Neighbors woke to a woman’s cries for help just after 2 a.m. in Bawan Kheri, a village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Sleepily, they emerged from their homes to find a horrific scene of mass murder.
Lateef Ullah Khan, one of the first to arrive at the two-story family home on April 15, 2008, found villager Shabnam lying unconscious on the floor near her father, Shaukat Ali, whose neck was slashed.
The bodies of Shabnam’s two brothers, her mother, sister-in-law and 14-year-old cousin lay almost beheaded in a blood-splattered room, court documents showed. Her baby nephew, who they would later discover had been strangled to death, appeared to be asleep between his parents’ bodies.
The case hit headlines – not only had Shabnam murdered seven of her family members, including a 10-month old child, but she was eight weeks pregnant at the time. Shabnam and her lover, Saleem, were found guilty of the murders and sentenced to hang.
If she is executed, Shabnam – who, like Saleem, is only referred to in court documents by one name – will be first woman given the death penalty in India since 1955.
But with her execution looming, Shabnam’s legal team is trying to halt it – and is arguing that she is a victim, too. Lawyer Shreya Rastogi says her client, who has never admitted to the crime, is a casualty of a patriarchal society that puts caste above all else.
Aside from the people who died that night, the couple’s crime created another victim — their son, Bittu, not his real name, who Shabnam raised in prison before giving him up.
Now 12, Bittu is appealing to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to show his mother mercy.
Why they did it
Shabnam and Saleem were young lovers who lived in the same village – but their families didn’t approve of their union.
Shabnam, who was 22 at the time of the murders, was an educated teacher from the Saifi community. Saleem, then 24, was an unemployed Pathan youth.
Although Indian castes are often associated with the Hindu community, similar social hierarchies exist among Muslim families, based on their historical occupation or which part of the Arab world they come from.
Families often pressure children to marry within their own communities. Failure to do so can lead to violence and, in extreme cases, honor killings, when family members are murdered for bringing alleged shame onto the family.
Before the killings, Lal Mohammad, the father of Shabnam’s deceased sister-in-law Anjum, tipped off police about the couple’s relationship.
“Shabnam is going in the wrong direction, she wants to marry Saleem and the atmosphere at home is very tense,” Mohammad recalled Anjum as saying, according to his witness statement at Shabnam’s 2008 district court trial.
A fellow teacher at the school where Shabnam worked, Nischay Tyagi, testified that Shabnam had told him she wanted to marry Saleem, but her family opposed it. Sukkhan Ali, Shabnam’s cousin, told the court Saleem would often come to Shabnam’s house to meet her. Her father did not like this and beat her, he said.
But there was something Shabnam’s family didn’t know, the court heard. Shabnam was already pregnant with Saleem’s child.
In his ruling, the district court judge SAA Husaini observed that locals “would not have been able to accept the ‘haram’ (illegitimate) act,” referring to their unborn child. However, the judge said the couple had other options to escape the “conservative society” of Bawan Kheri, beyond murdering seven people.
It’s not clear if Shabnam knew she was eight weeks pregnant at the time of the murders.
The prosecution said she did, and that partly motivated the murders. They argued Shabnam wanted to kill her family so she would be the sole heiress of their property and could live in comfort with Saleem and their newborn.
Her lawyer, Rastogi, says the prosecution did little to prove that theory. Her defense team said Shabnam only found out about the pregnancy during a routine medical check after she was arrested.
How it happened
The massacre began with a cup of tea.
On April 14, 2008, Shabnam laced her family’s evening drinks with a sedative Saleem bought with the help of a fruit seller, the court found. Then, as the family slept, Shabnam called Saleem – who arrived with an ax.
“Shabnam held up the heads of each member one by one and I slashed their throats and killed them,” Saleem confessed the day after the murders to Bilal Ahmad, a tea seller with connections to the district police chief.
The court heard Saleem had hoped Ahmad’s connections would help him evade punishment.
Instead, Ahmad reported Saleem’s confession to the police and recounted in court what Saleem had told him: “I have made a mistake, I am in love with Shabnam, a girl from my village, and she loves me too. We have vowed to live and die together. We cannot live without each other. Because of this, Shabnam’s family beat her up and said that they won’t let her marry me.”
Other witnesses placed Saleem at a pharmacy on the day before the murders, but the pharmacist declined to sell him any sedatives. Typically in India, strong sleeping pills can only be sold with a prescription from a doctor. Saleem then asked for help from a fruit seller outside the shop, who helped him buy the pills, the court heard.
Saleem also confessed the crime to a village administrative official, Mahender Singh, the day after the massacre, asking him to use his political connections to keep him out of jail, Singh testified in court.
After the police arrested him, Saleem retrieved a blood-stained ax from a pond that was consistent with the murder weapon. Empty packets of the pills used to sedate the family were recovered from Shabnam, according to court documents.
Shabnam initially claimed some hoodlums had entered their home and committed the crime, but police dismissed the theory because of the impossibility of them having scaled the high roof.
The home’s iron door had been locked from inside, and there were no fingerprints or other evidence suggesting the presence of unidentified assailants, according to testimony from forensic official Manveer Singh.
When Khan, the neighbor, arrived at the house, he said he found Shabnam unconscious.
However, the Supreme Court noted in its 2015 judgment that Shabnam had “feigned unconsciousness and laid by the side of the deceased father’s mutilated body, to callously insinuate that the crime had been committed by an outsider.”
Yet, while Shabnam and Saleem had allegedly murdered so they could be together, they turned on each other in the trial. Shabnam alleged Saleem alone had killed everyone. Saleem said Shabnam had been drinking wine and called him after she had killed her family, asking him to get rid of the evidence.
The district court found the pair guilty of murdering seven people, and sentenced them to death by hanging. They appealed to the High Court of Uttar Pradesh, as well as the Supreme Court of India – the country’s highest court – but each time, their claims of innocence were dismissed.
Giving birth behind bars
Shabnam and Saleem’s son, Bittu, was born in prison in December 2008 – eight months after the murders.
Bittu is not his real name. The boy’s foster father requested that CNN use his nickname, as he has to deal with the social stigma of being the son of convicted murderers.
Shabnam raised Bittu in a women’s prison, where she shared barracks with other inmates.
Other children came and went, as their mothers were freed. But Bittu stayed, waiting for the day he turned six, when he would be sent to live with someone on the outside, in accordance with Indian prison rules.
In prison, Shabnam doted on her son, said her lawyer Rastogi.
“She tried to teach (Bittu) a little bit to the extent that she could,” Rastogi said. “She used to take classes for him, she used to get him to learn the alphabet, numbers, also the children of the other female inmates that were there she would teach them as well.”
Usman Saifi, a former college friend of Shabnam, offered to take Bittu once he turned six. Saifi, a journalist, had contacted her in prison as he wanted to write a book about the murders.
“Initially she dismissed me because the very first question I asked her is the one I shouldn’t have,” said Saifi. “I asked her why she killed her family.”
Saifi said it took time to convince Shabnam that Bittu would be safe living with him and his wife. In 2015, when Bittu was six, they took custody of the child and are raising him as their own.
“Bittu respects everyone and treats everyone with love,” said Saifi. “He never says anything hurtful to anyone – this is like the blooming of a lotus in muddy water.”
But life is not easy for Bittu – media attention was disrupting Bittu’s life and his ability to focus on his studies, Saifi said. He also struggles with being the child of murderers, he added.
“One day, when he had gone to the mosque, someone told him that he was the son of that Shabnam who is going to be hanged. This incident affected him a lot and he was in bed all day,” Saifi said.
For the sake of Bittu, Saifi and his wife have joined the fight for Shabnam to be taken off death row.
Plea for mercy
While Saleem swung the ax, Shabnam’s role in slaughtering her own family shocked the nation.
“She served them tea with the love that a father would not suspect his daughter was giving him poison, a mother would not suspect her daughter is giving her poison,” the trial judge said in 2010.
“Her brother, sister-in-law, cousin, no one suspected, but Shabnam knew that the last sip of this tea would be the last sip of their lives.”
But Rastogi believes Shabnam has been unfairly demonized and her death penalty should be commuted.
Her view is backed by research from the Cornell Law School’s Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide that found women who violate entrenched norms of gender behavior are more likely to receive the death penalty. Its 2018 report, “Judged More Than Her Crime,” found women facing the death penalty were cast as the “femme fatale,” the “child murderer,” or the “witch.”
According to the Cornell report, women are judged for what society considers to be their “moral failings,” beyond the crime itself.
Shabnam and Saleem contested the death sentence, however the Supreme Court held that the punishment was proportionate, and the crime fulfilled the conditions of “rarest of rare,” which is required when imposing the death penalty.
Death warrants were issued in May 2015 – under Indian law, these need to be issued a minimum of two weeks before the execution. However, they were later revoked after a legal challenge by Project 39A, a collective opposed to the death penalty in India. The court found the warrants had been issued in “haste” as the prisoners still had legal remedies pending.
But there’s still a risk new death warrants will be issued.
In February this year, lawyers for Shabnam and Saleem filed a mercy plea with the governor of Uttar Pradesh state, as a representative of the President, and the President himself.
According to Rastogi, as per case law, when conferring a death sentence a court must look at the criminal beyond the crime, to see whether there exists a possibility of reformation and rehabilitation.
“What better way to understand a young mother than to see her through the lens of her relationship with her son?” Rastogi asked.
Waiting for execution
Shabnam’s death sentence made headlines again in February after one of the last remaining hangmen in India visited Mathura Jail, the only one in the country with a hanging house for women. That prompted speculation Shabnam’s execution date was fast approaching.
“We are fixing it up and making sure everything is in working condition, but we can’t do anything until the death warrant is issued, once we have the date, then we can order the ropes,” said Akhilesh Kumar, Deputy Inspector General of Prisons for Uttar Pradesh.
Meanwhile, the superintendent of the Mathura Jail confirmed that hangman Pawan Kumar, who also hanged four convicts in the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, visited the prison in February to inspect the female hanging house.
“He did visit … If there is something in my possession, it is my duty to ensure it is in the best shape, so if I feel that there may be something that needs to be fixed, I have to call the expert to take a look at it,” Mathura Jail superintendent Shailendra Maitreya said.
Those in the country who have been campaigning to abolish the death penalty feel that executing a woman for the first time in 66 years would be a step in the wrong direction.
“Shabnam today stands in the death row queue, and if the death sentence is carried out it would further reinforce that the death penalty disproportionately falls upon the most marginalized,” said lawyer and activist Vrinda Grover.
Since it was introduced in 2007, support for a United Nations resolution for a global moratorium on the death penalty has grown from 104 countries to 123 in 2020, Amnesty International figures show. India has consistently voted against it.
While 2020 saw a drop in the number of death penalties imposed in India, the decline can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic which disrupted the court calendars, according to Project 39A.
As of March 31, 15 women were on death row in India, the group said.
Saifi hopes Shabnam’s life can be spared, for the sake of her son.
“When I told him about the sentence his mother had received from court… he prepared a message on his own and appealed to the President through the media to forgive his mother,” Saifi said.
In February, after rumors of Shabnam’s impending hanging made headlines, Bittu held up a blackboard to reporters with a chalk message written in neat, cursive writing.
“President Uncle Ji please forgive my mother Shabnam,” it said, using an Indian term of endearment for Kovind.
So far, there has been no response.
Saifi knows time is running out. He fears for Bittu, if Shabnam is hanged.
“Not only will Shabnam be gone, but this kid will be lost, and if he is lost, we will be lost,” he said. “We don’t have any other children. He is everything to us.”