Breaking the silence

A woman who defied death threats to give evidence in a landmark ‘honour killing’ case turned trainer when agencies failed to learn lessons from the case. By James Keeley

A few months ago I met one of the bravest women I know. 

In spite of intimidation and death threats from her own community, Sarbjit Athwal (pictured) refused to accept the injustice of her sister-in-law’s murder and was a key witness for the prosecution in the Old Bailey murder trial of her mother-in-law and brother-in-law. Ultimately, this would drive her to set up the charity True Honour to help women break their silence and train organisations on how to deal with victims of honour-based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

Surjit Athwal’s story

Sixteen-year-old Surjit Athwal was a victim of a forced marriage. Her husband, Sukhdave Singh Athwal, was ten years her senior. She met him on just one occasion before the wedding. Surjit moved in with her husband’s family and entered a world that was alien to her. She rebelled against the strict practices she faced at home and was regularly beaten for disobedience.

When Surjit demanded a divorce, her husband and mother-in-law, Bachan Kaur Athwal, condemned her to death. A family meeting was called, to which the other daughter-in-law, Sarbjit Kaur Athwal, was summoned. Bachan and Sukhdave explained they had arranged Surjit’s murder in India and that they would lure her there in order for her to be killed.

On 4 December 1998 Bachan convinced Surjit to travel to India, explaining that if she attended two family weddings then she would be granted a divorce upon her return. Surjit was due to return to the UK on 18 December 1998 but never came back. Her body has never been found.

Despite receiving death threats to keep her quiet, Sarbjit had attempted to alert the authorities. Too scared to walk into a police station, she called Crimestoppers and wrote an anonymous letter to the police. On her mother-in-law’s return, Sarbjit asked about the whereabouts of Surjit. The answer Sarbjit received was that Surjit had been strangled by her mother-in-law’s brother.

Over the next eight months Sarbjit continued to attempt to inform the police of this via phone calls and letters. However, the investigation stalled when the police would not accept it as a murder investigation but preferred to regard it as a missing person case.

In 1999 the Metropolitan Police murder team took over the investigation. Sarbjit, who was arrested along with other family members, informed the police about her mother-in-law’s confession, the phone calls she made to Crimestoppers and the letters that she had written. The police accused her of fabrication and also suggested that she was not well enough to give evidence. The investigation resulted in no prosecution.

As a result of further information passed on by Sarbjit’s father, the case was re-opened in 2005 and passed to DCI Clive Driscoll who was investigating historical crimes. Sarbjit at first did not trust the police, but eventually agreed to complete an ABE interview. This inquiry found all the evidence that the previous investigation had ignored, overlooked or misplaced.

The Crown Prosecution Service sent the investigation team to India to gather evidence and the extensive cover-up of the murder and efforts to disrupt the investigation in the UK were discovered. Both Sarbjit’s mother-in-law and brother-in-law were charged with murder.

Sarbjit gave evidence at the Old Bailey for three-and-a-half days, cross-examined by two counsel for each of the accused. In 2007 Bachan and Sukhdave were convicted of murder. They appealed but in 2009 their convictions were upheld.

From the lead-up to the murder trial until the day before the Court of Appeal hearing, Sarbjit and her family suffered death threats, intimidation and were ostracised from their community. ‘The role and bravery of Sarbjit Athwal [in securing the convictions] cannot be underestimated,’ says DCI Driscoll. Driscoll was also lead police officer in the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation and was running both cases simultaneously: ‘The lessons I learned in Surjit’s case I used in Stephen’s, and the lessons in Stephen’s case I used in Surjit’s case,’ he explains.

Stopping abuse and saving lives

Inspired by the support she’d received from DCI Driscoll, Sarbjit joined the Metropolitan Police in 2008 as a police community support officer and assisted witnesses and victims in respect of honour-based violence. However, it soon became obvious to her that the police were still making the same mistakes made back in 1999.

Wanting to effect much more significant change, Sarbjit decided to share her experience more widely and in 2013 published Shamed. The book describes both her journey through life and experience with the criminal justice system. Published in over six languages, the book has become a best seller throughout Europe.

In 2015, Sarbjit went on to found True Honour, a charity which has two central aims: to stop abuse and to save lives. It does this through educating organisations and agencies on how to deal with victims of honour-based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. DCI Driscoll, now retired, is a trustee and Deputy Chair of the charity.

Sarbjit has trained over 5,000 police officers in Surrey, West Midlands, Staffordshire, Hampshire, Sussex, NHS, Essex and many others. She educates officers on the difficulties they will face when dealing with families, how easily they can be misled by perpetrators and how to understand the impact on victims if turned away (the ‘one chance rule’). She has also raised awareness with doctors, magistrates, barristers, and other professionals to help them understand the issues around these harmful practices and ensure they are in the best place to protect any victim of these crimes.

The charity also works with schools, colleges, and universities to ensure that staff and students have the right support, putting teachers in the best position to identify risk indicators both before and after FGM, and offer safe advice to their students to help protect them from harm.

Barristers: getting involved and giving back

Being a member of the Bar gives you the flexibility to get involved in worthwhile projects over and beyond our own practices. Many of us volunteer many hours of our free time to help others in society. We use our skills to advise and promote various different causes. By giving of ourselves we receive even more back, improving us as people and advocates.

Therefore, I was delighted to be appointed a patron of True Honour. I ask all who read Sarbjit’s amazing story to do whatever they can for her. Some examples of practical ways of helping would be to offer to promote and raise money for the charity while also having the chance to be trained and to train others. 

Contributor James Keeley is a barrister at 36 Crime


  • From 2010-14 more than 11,000 cases of so-called honour crime were recorded by UK police forces, according to data collected by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation. The report suggested the scale of the problem is much higher: more than one in five UK police forces had failed to flag all honour-based violence (HBV) incidents and crimes, despite it being a clear requirement in the Association of Chief Police Officers’ HBV Strategy 2008 (Postcode lottery: police recording of reported ‘honour’ based violence, IKWRO: ).
  • Every year, in the UK on average 20,000-24,000 girls are at risk of FGM. The average age for FGM is between 4-14 years of age, but can happen prior or after that age. Figures from 2016-17 show there were 9,179 attendances to NHS services in which FGM was identified, treatment was given, or a woman with FGM had given birth to a baby girl (FGM Annual Report 2017, NHS Digital).
Author details: 
James Keeley

James is a specialist in serious criminal work especially sexual offences.