For family honor, she had to die.
European police weren't looking for this kind of violence steeped in tradition. They are now.


Nov. 17, 2005

BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune foreign correspondent

LONDON - They are murders that families whisper about.

Heshu Yones, a West London teen, fought off her father for a frantic 15 minutes. She ran from room to room in her family home one Saturday afternoon until he cornered her in a dingy bathroom, held her over the tub and slit her throat.

The father, a onetime Kurdish freedom fighter from Iraq, told authorities that his only daughter had to die. The 16-year-old had sullied the family name, he said, by dating without his permission.

Hatun Surucu, mother of a 5-year-old, stood at a bus stop near her home in Berlin after a brother phoned to arrange a meeting one night. The Turkish woman, 23 and divorced, was studying to be an electrician. She had argued with her family over her choices but she recently had told friends that she was hopeful for a reconciliation.

Surucu was holding a hot cup of coffee when bullets tore into her. Three of her four brothers, ages 18 to 25, were arrested even as her parents denied family involvement to police. When the murder trial opened in October, the youngest son said he, alone, slaughtered a sister "who lacked morals."

"It was too much for me," teenager Ayhan Surucu said in court.

In other worlds, Yones and Surucu might have disappeared in a hush of family honor. Stories would have been concocted, siblings sworn to secrecy, and the loss of these daughters--victims of so- called honor killings that are tolerated in Southeast Asia and some Arab countries--would stay hidden.

In Europe, police now are realizing that major crimes in some immigrant communities, and particularly those against girls and young women, are often family conspiracies that have long gone unpunished.

Violence in the name of honor, covered up as a private matter among unknown numbers of Pakistani, Kurdish and Arab families, has become a troubling reality for law enforcement working the streets in Britain, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe.

Such retribution appears to occur in the most insular of communities, and police have sought help from immigrants in the mainstream--the vast majority of emigre families--to understand the crime.

"Had we known what we know now, we would have done a lot of things differently," said Brent Hyatt, lead detective on the Yones case. "We just didn't know what we were looking at in those first days."

Honor killings claim an estimated 5,000 women worldwide every year in overwhelmingly patriarchal cultures. Family honor is a tangible value in these societies, and women are considered family property. Emigres, even far away, can feel bound by such codes.

"No one could believe that it could happen, but we kept giving evidence that honor killings are here," said Diana Nammi, founder of the International Campaign Against Honor Killings, a non-profit group in London.

"We told police: Immigrants come here and they bring traditions-- all their traditions," Nammi said.

109 death cases reopened

The Yones case led British authorities to embark on a 10-year review of suspicious deaths from 1993 through 2003. So far, 109 cases across Britain have been reopened. Of 22 cases fully examined, 18 were reclassified or remain suspected as cases of "murder in the name of so-called honor."

In Germany, publicity about the Surucu trial has underscored ethnic clefts in Europe's most populous democracy, with 82 million people.

German friends of the dead woman, speaking warily weeks before the trial started, said they were stunned at how the Surucu family-- tight-knit and religious--maintained a united front until exposed by an unexpected source.

The brothers were charged when a girlfriend of the youngest son told police she had been told of their plan to kill Hatun. The teenager, a prosecution witness, is under police protection.

Police and researchers of such crimes were not surprised to hear that the youngest son claimed sole responsibility. His testimony fits a pattern, they said.

"My experience is that these murders are not achieved by one person in a family," said Nazand Begikhani, who has tracked honor- related deaths for Kurdish Women Against Honor Killing, a network of activists, lawyers and researchers formed in 2000.

"It's a family decision. They come together, they meet, they discuss and they decide who should do the murder. They choose somebody younger than 18 [to commit the crime] so the sentence will be easier," Begikhani said.

About 2 million Turks live in Germany. Most left Turkey to find work; many remain emotionally tethered to their homeland even as they settle and raise families abroad.

Schools in Berlin were caught up in a particularly nasty clash of values after the much-publicized murder.

At one school near the site of the slaying, sons of Turkish emigres told teachers that Surucu deserved to die for living a Western life.

Principal Dietmar Pagel, whose neighboring school has a 70 percent Turkish population, quickly held class discussions to define the murder as a crime. The veteran teacher in Berlin's Little Istanbul area said his primer on the rule of law was as important as teaching ABCs.

"It's difficult [to educate students and their families] because the Islamic community here has become more closed," he said. "And the Turkish population tends to bring brides from Turkey to marry. So there is a constant reseeding of values from home--rather than real integration."

Six immigrant women from Berlin have been described as victims of honor killings in news reports so far this year, with 45 such slayings noted across the country since 1997. Berlin police caution, however, that their evidence points to only the Surucu case as a clear-cut instance of a planned killing and cover-up.

Corinna Ter-Nedden, a psychologist who works at a shelter for abused women, said girls born and educated in Germany who come from Turkish families suffer the most from family pressure.

Turkey recently changed its penal code to stiffen the punishments for honor crimes--a change seen by many as an attempt to bolster its hope for European Union membership.

That legal change has yet to filter into the psyche of the poor, small-town immigrants who make their way to Germany, Ter-Nedden said.

Loyalty to patriarchal order

"People come to Germany for the privileges of a free society-- education, social security--but they don't always want everything else that comes with it. They don't want girls doing whatever they want or women revolting against patriarchal order," she said.

"Nationalities and passports may change, but attitudes don't," Ter-Nedden said.

In England, Heshu Yones' death was a wake-up call for Scotland Yard, where detectives were startled by facts that pointed to a cold, calculated killing--and one that the family, and the Kurdish community, seemed to want to explain away.

The Yones family declined to be interviewed. This account is based on police files, and interviews with police and people who know the family.

Police were called to the Yones' home, in a shabby block of Acton, around dusk on Oct. 12, 2002, when neighbors reported a man, prone and bloody, on the sidewalk. Abdullah Yones, then 48, was thought to have tumbled from his second-story apartment.

When police searched the home, they found Heshu's body wedged between the toilet and the bathtub.

Investigators counted 18 stab wounds across her chest, arms and legs. Slashes inside her hands detailed a death struggle. A deep gouge to her throat severed her jugular vein. A white plastic kitchen knife, its blade bent, was left behind.

The girl's mother and older brother first insisted to police that intruders--in a botched burglary perhaps--must have wreaked the havoc.

The father, who survived grave injuries, later said he and his daughter were attacked by Al Qaeda operatives.

The Kurdish refugee said he fought Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1980s.

Now extremists were after him, he told police.

In that first week, police listened to the Yones' family tale of woe but were barraged with warnings too. Dozens of Kurdish women living in Britain phoned Scotland Yard to urge officers to look deeper into death of Heshu.

Friends told police that Heshu, a good student, had been struggling with her family for more than a year.

In the months before her death, she had run to friends' homes three times to avoid fights with her father and her older brother over whether she could date.

Friends told police that the 16-year-old girl was quietly seeing a boy, a friend of her brothers', and that she was scared to tell her family.

Three months before her death, her family arranged for a long vacation in Sulaymaniyah, a city in a Kurdish region of Iraq. The girl told friends that she feared she could be entrapped in a forced marriage. She sent one friend a copy of her passport; she gave out e- mail addresses so friends could find her even in Iraq.

Heshu returned safely to her London school that autumn but told friends that her father had put a gun to her head and demanded to know whether she had a boyfriend, and then forced her to have a gynecological exam to prove her virginity.

Police later recovered a videotape--filmed by Heshu and found hidden in her bedroom after her death--that shows the girl weeping aloud one day in Iraq. She said she felt trapped and feared she was a disappointment to her family.

Love letters disappear

Police were told by friends that Heshu had kept a packet of love letters in her room. The letters went missing before the murder, and Heshu told friends she was scared that someone from her family had taken them.

Police pieced together some terrible moments from the last day of Heshu's life.

For hours on Oct. 12, Heshu threw handwritten notes from her bedroom window, pleading for help. At one point in the morning, she left a message on a friend's cell phone asking for money so she could run away. In the late afternoon, she phoned a girlfriend, barely said hello and then abruptly ended the call.

Within an hour, Heshu was dead.

The girl's mother, Tanya, told police that the family was peaceful that day. Tanya Yones said she had left the home at 5:38 p.m. with her younger son in tow. The mother was very precise, according to the police report, about the time she left and the fact that she left the door unlocked. She also was firm about Heshu's state of mind.

"Heshu was laughing," Tanya Yones told police.

The family, in police interviews, was resolute in their support of Abdullah Yones. When the older man broke and finally admitted his crime in court, no one in the family disputed his side of the story. Heshu's death, he said, was Heshu's fault.

Sometime that October, Yones said he had received an anonymous letter that the 16-year-old was a prostitute. He had to kill her, he said, and then he tried to kill himself.

The court sentenced him to life in prison.

A contingent of Kurdish men came to court for the sentencing. Witnesses said the men, young and old, had come to stand by a man undone by tradition.

Two years later, some friends at a Kurdish gathering in the leafy Hammersmith neighborhood of London tried to make sense of the killing.

Kurds in northern Iraq outlawed honor killings a few years ago, but no one believes the crime has disappeared there or in any country that has tolerated the practice for centuries.

Kurds, no matter where they live in the world, can feel bound by the need to preserve family honor, they said.

"The idea of honor is in our cultural backyard. Ethnically and culturally, we believe it," said Mohammed Ahmed, a white-haired man who said he was a peshmerga--a fearsome mountain-fighter--with Yones before they immigrated in 1990.

"Even in court, the father insisted that he was right and that he did the right thing -- and that he'd do it again.

"I mean, I know it's a crime. We all know he's a killer," Ahmed said. "But he was very proud, and what he did . . . well, how could he accept his daughter's behavior?"