The coroner warned lawyers and a handful of spectators in her blonde-panelled courtroom that we might find the video “distressing” – but nothing could prepare us for the confronting scene we were about to witness.
A track was selected from the DVD and, as we watched on a screen suspended from the wall, a firefighter poured a can of petrol over the clothes of a female volunteer and set her alight. Within seconds, as she walked down the driveway of a house in a quiet outer suburb of Sydney, she turned into a human torch, flames engulfing her body. She fell to the ground. Two assistants rushed to douse her with a fire extinguisher and throw a heavy fire blanket over her body.
She was, of course, a professional stuntwoman, and survived unharmed. But even so, in spite of wearing a flame-proof mask, the woman’s eyelashes were singed by the ferocity of the flames.
Thirteen times police and firefighters re-enacted the scene, with the stuntwoman and then with display-window mannequins standing in, when the amount of petrol was increased and it became too dangerous for a human being. At the end, none of us was in any doubt about the horrifying way in which a young woman named Parwinder Kaur died. She was so badly burned that a doctor would testify that it was easier to describe the parts of her body that escaped the flames than those that were charred.
There is no disputing how Parwinder died. But what Deputy State Coroner Sharon Freund has been trying to discover, presiding over a procession of witnesses before the Coroner’s Court in inner-Sydney Glebe for the past two months, is why.
In particular, the Coroner wants to know whether this was an ‘honour killing,’ a particularly grisly form of ‘justice’ meted out to women in the Middle East and South Asia who are judged to have dishonoured their families. Was she killed by her husband in a dispute over money? Was she driven to suicide by her bullying in-laws? Or was it a terrible accident?
“Everyone wants to go to Australia.”
The hamlet of Phirni Mazara is hard to find, even with a map and a magnifying glass. It is a dust-mite dropping on the vast Indian subcontinent in the foothills of the Himalayas, not far from the disputed border with Pakistan. This is where Parwinder Kaur was born and grew up, on a small farm on the outskirts of the village, where buffaloes till rice fields and children shin up mango trees to pluck the fruit before it falls. Her name translates as “supreme godly princess.”
The Hoshiarpur district of Punjab province, where the village is located, is not India’s most prosperous. The government, in fact, classifies it as one of the country’s “backward regions” – entitled to special assistance – and says that 15 per cent of the residents can neither read nor write and one-third of its farmers live below the poverty line. There is a steady drain of young people leaving for a better life abroad in the Sikh diaspora.
“Everyone wants to go to Australia,” says the family spokesperson, Parwinder’s sister-in-law, Amanpreet Chatha.
Parwinder was the firstborn and much-loved child of Jagat Singh, a retired army veteran of the wars with Pakistan, and his wife Malkeetaur Kaur. These ‘surnames,’ which are shared by tens of millions of Indians, caused considerable confusion to the people investigating Parwinder’s death, until it was explained that all baptised Sikh men are entitled to be called Singh (it’s from the Sanskrit for ‘lion’) and the women Kaur (‘princess’), by a decree dating back to the 17th Century Guru Gobind Singh.
Although the family were Sikhs, they did not follow every tenet of the faith, explains Amanpreet. A devout Sikh does not cut his hair, avoids halal meat and both men and women carry a kirpan, a small, curved, ceremonial dagger.
By all accounts it was a happy childhood. Parwinder turned out to be a bright child, and was sent to study at college. But job prospects were not great, and when she reached her early 20s, her parents began looking around for a husband. Eventually, through family connections who had known him at college, they settled on a young man named Kulwinder Singh.
His family came from the same district and belonged to the same caste as Parwinder’s – the jats, or small-scale farmers. However, they had one major advantage in the matrimonial stakes – the family had migrated to Australia some years earlier and were doing well, with jobs and a house at Kellyville in Sydney’s northwest.
The marriage was arranged and an exchange of ‘gifts’ was agreed, dowries having been officially banned by the Indian government many years ago. No toasters or Tupperware – Kulwinder was to receive some gold, a refrigerator, television, stove, sofa and a red Honda motor-cycle, among other tokens of esteem.
The traditional wedding, in July 2005, lasted for three whole days, with great feasting, singing and fanfare, and the whole village joining in the rejoicing. The happy couple was dressed in traditional robes – the groom with a turban on his head, the bride wearing a bejeweled shawl, her hands and feet decorated with henna – and various Sikh ceremonies were enacted, including jaggo, where women of the family arrive with brass pitchers on their heads.
They say when they went to register, they discovered Kulwinder was already married.
But it wasn’t long before Parwinder’s family began to believe there was a problem with their new son-in-law. They claim that when they went to register the marriage, they discovered that Kulwinder was already married – he had a wife back in Australia. He explained that this had been a sham marriage to one of his cousins to enable her to come to Australia, and a divorce was quickly arranged. However, it left a small shadow of doubt in Parwinder’s family’s minds.
It wasn’t until the following year, 2006, that the divorce was finalised, the marriage registered, the visa arranged and Parwinder was able to fly out to Australia to join her husband. Her new in-laws were quick to explain to her that she was marrying into the whole family, and that she would be expected to live with them in the house at Kellyville, which at one stage would be home to seven members of the two families.
Within a few weeks they found work for Parwinder – she was sent to labour in the gloom of the sheds of the Moonlight Mushroom Farm at McGraths Hill on Sydney’s far-flung fringe where she worked shifts, six or seven days a week, cutting and packing mushrooms. Her pay of $600 or $700 a week went into her husband’s bank account, the inquest was told.
By the accounts of her family and friends, Parwinder was treated as a “domestic slave” by her husband’s family. When she came home from work she was required to cook and clean for everyone, and to do all their washing by hand – even though they owned a washing machine. She was abused and insulted, she complained – called names such as ‘mare’ and ‘dangar,’ a Punjabi word for ‘dumb animal’.
There must have been happier times. Kulwinder’s family talk of her pride in her vegetable garden, growing coriander, spinach and ‘long melons’. They tendered happy snaps of the couple bushwalking in the Blue Mountains and celebrating at a wedding. They were trying for a child and Parwinder had sought fertility treatment. Parwinder was trying to make friends with the neighbours and often took them punnets of mushrooms.
In fact, there is considerable dispute between the families about the relationship. Although Amanpreet described her sister-in-law as “a person who brought happiness to everyone she met” Kulwinder’s family presented a very different picture of her to the inquest.
Ranjit Kauer, Kulwinder’s mother, said that Parwinder “dominated” her son. An elderly woman wearing a white robe and with her hair tied back in a scarf, Ranjit described herself as “an uneducated person” and broke down in tears several times while giving evidence through an interpreter. Kulwinder, she said, “would get scared” of his wife because “she had a bad temper” and on the day of her death had told her he was leaving Parwinder to come and live with her.
In 2010, the couple had saved enough to buy a block of land at nearby Rouse Hill and built a two-storey, four-bedroom brick house on it. But Parwinder still could not escape the in-laws, as her husband’s family moved in to live with them. The abuse continued.
“They were fighting all the time, about money” said a friend of hers, a fellow mushroom-picker named Seema Chaudry, who dropped Parwinder off at Rouse Hill after she finished work the day she died. Other witnesses said that Kulwinder had hit her about the head with a sandal, had kicked her in the stomach, given her a black eye and had left bruises on her body. Several times, he “kicked her out of the house” and once sent an SMS saying “I don’t want to see her face any more”.
Alone and isolated from her family (until her younger brother Sukhvinder arrived a few years ago) Parwinder had no-one to turn to.
The first indication that the trouble between them had escalated came in January 2013 when Parwinder made her first call to the 000 emergency telephone number. In her halting English she blurted out “My husband maybe kill me”. A police car was dispatched to the house, but – possibly because of language difficulties – the police were not convinced there was a serious problem and took no action.
It wasn’t until detectives investigating her death seized various bank records that they pieced together what they say were financial difficulties that were fuelling the arguments. Kulwinder’s parents had lent them about $110,000 over the years – including thousands to help pay for the wedding – and when his father said he needed the money back in October 2012, Kulwinder had withdrawn it in several tranches from his mortgage account.
This left him with a steep weekly repayment of $600, which he had difficulty meeting from his salary as a railway security guard. But Parwinder refused to contribute – she opened her own bank account and told the Moonlight Mushroom Farm to transfer her pay there. Kulwinder was terrified that he was going to lose the house for which they had both worked so hard.
Parwinder’s parents heard rumours that two people Kulwinder knew had disappeared.
Adding to the conflict, Kulwinder’s family became convinced that Parwinder had been withholding her wages because she was secretly supporting her brother Sukvinder, who had arrived in Australia as a student. Where did he get the money, $8500, to buy a car? they demanded. Who was paying the $300 a week for his flat?
“This money belongs to us,” they said.
Desperate to save the house, in October 2013 Kulwinder travelled to India and went to the village of Phirni Mazara to have it out with his wife’s parents. There was an argument, and – according to Parwinder’s family – Kulwinder threatened to kill her.
“If she wants to take from me, I will not allow it to happen,” they say he told them. “I can get people [to] disappear and kill without anybody knowing about it.”
Parwinder’s parents were convinced he meant it – they had heard rumours that two people Kulwinder knew had disappeared. They telephoned their daughter in Australia, and then ordered Kulwinder out of the house.
Kulwinder returned to Sydney. Mediation by Sikh elders from the temple at Parklea failed and the arguments resumed. But by now, Parwinder had made up her mind that the marriage was over. She told Amanpreet that she planned to get a divorce, and confided that she was collecting baby goods and planning to adopt a child.
Neighbours described “a ball of flame” walking down the driveway.
Two weeks later there was a recorded call to 000, which was replayed to the inquest. It was at 2:05pm on December 2, and Parwinder was crying and sounded “terrified” according to Phillip Strickland SC, the barrister assisting the Coroner.
“My husband nearly kill me,” she said, before abruptly hanging up.
The police raced to the Rouse Hill house with lights and sirens blaring, but it was too late. Neighbours described having heard screaming, and rushed to the street to see Parwinder in “a ball of flame” walking down the driveway of her home, with her husband walking beside her apparently trying to pat out the flames. She fell to the ground with her clothes burnt away. Slipping in and out of consciousness, her only words, her last words, were: “Please cover my body”.
Kulwinder told police that he had nothing to do with the tragedy. His story was that he was upstairs packing his bags, having told his wife that he was leaving to stay with his parents for a few days. He heard a scream and ran downstairs to find Parwinder on fire.
“I have had such a shit month,” Kulwinder told bystanders, displaying his blistered hands. “I didn’t do it. I am a good man. She did it.”
Parwinder was evacuated by helicopter and taken to Royal North Shore Hospital, but her burns – full thickness and to 85 per cent of her body – were too horrendous to survive. The following day she died. At the post-mortem a large, unexplained bruise was found on her forehead.
The initial investigation appears to have been bungled. Items that should have been bagged as evidence were not. A mobile phone was not dusted for fingerprints. A video of Sheba, a specially-trained golden labrador with a nose a million times more sensitive than a human’s, showed that the dog’s “pointing” at places where it scented accelerant had not been noticed by its handler.
When these holes in the case came to light an enormous amount of forensic work by the police and Fire and Rescue NSW – who staged the reenactment, using mannequins and a stuntwoman – went into the investigation. Not all of it implicated Kulwinder in his wife’s death.
A can of lawnmower fuel and a lighter were found in the laundry.
The court was shown photographs of the can of lawnmower fuel and a lighter found in the laundry of the house where the fire was started. Mr Singh’s lawyer, Michael Vassili, made much of the fact that both had Parwinder’s fingerprints or DNA on them – and neither had Kulwinder’s. No trace of accelerant was found on him either.
Experts were paraded through the witness box, most interestingly Professor Peter Maitz, one of Australia’s leading experts on burns and the medical director of Concord Hospital’s burns unit since 2000. Professor Maitz has also spent time with the National Academy of Burn Injuries in India.
Death by burning, he testified, is unusual anywhere because: “It is not easy to burn a person. We are 70 per cent water.”
In Australia and other English-speaking countries, it was much more common for people to commit suicide using drugs – of the 223 cases of self-harm or suicide using fire in NSW in the past 11 years “fewer than a dozen” died of their injuries, he said.
In India, however, the use of fire for so-called “honour killings” was far more common. In some cases the woman was killed by her relatives for dishonouring the family name; in others, the woman killed herself. However, in cases of suicide it was more common for the victim to pour the fuel over her head before setting herself alight – Parwinder’s head was one of the few parts of her body not to be incinerated.
Professor Maitz also said that he had examined photographs of Kulwinder’s hands. The burns were not serious, he said, and not consistent with him having tried effectively to extinguish the flames engulfing his wife, since they were on his fingers, rather than the palms of his hands.
It was appropriate, said Mr Strickland, that his summing up of the case should be on Wednesday November 25, White Ribbon Day, when men and boys around the world pin loops of white ribbon to their chests to show their support for a campaign to end male violence against women and girls.
The barrister seemed in no doubt what had happened to Parwinder: “Her death occurred in the context of an abusive relationship”. Parwinder, he said, was a “very tough cookie” who had put up with abuse for years and would not have killed herself.
Two days later the Coroner delivered her decision. There was evidence, said Ms Freund, using the legal jargon, that “a known person [has] committed an indictable offence.” She suspended the inquest without making a finding or naming the “known person”.
In the public gallery, Kulwinder and his family stared straight ahead as the decision was read out. Outside the court, Amanpreet – who earlier read to the inquest a moving and loving tribute to her sister-in-law – and her husband Sukhvinder hugged each other, with tears running down their faces.
“We are so glad that people know she did not kill herself,” she said. “Now all we want is justice for Parwinder and the family.”
Justice, however, may be a long way away. The case has now been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will make a decision on whether anyone should be charged over Parwinder’s death. If that does happen, it will be up to a jury to decide whether the evidence is strong enough to convince them “beyond a reasonable doubt” of what happened on that dreadful day.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. Parwinder’s long journey to her land of promise has ended not with the life she dreamed of, but the nightmare of an agonising death.
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