Broken system, shattered lives

28 Jan 2019


The writer is a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales.
The writer is a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales.

PAKISTAN’S criminal justice system is broken and tilted in favour of criminals from the time of reporting a crime to the actual conviction. Crimes against women and children are hardly reported for fear of social stigmatisation. According to Roshni Helpline, around 3,000 children go missing every year in Karachi alone and according to another NGO, Sahil, about 11 children are seriously sexually assaulted every day. These figures, compiled from press and police reports, are just the tip of the iceberg. One case that received wide media attention in 2018 was the rape-murder of Zainab.

Eighteen years, ago another crime rocked the country. But, this time, there was no manhunt. The murderer was never even suspected — even though more than 100 children had gone missing. A man by the name of Javed Iqbal approached the mainstream media to confess that he had raped and murdered over 100 children in his house and dissolved their bodies in vats of acid. Passport-sized photographs of the children along with their clothes were seized from his home. Some human remains were found in vats but no bodies were discovered. Iqbal later recanted his statement and said he had fabricated it to highlight the plight of runaway children.

Over time, new opportunities have arisen for paedophiles, rapists and criminals.

But no one paid attention. The media and the public were baying for his blood. A grisly sentence was expected. Iqbal was sentenced to be strangled with an iron chain, chopped into pieces and dissolved in acid in front of the victims’ parents. Iqbal committed suicide while in detention. There was no climax to the episode, but the state moved on. Some human rights organisations who conducted a fact-finding mission concluded that Iqbal was only a scapegoat: there was a human smuggling ring behind the whole episode — thus the lack of bodies, the passport-sized pictures and the suicide of the accused in detention. No investigation followed. In fact, worse was still to come.

In 2004, while visiting the Borstal Institution and Juvenile Jail in Faisalabad, I found several very young children in jail — despite the promulgation of the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000, which limits the detention of very young minors. Nadeem was eight or nine when he was convicted, and Sabir only about a couple of years older. Both had received life sentences of over 70 years in solitary confinement by the same overzealous judge who had sentenced Iqbal. Their crime: they were the child servants of Iqbal and purportedly helped him get rid of the victims’ bodies. Iqbal had died, more than 100 children had disappeared, but these two children were serving out the punishment in solitary confinement. I referred the case to my mother, the late Asma Jahangir, who appealed their sentences and got them acquitted. It was probably too little and too late for them.

Over time, new opportunities have arisen for paedophiles, rapists and criminals. In 2015, a paedophile ring that had drugged and sexually assaulted hundreds of children was discovered in Kasur. The abusers videotaped the abuse and used them to blackmail the families of the child victims. It was not just gruesome. It was gruesome business. The culture of shame and silence discouraged victims from approaching the police — in fact, perversely, they were made to pay to keep the evidence under cover. Six members of this gang were prosecuted, but only two convicted by an anti-terrorism court. According to some reports, the police did not properly investigate all suspects because of local political influence.

In Nawakalay, Mingora, another child pornography ring was discovered after a tip-off by a 13-year-old boy who had been kidnapped in 2014. Police arrested the gang leader and his two accomplices. According to a report by the NGO Sparc, the gang had been operating for 15 years and would kidnap, drug and rape boys and then use the videos and pictures to blackmail their families. Though the FIR only cited the abuse of 17 boys, the report revealed that they had abused more than 100. The gang leader settled the case with money and was released after a five-day remand.

In a culture of impunity, incompetence, short-lived memories and (frankly) inconsideration, it is no surprise that little Zainab was the 12th victim in one year in an area of just two kilometres. The same murderer’s DNA was found in the last six cases. Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, then chief justice of the Lahore High Court, while hearing a petition in Zainab’s case expressed surprise that, despite reports of similar incidents in Kasur, none of the cases were brought to court. In Zainab’s case itself, the state was missing until social media created a public uproar and the ensuing rioting was reported widely on mainstream media. It sends the signal that, when a crime is committed, it is ­probably wiser to first reach out to the media than to the police.

What is needed is a sincere rethink of the criminal justice system. The police need better training. More resources should be allocated to forensics, prosecution and hiring female medico-legal officers. A hotline to report sexual abuse and child abuse should be established and linked to police reporting. More needs to be done to encourage people to report crimes confidentially and easily. The identity of child victims should be kept confidential through closed hearings. The public should no longer be appeased by sentences of public hangings.

The old tricks will not continue to suffice a society where aspirations are growing, but at the same time violence is becoming endemic. Admittedly, improving the criminal justice system will not bring instant rewards, but the Zainab case is a stark reminder that it is high time the state allocates its resources and attention to what truly matters. And for the ordinary citizens of Pakistan, nothing ­matters more that the safety of their children.

The writer is a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2019