IT was an evening in May 1989. Kiranjit Ahluwalia, an Indian woman living in a small town in England, served her husband his dinner. She wanted to discuss their strained relationship. He demanded £200 from her and threatened to beat her up if the money was not forthcoming.
In the early hours of the next morning while her husband slept, Ahluwalia threw some petrol and a burning stick in his room. On fire, he ran out of the house screaming that he would kill her. The neighbours rushed to the burning house. Ahluwalia was inside clutching her son, staring at the blazed window. She refused to come out saying: “I am waiting for my husband.” Eventually, she handed over her child and came out.
Ahluwalia's husband died a few days later. She was charged with his murder. Her legal team unsuccessfully raised the defence of provocation. Following a trial, Ahluwalia was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. This is not the end of Ahluwalia's story.
Ahluwalia had been subjected to appalling domestic violence from the outset of her 10-year marriage. Her husband would beat her up on a regular basis, necessitating two restraining orders from the court. He broke her fingers, and had beaten her unconsciousness on many occasions. He also had sexual relationships with other women and taunted her about his extra-marital conquests. Despite court orders, he continued with his violence and abuse. And in May 1989, she flipped.
As her story unfolded, it was widely felt that the criminal justice system had not treated Ahluwalia fairly. However, it was also acknowledged that the traditional common law definitions of self-defence or provocation precluded such defence to be used in a case such as that of Ahluwalia. The fear was that thousands of women throughout the common law world, who had experienced years of abuse and violence and eventually killed their abusers, were sentenced to death or life imprisonment each year without due regard to their state of mind caused by relentless abuse. A consensus emerged that this could not be regarded as justice.
As Ahluwalia started her life sentence, her case was taken up by Southall Black Sisters, a women's rights organisation. Its campaign and efforts resulted in the case going before the Court of Appeal. In a landmark decision in 1992, Lord Chief Justice Taylor declared that Ahluwalia's conviction for murder was unsafe and unsatisfactory. He ordered a retrial, directing the trial court to take into consideration the history of domestic abuse and the psychological impact shown by the medical evidence, which culminated in Ahluwalia killing her abuser.
Within months Ahluwalia reappeared before the trial court denying the charge of murder but accepting manslaughter (culpable homicide) on grounds of diminished responsibility due to years of brutality at the hands of her deceased husband. Her plea was accepted by the court and she was sentenced to three and a half years' imprisonment, leading to her release immediately as she had already served that period.
Following her release, Ahluwalia became a tireless campaigner against domestic violence. In 2001 she was honoured with an award given by Cherie Booth, the wife of Tony Blair. Several documentaries were broadcast on British television narrating her story. She wrote her autobiography, and in 2007 a film called “Provoked”, loosely based on her story, was released in London starring Aishwarya Rai.
Ahluwalia's case led to leading psychiatrists in the UK and US establishing the diagnosis of battered woman's syndrome. This mental disorder is developed by a woman after years of brutal domestic abuse which may include physical torture, sexual violence and psychological abuse.
Since 1993, Ahluwalia's case has been recognised throughout the common law world as the authority for redefining the legal concepts of self-defence, provocation and diminished responsibility when a sufferer of battered woman's syndrome kills her abuser.
In the US the evidence of severe domestic abuse is accepted by courts as self-defence or provocation in relation to charges of first or second degree murders. In Australia, the state of Victoria has changed the law allowing victims of domestic abuse to argue self-defence when charged with murder. In other parts of Australia, battered woman syndrome is accepted by courts as capable of amounting to provocation in murder charges. The Supreme Court of Canada has set a precedent in the case of Lavellee, for the use of the battered woman defence. Since 1998 (following the case of R v Fate) the New Zealand courts have accepted in several cases the evidence of domestic violence as provocation, reducing murder charges to manslaughter and sentencing such offenders between two and five years' imprisonment.
Since 1993 the battered woman's defence has been used in numerous cases in the UK, including historical cases in order to correct miscarriages of justice. In February this year, the Court of Appeal overturned the murder conviction in the case of Sally Challen after new psychiatric evidence of “coercive control” emerged, a term the British courts use in relation to abused women. On April 5, 2019, a trial court, having found Packiam Ramanathan not guilty of murdering her abusive husband, imposed a sentence of two years' imprisonment for manslaughter.
Almost 30 years after Ahluwalia killed her abusive husband, and three decades of courts in common law countries routinely accepting battered woman's defence, Jibonnahar, a Bangladeshi woman, took the life of her abusive husband in January 2019. This is her story so far, as she narrated it to the police and was published in the newspapers.
Jibonnahar, a garment worker, had been married for five years. She suffered domestic violence at the hands of her husband throughout her marriage. On the day in question, he demanded money from her. Her refusal resulted in him getting angry and hitting her with a brick. Later that night, as he slept, she used the same brick to hit him several times and then strangled him to death. The next day she went to work. After returning home in the evening, she cut his body into pieces and put them in sacks. She then carried the sacks out and left them in different locations nearby, where they could be easily found.
Jibonnahar made no attempt to escape justice. Following her arrest, she was paraded before the press barefooted. Her video interview with police was placed in the public domain. The local police superintendent wasted no time in holding a press conference announcing Jibonnahar's “confession to murder”. The media showed no mercy as it covered the news. No one made a connection between her state of mind due to years of abuse (which she alluded to in her police interview) and the incident.
There are uncanny resemblances between the Ahluwalia case and the Jibonnahar case. Will Jibonnahar get justice? As things stand, the odds are stacked against her. But this may change if a women's rights organisation takes on her case and puts forward a fair defence, just as the Southall Black Sisters did for Ahluwalia in 1992.
Will Jibonnahar be the Ahluwalia of Bangladesh, bringing to the forefront the plight of domestic violence victims in the country? Or will she be regarded as a disgrace, who brought shame and dishonour to womankind? Which way will the scale of justice tilt? It remains to be seen.
Najrul Khasru is a British Bangladeshi barrister and a tribunal judge in England.