners who have fought for years to highlight this couple’s story. Rahmat described Banaz as the “nicest and sweetest person” he had ever met, with whom her sister Bekhal said he had “planned to have kids – they had names, they had plans for everything.”
After Banaz was brutally murdered at the hands of her family, Rahmat and Bekhal, having testified against them, had to give up their identities to live forevermore in hiding under police protection. Soon after her killers were convicted Rahmat said, “The only thing which was keeping me going was the moment to see justice done for Banaz.” According to an interview he gave in 2007, ‘He had planned to write a book about his experiences, hoping that publicity around the case would help end other such killings.’ But the weight of what had happened, combined with a life in complete isolation and secrecy, was simply too much to bear, and he hung himself on 20 March. He was found alive but had slipped into a coma, and five days later he was pronounced dead. Deeyah Khan, the activist and film-maker who created Banaz: A Love Story and brought the 20-year-old victim’s case to widespread awareness said, “It’s been heart-breaking to learn of Rahmat’s suicide. He showed extraordinary courage in confronting Banaz’s killers in court, but it seems he received none of the support he should have had.”
The cascade of failures by the police that led to Banaz’s death continued long afterwards in their failure to manage and protect the mental wellbeing of one of the most vulnerable individuals in their care. Rahmat had attempted to take his own life twice previously. Diana Nammi, CEO of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) and one of the key figures involved in bringing Banaz’s killers to justice, said:
“Rahmat called to thank me after Banaz’s case was closed, and I asked if we could stay in touch so that we could provide continued support. But he told me that because of his status under protection, he would not be allowed any further contact. This now raises serious questions for me. If people like Rahmat are not in contact with specialist organisations like ourselves, who is looking after these acutely vulnerable individuals? Where is Bekhal? Is she safe? An investigation needs to be carried out into UK police protection programmes to find out how Rahmat’s death was allowed to happen.”
This is not the first time that the effectiveness of witness protection programmes in the UK has been called into question. Fiona Murphy is a solicitor who has acted on behalf of individuals living in hiding. In an interview with the BBC, Murphy said, “We receive quite a significant number of calls from protected persons seeking legal advice; they tell pitiful tales of lives absolutely destroyed.” She also said that ‘her firm is regularly approached by people desperate for help, who feel trapped in a system they regard as unfair.’ Rahmat had no one to whom he could turn, and it would have been impossible for him to break cover and speak out about the conditions in which he was living.
A family friend also said that the NHS could also have done more for Rahmat, considering his history of suicide attempts. The decimation of mental health service provision in England is well-documented, with an average of almost 4,500 people a year taking their own lives. It’s unclear what kind of psychological support Rahmat was receiving, if any. Savin Bapir Tardy, counselling psychologist at IKWRO, agrees that ‘honour’ based violence has a specific mental health impact, and she questions the training of the mental health professionals in charge of Rahmat’s care, if he had access at all. Estrangement is a difficult situation experienced by people from all communities, but for victims of HBV, that experience is acute. Rahmat would have had no contact whatsoever with any of his family or wider community. Tardy says:
“Rahmat was not able to work through the normal grieving process. Not only did he have to deal with the loss of the woman he loved to ‘honour’ killing, he also had to see her being failed by the very people who should have protected her – the police. The feeling of absolute helplessness and isolation he must have experienced would have been profound. Every day when he woke up to his life in hiding it would have been a reminder of what happened, decreasing any chance of recovery. ”
It’s clear that as well as being failed by police and mental health services, the needs of victims of ‘honour’ based violence are being bypassed by policy-makers. It is a matter of deep concern that HBV-related crimes are being addressed in the government’s counter-extremism bill instead of within a framework of strategies aimed at supporting victims of violence at the hands of their partners or families. The move suggests that token gestures are being made to appear as though ‘honour’ crimes are being dealt with, when actually it’s the restoration of crucial public services that is required.
Deeyah says, “We should think about the many young women and men who have become estranged from their families and communities due to the risk of ‘honour’ based violence, and the horrendous isolation they deal with. We need to find ways to effectively support them.” There is no doubt about the overwhelming, lifelong impact of ‘honour’ violence. It’s too late now to ease Rahmat’s burden – but we owe it to Bekhal and others like her to address this atrocious lack of care.
“My life will always be at risk. There are people in my community who want to see me dead, and they will not rest until I am. I will never be safe. I wear the veil so that no one can recognise me.” – Bekhal, in Banaz: A Love Story.