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Disappearance, then discovery leads to 'honor killing' outrage

By Enas Muthaffar and Dan Morgan
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West Bank 'honor' killing sparks outrage
  • Ayah Baradiyya, 20, disappeared from her home more than a year ago
  • Her body was discovered this month in a well, where she was left to die
  • Her uncle has been arrested in what some are calling an "honor killing"
  • Anger has swept the West Bank, with many calling for reforms
  • Crime
  • World Politics
  • Middle East

(CNN) -- When Ayah Baradiyya stepped out of the door of the large house she shared with her parents and 12 siblings more than a year ago, her parents could not have known this would be the last time they would see their daughter alive.

On her final visit, Ayah returns lifeless, wrapped in a blanket in the back of an ambulance, to be buried in the village cemetery. Thousands of people follow the procession to the cemetery or watch from the streets and rooftops.

Friends and relatives try to console Ayah's mother, who cries out in grief. Fears that have plagued her and her family over the past year are now a certain reality. Ayah will never walk the path to their front doorstep again.

These are scenes of grief and anger, driven by the brutal story of how a 20-year-old student from the small village of Surif, northwest of the city Hebron, met with death.

This is a community in shock, whose grief and anger at Ayah's murder is echoing beyond the pastoral hills of Hebron and into the West Bank.

The disappearance

On April 20, 2010, Ayah left her home in the morning to get to Hebron University in time for an exam.

"She was an intelligent student and had excellent marks; she would have graduated this year," said Zahia Shareef, one of Ayah's fellow students.

Ayah studied English literature at the university, a choice which was entirely her own. But Ayah also lived in a conservative society, and so not all choices were hers.

Ayah agreed to marry a 38-year-old man from Hebron city, but her family disagreed, saying he was too old for her. But after several approaches by the man, who wishes to remain anonymous, her father had a change of heart.

"Five days before she disappeared, my father and I talked with Ayah in her room and we agreed she would not speak with him until after exams, when my father would sit with the young man and approve the engagement," said Ayah's sister Haneen.

When Ayah failed to return home following her exam, her family tried calling her. Finding her phone had been switched off, Haneen tried calling the man that proposed to Ayah, and he, too, had not heard from or seen her that day.

At this point, the family notified the police and what followed was an intensive search that left no stone unturned and no one in Ayah's family circle of friends was exempt from suspicion. Her father, mother, uncle and siblings were all interrogated.

"We searched continuously for a long time, and in all areas. There were many possibilities concerning her disappearance. We examined her social network. Where did she usually go? Who were her friends?" said Col. Ramadan Awad, director of the Hebron police and the officer in charge of the investigation.

The investigation of Ayah's family and all those who knew her finally led them to the man who had proposed to Ayah.

"At the beginning, we thought he had something to do with her disappearance. We arrested this young man and kept him for 35 days. We continuously interrogated him and came to the conclusion he has nothing to do with the disappearance of Ayah Baradiyya," said Awad.

A body discovered and a confession

The police search went cold until earlier this month. Ayah's remains were discovered in a well barely three kilometers (about two miles) from her family home. Police had been alerted to the scene by a shepherd who had wanted to fetch water from the well and been overwhelmed by a dreadful smell.

When they inspected the well, the police retrieved a corpse, and the immediate evidence led them to the conclusion that it was Ayah's. Along with the remains, the police found Ayah's handbag, family photos and a necklace engraved with her name.

"This case provoked everybody ... I have never faced a similar crime," Awad said.

Undisclosed evidence found at the scene led Awad to the conclusion that Ayah's 37-year-old uncle had something to do with her death.

"We immediately arrested him and interrogated him. Within three hours of the police interview, he delivered his confession," said Awad.

"His confession amazed me and gave me a very difficult indescribable feeling. He confessed that on the date Ayah was killed, (he) and two of his colleagues drove to the university and told Ayah to get into the vehicle. At the beginning, she refused to get in, but he insisted, telling her: 'As your uncle, I want to talk to you!' " Awad told CNN.

"There are no houses, no people there, it is an abandoned area. She was pleading (to) her uncle on the way. 'Why are you taking me? Where are you taking me to?' He hit her many times and told her: 'We will kill you.' She continued pleading: 'Don't kill me, I did nothing. What did I do for you to kill me?' But he told her: 'You should die,' " said Awad, recounting the killer's confession.

In an interview shared with CNN by Palestine TV, the uncle recounted the ordeal on camera.

"We kidnapped her. We took a car, a Peugeot 205, parked the car by the well, threw the girl inside the well and then left," he recounts in a cold manner.

Whether she died instantly or was left suffering at the bottom of the well will remain unknown. During his interrogation, the uncle told the police that after throwing her in the well, they closed the hatch and placed a large stone on top of it.

Motive and public outcry

The uncle and two other suspects have been charged with murder and are still waiting for an attorney to be assigned to their case.

Ayah's murder shocked the community and has sent waves of anger echoing through the West Bank. The uncle told police he killed his niece to preserve the family's honor, believing she had engaged in improper sexual relations. This label is rejected by Awad, who also says her uncle had no evidence as to improper conduct on her part.

"It is known in honor killing cases that those who commit such an act, they confess to the murder. They immediately turn themselves in to the police. He did not do that and also brought complete strangers to help him," said the colonel.

"This is not an honor killing. I hope all of us will stop using this term. It has nothing to do with honor. It only has to do with taking the life of a human being," said Nabil Al-Ja'Abari, chairman of the Hebron University board of trustees.

"We call upon the Palestinian Authority to punish those who committed this crime with the maximum penalty possible -- which is the penalty of execution they deserve," said Hassan Khallaf, one of Ayah's fellow students.

This sentiment was reiterated by the masses who attended her funeral last week.

"The people want the execution of the killer," mourners chanted in the thousands.

Ayah's case has cast a bright light on the dark and one-time taboo subject of honor killings in Palestinian society, and it has stirred a public outcry for reform of laws that treat the crime as justifiable murder.

In the weeks since her body was found, the debate around Ayah's death has not subsided. Massive shows of support and public pressure led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to issue a decree directing the judiciary to hand out the "utmost punishment" in honor-related attacks.

The incident has sparked vigorous debate about scrapping an outdated penal code that allows for little or no punishment for men convicted of attacking or killing female relatives suspected of bringing dishonor to their families.

Al-Haq, a Palestinian NGO that promotes human rights, estimates at least 18 women were killed under the excuse of honor from 2005 to 2010. The decree passed by the Palestinian president is a crucial step toward change in a society where murder in the name of honor often goes unpunished.

It is not just the law, however, that must be changed, but the attitudes of society must be changed as well, says Bothaina Hamdan, a women's rights activist and writer based in Ramallah.

"It is related to culture. It is not related to religion. It is related to a way of thinking. It is related to how you are raised in your society and in your family and maybe we women are participating in this.

"We are raising our children, telling them you are a man and you are a woman. You are a girl, don't do this; you are a man, OK, whatever," says Bothaina, who created a Facebook group advocating for the rights of women.

Activists say the new decree is a step in the right direction, but one that comes too little, too late for the family of Ayah Baradiyya.