Letter to the Foreign Secretary

Add your name to our letter to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, urging the FCO to make urgent representations at the highest level to the Indian authorities to undertake a proper and transparent criminal investigation jointly with the British police into Seeta’s death.


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The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London
SW1A 2AH

21st November 2016

Dear Mr Johnson

Re.: Seeta Kaur

We write to express our deep concern about the lack of an effective investigation by the British authorities – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) – into the death of Seeta (Saini) Kaur, a British National of Indian origin. Seeta, a British national and mother of four children, died in India in March 2015 in what is believed to be an honour killing that was planned in the UK by her British resident husband (Pawan Saini) and her in-laws.

Seeta’s family is being supported and assisted by Southall Black Sisters (SBS); a long standing specialist advocacy and campaigning organisation set up to meet the needs of black and minority women subject to all forms of gender-based violence.

Background

We set out below a brief history of Seeta’s marital history and background provided to SBS by Seeta’s family and friends.

Seeta was born and brought up in the UK. She had an arranged marriage with Pawan Saini; an Indian national who resided with her in the UK. Seeta was subjected to years of domestic violence throughout her marriage, mainly because she refused to obey her husband and in-laws who demanded that she give one of her two sons to her husband’s brother and his wife in India because they were childless and wanted a male heir to preserve ancestral wealth. Following family holidays to India, Seeta’s husband and in-laws would often force her to return to the UK without her eldest son. On her return, she would plead and beg until she succeeded in being reunited with her son. However, when her youngest son was born, the pressure on her to give him to her husband’s family intensified. Seeta’s husband viewed the matter as a question of honour because he had made a promise to his brother and sister-in-law that they could adopt one of his male children. Seeta’s persistent refusals led to violence and abuse inflicted by her husband and his family; ultimately, to her death.

In February 2015, Seeta was tricked into going to India on a family trip. She died following a heated argument between her and her husband about giving up her youngest son. Seeta’s family was told that she died of a ‘sudden heart attack’, even though she was only 33 years old, had no heart condition or associated health problems; and despite the fact that there is no official medical confirmation as to the cause of her death. Seeta’s family flew to India to recover her body. They had to force their way through a massive crowd of mourners and onlookers to see her as she lay in a coffin wrapped in thick blankets (a highly unusual practice not known in their culture and religion). After insisting that she be uncovered, they saw considerable bruising around her neck and upper chest which fuelled their suspicion that she had been murdered. Seeta’s family made clear to her husband and in-laws that they intended to take her body back to the UK, but Seeta’s husband or persons known to him took her body out of the house during the night or early hours of the morning without her family’s knowledge and cremated in their absence. Understandably, Seeta’s family was deeply distressed by the turn of events because they were deprived of the opportunity to pay their respects or arrange a post-mortem to establish the cause of death.

Seeta’s family reported her death as suspicious to the local police, with whom Seeta’s husband is well connected. The police failed to investigate the matter properly revealing serious flaws in their handling of the case. Initially, as is common police practice in such cases in India, they tried to reconcile the families, offering the return of Seeta’s children in exchange for dropping their allegation of murder. When that didn’t work, they simply closed the case stating that ‘her murderer is untraced’. The family is now challenging this decision in India since the response makes clear that the police accept that she was unlawfully killed.

On their return to the UK, Seeta’s family sought assistance from SBS and obtained a High Court order seeking the immediate return of her children but her husband has refused to co-operate. He has frustrated all their legal attempts to have the children returned to the UK. This has left the family deeply distressed and disappointed.

Seeta’s case has many conspicuous parallels with previous honour killings of British nationals abroad: that of Manjit Kaur; Surjit Atwal; and the recent high profile honour killing of Samia Shahid who, it appears, was raped and brutally murdered by her first husband and relatives. Samia was lured abroad (to Pakistan) and killed to preserve family honour. Her killers tried to pass off the killing as a ‘sudden heart attack’ but in her case, prompt action by the Pakistani police with support from West Yorkshire Police led to the arrest and detention of her killers within days of her death. They now await trial for her murder whilst other accomplices are also being questioned.

Seeking Justice

Seeta’s family has also sought the assistance of the FCO and the Metropolitan Police in relation to the investigation of Seeta’s death but without success. The family has been shunted from pillar to post in their struggle for justice. They have been offered no meaningful assistance from the FCO which claims that it has no duty to assist the family as the death did not take place in the UK. They have made it clear that in their view, the British state bears no responsibility for bringing Seeta’s killers to justice or in assisting in the return of her children who remain with their abusive father in India.

The government has signed (although not yet ratified) the Istanbul Convention, which requires the UK to protect from and prevent violence against women, and prosecute perpetrators who are nationals or resident in the UK – wherever they commit the act of violence. Despite this commitment, the state is hiding behind “lack of jurisdiction” as an excuse for not investigating Seeta’s death.

The lack of an adequate response from the FCO and the police shows that there is a complete lack of understanding in respect of their roles in such cases, as set out in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the FCO, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales entitled ‘Murder, Manslaughter or Infanticide of British Nationals Abroad’. This failure amounts to a breach of the provisions of the MOU which clearly states that its aims are:

  • to support the next of kin of British nationals who are victims of murder, manslaughter or infanticide abroad;
  • assist in and/or encourage that a proper and thorough investigation is carried out into the cause of death leading to an effective prosecution and trial. (paragraph 2.1);
  • refer the matter to the MPS for investigation by a senior investigating officer where there is some evidence to suggest that the honour killing may have been planned in the UK (paragraph 5.2);
  • investigate whether or not there has been a breach of ECHR Article 2 concerning the Right to Life (paragraph 3.8)
  • consider making appropriate representations to local authorities (paragraph 3.10) in cases where there are credible concerns that there may be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) article 2 (right to life).

In our view, despite clear and compelling evidence that Seeta did not die of natural causes, the FCO has refused to offer basic support by making representations to their Indian counterparts on behalf of Seeta ’s family.

Clearly, the response of the British authorities is riddled with inconsistencies, indifference and double standards. It would appear that the government is following an arbitrary and discriminatory approach in which more meaningful and proactive police and government assistance is provided in cases where mainly white British nationals have been killed or harmed abroad compared to those of non-white British nationals. There have been numerous cases in the past in which the British police have assisted a foreign police investigation and even conducted an investigation in the UK into a disappearance or death despite the offence having been committed in another jurisdiction and irrespective of the nationality of the suspect, for example, the case of Madeleine McCann. There have also been cases when the British government has raised concerns about the handling of an investigation and requested involvement in the investigation of a murder of British citizens abroad. The murders of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in 2014 in Thailand come to mind.

Such wholesale failure from the British authorities give lie to the government’s clear commitment to tackle honour-based violence and end violence against women and girls at home and abroad (Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy 2016-2020). It is also illogical for laws on forced marriage and female genital mutilation to have extra – territorial effect but not honour-based violence. This means that victims of honour-based violence do not enjoy the same level of protection and rights.

It would seem that if an honour killing takes place abroad, even if it involves a British national, it is treated as a ‘private’ family matter. It is time to end the near impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of honour killing who, with state complicity, often seek to escape detection by taking women abroad.

Our demands

We trust that you will agree that the British state’s response to this case is unacceptable and falls short of expected standards.

We urge you to take immediate action including making representations at the highest levels to your Indian counterparts to, at the very least, undertake a joint criminal investigation into Seeta’s death, with the British police.

We also demand your support in seeking urgent changes in domestic law and policy to close the gap in protection and prosecution that is evident in respect of the honour killings of British nationals committed abroad.

We also urge you to meet with Seeta’s family as soon as possible. It is vital that they are reassured that the British government is willing and able to do all that it can to ensure that justice prevails.

We look forward to your response,

Pragna Patel,
Director
Southall Black Sisters

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Letter to the Foreign Secretary

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