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Footprints: No justice for Aminas of the country

March 23, 2014

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— File photo
— File photo

THE Mir Hazar Khan police aren’t inhospitable, at least not in normal circumstances. But Wednesday wasn’t a routine day at the police station in Muzaffargarh’s Jatoi tehsil. Punjab’s top spy was trying to determine the circumstances that had forced Amina Mai to burn herself to death just outside the police station a week earlier. He was also focusing on the police’s role in the release, without a proper probe, of the man Amina accused of raping her on Jan 5. Another team headed by the top provincial investigator was due to arrive the next morning to probe the rape case on the apex court’s orders.

That wasn’t all. Three of the policemen’s colleagues facing arrest — a DSP, an inspector and a sub-inspector — are fugitives from the law. Another DSP is on temporary bail and ASI Rana Zulfiqar Ali, who was investigating the 18-year-old’s complaint but had evidently freed the suspect without a proper probe, is in jail. Against this backdrop, it was but natural for the police to view a journalist in their midst as an unwanted intrusion. “Not now,” said an uncommunicative sentry, pushing us out of the building and bolting the gate behind us.

Outside the police station — 40km from Muzaffargarh — the spot where the Class XI student had set herself on fire after the release of the key suspect doesn’t bear any sign of her tragic death. Eyewitnesses are hard to find. “I saw the girl sprinkling petrol on her scarf from a can handed by her mother and lighting herself,” Tanveer Ahmed, whose father owns a dhaba a few metres away, told Dawn. He was the only person in the area who claimed to have witnessed the incident.

“A couple of TV cameramen were recording the event and continuously encouraging her to burn her scarf if she wanted justice. She was in flames within a fraction of a minute.” Tanveer wasn’t sure if the cameramen, who apparently rode away on their motorbike(s) once things got uglier, had come there on their own or had accompanied the girl.

Amina had alleged that the rape took place in the jungle when she was walking home from the doctor’s with her younger brother. The place isn’t far from the narrow broken and dusty road that takes you to her village, Lundi Pitafi, in 30-35 minutes through fields, villages and small bazaars on both sides.

Murders are easy in Pakistan to wash away. Rapes are even easier to cover up. Every year, thousands of cases of gang rape and rape are registered and the culprits ‘traced’, but only a few perpetrators are convicted because of the investigators’ prejudice against women, corruption, lack or destruction of evidence, police failure to have the victims medically tested or undergo DNA tests, untrained prosecutors and numerous investigation and legal shortcomings.

In Amina’s case, one or a combination of these factors could have played out in favour of her alleged tormentors. “It’s yet to be determined if the investigation officer mismanaged the case intentionally or was too incompetent to handle it,” a police official said privately.

At her home, her elder brother Ghulam Shabbir said his sister was an honourable woman. “[The main suspect’s] release was too much for her. In the court, my sister was jeered at by him and his brothers. They thrust sweets into her mouth. She couldn’t cope with her humiliation,” he said, pointing in the direction of her alleged tormentor’s house nearby. The house has been locked ever since he was rearrested and his brothers went into hiding.

Inside the house, Amina’s mother repeatedly demanded justice for her dead daughter. “If they don’t give us justice I’ll burn myself like her.” She denies she knew her daughter wanted to set herself ablaze. “She went to the police station to collect her clothes. I went along. When the SHO refused to see her, she asked me to bring back her clothes. I was only halfway inside when I heard her screams and looked back to see the flames burning her,” she recalled. She said she was not aware of the presence of cameramen at the spot.

On our way back, we chanced upon local politician Mohammad Sharif Kamboh. “There’s little doubt in my mind that something had happened between the suspect and the girl [on the day she said she was raped]. It is for the police to investigate the girl’s complaint and determine the nature and extent of the crime.” But the police failed her just as they have failed countless other women.