Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar on Tuesday ordered the formation of a committee to investigate five arrested people accused of tapping 'spinal fluid' from at least 15 women in Hafizabad and Gujranwala after tricking them into believing that it was a requirement for participation in a government welfare project.
The committee, headed by the area's deputy commissioner, has been given three days to submit its report on the matter.
Hafizabad District Police Officer (DPO) Dr Sardar Ghias Gull earlier told Dawn that the five suspects, including one woman, had told their victims that they would help them acquire financial assistance through the prime minister’s dowry fund.
The suspects — identified as Nadeem, Muhammad Aslam, his wife Amna Bibi, and Irfan — would allegedly sell the fluid they had tapped to Sajid Masih, who worked as a sweeper at the District Headquarters (DHQ) Hospital’s kidney ward.
The DPO said that Sajid had asked the suspects to provide him with spinal fluid from at least 15 women, which he would then sell abroad. They were promised a sum of Rs40,000 for their efforts.
DPO Ghias added that Nadeem, the prime suspect, would pretend to be a DHQ Hospital employee and use that as a cover to tap 'spinal fluid' from women, mostly from financially distressed backgrounds. He said that Nadeem had confessed to conducting a spinal tap on more than 15 women.
He said that at least 16 victims of the horrendous scam had so far recorded their statements with the police regarding the extraction of fluid from their spinal cords. All of them said they had been medically examined at the Hafizabad DHQ Hospital.
However, women who were victimised by the scam alleged, while speaking to DawnNews, that the number of affectees is close to 200, but this information has not been confirmed by police.
A first information report had been registered against the gang at the Hafizabad city police station yesterday under Sections 324 (attempt to murder), 420 (cheating and dishonesty), 170 (impersonating as a public servant), and 171 (wearing garb or carrying a token used by a public servant with fraudulent intent) of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Police were granted physical remand of the male suspects, whereas one female suspect was sent on judicial remand as police investigate the case.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif yesterday ordered free follow-up medical treatment for a victim who came forward with the startling revelations and a report on the incident from the Hafizabad police, The Guardian reported.
Hafizabad, the constituency from where Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar was elected in the 2013 election, lies in Punjab’s so-called "kidney fields", a route between Islamabad and Lahore known for the presence of organ traffickers, according to the British publication.
The Guardian reported that the 'gang members' had promised a 17-year-old victim’s father a monthly fee in exchange for his consent to a blood test, saying the money could go towards his daughter’s dowry.
"It’s one of the strangest cases of my career," Afzal Butt of the Hafizabad police told The Guardian.
Tarar today said those who take advantage of the lesser-privileged could not be pardoned and must be dealt with strictly.
Bone marrow or spinal fluid?
Initial reports that emerged around the case claimed that the five-member gang had extracted bone marrow from the victims. However, the DPO clarified that the accused did not possess the equipment required to extract bone marrow.
He said the nature of the tapped fluid could only be ascertained after forensic analysis, adding that the police had sent samples of the fluid seized from the suspects to the Punjab Forensic Science Laboratory in Lahore.
Lahore Children’s Hospital Dean Prof Dr Masood Sadiq explained that bone marrow transplant was a sensitive procedure which required a germ-free environment and expertise.
The institute was the first public sector health facility in Punjab to have conducted the highly sensitive bone marrow transplant last year.
Talking to Dawn regarding the scam that surfaced in Hafizabad, he said both kinds of procedures — extraction of bone marrow and its transfusion — were not possible in the environment the suspects had worked in.
Both the donors and recipients needed to undergo several tests to discover the type of bone marrow cells required, he added.
Sharing his expert opinion on the extraction of bone marrow, Prof Sadiq said it was a surgical procedure that was carried out at a designated sterilised operation theatre.
"Under anaesthesia, a needle is inserted into the patient’s rear pelvic bone where a large quantity of bone marrow is located," he said, adding that bone marrow was extracted with a syringe.
DPO Ghias also confirmed that the suspects did not possess the kind of syringes required for such a procedure. He said that the police had seized a number of pictures of the victims, their ID cards, syringes and medicines from the suspects.
With additional reporting by Waseem Ashraf Butt and Asif Chaudhry.