NEW YORK, June 14 (APP): Human Rights Watch, a prominent international watchdog body, has called on Pakistan’s government to urgently investigate and prosecute those responsible for the recent jump in reported “honour” killings in the country.

“So-called honor killings have been a long-festering problem in Pakistan, and the recent escalating trend makes it clear they won’t go away on their own,” Brad Adams, Asia director, said in a statement, referring to a series of incidents around the country.

“The government needs to step up its prosecution of these horrific cases and send a message of zero tolerance.”

Pakistani law allows the family of a murder victim to pardon the perpetrator, HRW said. This practice is often used in cases of “honour” killings, where the victim and perpetrator frequently belong to the same family, in order to evade prosecution. The 2004 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act made “honour” killings a criminal offense, but HRW said the law remains poorly enforced.

In February 2016, a documentary about “honour” killings by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, “A Girl in the River,” won an Academy Award. The film prompted Pakistan’s Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif to speak out publicly on “honour” killings, stating that he would look into the issue and seek reform.

In March, Pakistan’s senate passed an anti-honour killing bill, which is now pending National Assembly approval. HRW urged Prime Minister Sharif to support the bill, which seeks to eliminate the option of murder committed in the name of “honour” to be “forgiven.”

“Pakistani law literally allows killers to get away with murdering the women in their families,” Adams said. “The law should be protecting women from these vicious acts “ not enshrining an escape clause for their killers.”

Legislative changes are only a part of the solution, HRW said, adding the Pakistani government should ensure that police impartially investigate “honour” killings without bowing to political or other pressure from local and religious leaders. The government should also ensure that safe emergency shelter, protection, and support is available to any woman or girl who may be at risk from her family.

In May 2016, HRW noted the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) proposed that men should be allowed to “lightly” beat their wives, “if needed,” and prohibited the mixing of genders in schools, hospitals, and offices.

During a June 10 television program, a senator from an Islamist political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), verbally abused and attempted to physically assault Marvi Sirmed, a human rights activist, for criticizing the CII.

“Statements from the governmental Council of Islamic Ideology are making an already toxic environment for women in Pakistan worse,” Adams said. “The Pakistani government should act quickly and decisively to ensure that no interpretation of religious or cultural norms prevails over basic rights.”