HUSSAIN KHANWALA: Police arrested five more people Monday over a major child sex abuse scandal after a lawyer for the victims accused them of protecting culprits, while activists said the case was just the tip of the iceberg.
At least 280 children were filmed being sexually abused by a gang of 25 men who used the hundreds of videos they produced to blackmail the youngsters' parents, according to Latif Ahmed Sara, a lawyer and activist representing the victims.
Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab province where the abuse took place, has ordered an independent judicial inquiry and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has vowed stern action against those responsible.
The Lahore High Court, however, declined Sharif's request, saying police should continue their investigation, court spokesman Arif Javed told AFP.
“The judicial inquiry is required where facts are hidden, in this case police are already investigating and some of the accused have already been arrested,” Javed said.
The total number of suspects in custody stands at 12 following Monday's arrests.
The case has provoked expressions of outrage with local media suggesting a politically-influenced cover up in the works.
The village at the heart of the scandal, Hussain Khanwala, lies in the Punjab stronghold of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
Sara accused the police of dragging their feet – some of the videos date back to 2007.
“The police are protecting the criminals, they are supporting them and have provided them an opportunity to escape the village,” Sara told reporters.
On Monday parliament's upper house, the Senate, passed a unanimous resolution condemning the abuse and demanding exemplary punishment for the culprits.
The head of Punjab's Child Protection Bureau, Saba Sadiq, described the case as “the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan's history”.
But an initial police probe, carried out last week at the behest of the provincial government described the allegations as “baseless”, a conclusion immediately rejected by local media and rights activists.
District police chief Rai Baber Saeed told AFP that officers were doing their best to catch those responsible, but insisted there were no more than 30 victims and accused activists and media of exaggerating.
“Police have 30 video clips of the scandal involving 15 people. Seven of them have been arrested while four or five are on pre-arrest bail and the rest are absconders,” he told AFP before the latest arrests.
He described the case as an old one, dragged up recently by a group of villagers as a tactic in a dispute over the sale of some land.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the property dispute did not detract from the horror of the abuse and demanded a thorough and impartial investigation, voicing doubts over the judicial commission ordered by the Punjab chief minister.
The abusers allegedly tried to extort money from parents of victims, selling clips of the videos locally for 40 rupees each if they did not pay up.
“They made the video of my son in 2011 and we have been paying the blackmailers since then,” the mother of one of the victims told an AFP reporter.
Activists working to fight child sex abuse in Pakistan said the problem was widespread but difficult to quantify because victims were often unwilling to speak out.
The concept of family “honour” is very important in society and many people would be afraid of the “shame” it would bring to admit being the victim of a sexual assault.
Mumtaz Hussain from Sahil, Pakistan's leading campaign group working against child abuse, told AFP there were more than 3,500 registered cases last year – representing nearly 10 children a day being abused.
But he said the true figure was far higher, perhaps as many as 10,000.
“Very few are reported because the victims and families are shy to disclose the sexual offence against them because of cultural, social and religious barriers,” he said.
Rights activist Samar Minallah said the unwillingness to discuss it was making it easier for abuse to happen.
“It is important to break the silence and challenge the taboo around it,” Minallah told AFP.
“How can a child be safe if he knows that his parents, the culture and societal norms expect him to remain silent to uphold the family's 'honour'?”