KENDAL, England – A British teenager who opposed her parents' plan for an arranged marriage and claimed to be the victim of domestic abuse likely died from strangulation or smothering, a pathologist told an inquest into her killing Tuesday.
Shafilea Ahmed vanished in September 2003 shortly after returning home from a family trip to Pakistan, where she was introduced to a suitor and subsequently hospitalized after drinking bleach.
In February 2004, the 17-year-old student's decomposed body was found in undergrowth near a river in Sedgwick, about 260 miles northwest of London.
Police conducted a murder investigation, but no one has been charged. An inquest — held in Britain to determine the cause of death when someone dies unexpectedly, violently or of unknown causes — was opened in March 2004. It was adjourned shortly afterward to allow the police to investigate, but reopened Tuesday at County Hall in Kendal, near where the corpse was found.
Dr. Alison Armour, the pathologist who carried out the post-mortem, ruled out death by natural causes, citing the way the body was concealed on the riverbank. There was no evidence of the body suffering trauma or fractures, she said.
"The most likely cause of death would be smothering or strangulation by ligature or manually," Armour said in response to a question from John Bassett, representing the police. "Or an element of both."
Poems discovered after Ahmed's disappearance spoke of the teen's conflict with her family and her fears she would be forced into an arranged marriage.
"Here is a girl who isn't conforming to what this family wants," Police Superintendent Geraint Jones told the inquest. "The next step is to carry out a murder. That was the hypothesis we followed."
Later he said: "(The) issue is about shame and honor in the family and maybe pressure would be brought to bear within the family in that cultural environment."
Ahmed's parents insist they had nothing to do with her death. Iftikhar Ahmed and his wife, Farzana, were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping before their daughter's body was discovered. Both were released without charge.
The Cheshire force only became aware of her disappearance in September 2003 after being contacted by a teacher at her former school, who heard rumors that "something had happened to her."
Jones said he immediately feared Shafilea was dead when news of her disappearance surfaced, adding that police were aware that Shafilea had been subjected to "domestic abuse and forced marriage, potential forced marriage."
Ahmed fled home accompanied by her boyfriend in February 2003 before her trip to the subcontinent, he said. On her return, she sought help from a volunteer group about finding her own accommodation. But Jones said she was seized by her father on the way to school and soon joined the family trip.
Several relatives from Bradford, in northern England, were arrested on suspicion of interfering with the investigation, but were not charged. Jones said they gave police misleading information about family members.
Shafilea's parents sat in court Tuesday, showing no emotion as details of their daughter's corpse were given to the inquest.
Iftikhar Ahmed said Shafilea was "a very normal child, very bright," but that "problems arose" and her personality changed when she left high school for college.
Coroner Ian Smith asked if Shafilea explained why she was leaving home.
"Not directly to me," her father responded.
The inquest, which is expected to last all week, is due to hear from Shafilea's friends and former teachers on Wednesday.