The Senate on Wednesday passed the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill, 2019, paving the way for the child protection legislation to become a law more than two years after the body of nine-year-old Zainab Ansari, a rape-murder victim, was found in Kasur in 2018.
The gory incident had sparked outrage in the country and raised questions over the security of children and responsibilities on the part of the authorities concerned to prevent increasing incidents of child abuse in Pakistan.
The bill was presented for approval in the upper house by Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Azam Swati and was passed despite objections to some of its provisions by opposition lawmakers.
The bill, which will have jurisdiction across the country after becoming a law, was already passed by the National Assembly in January this year.
When asked what the punishment for child abuse and killing will be under the bill, PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, who heads the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights that reviewed the bill before it was passed, told Dawn.com that the usual punishments defined for child abuse in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) will apply.
Under Section 364-A of the PPC, a person who abducts a child under the age of 14 "in order that such [child] may be murdered or subjected to grievous hurt, or slavery, or to the lust of any person [...] shall be punished with death or with imprisonment for life or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 14 years and shall not be less than seven years".
A helpline will be set up to report missing children while the government will establish the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency (ZARRA) to issue an alert for a missing child. This agency will be led by a director general who will be appointed by the prime minister after public advertisement, according to a copy of the bill seen by Dawn.com.
ZARRA will coordinate with all relevant federal and provincial authorities and law enforcement agencies, and maintain an online database of all children reported missing or abducted with their current status.
Police will inform ZARRA about an incident of a child missing or abducted within two hours of receiving such a report and if the agency directly receives information of a child going missing or having been abducted, it will inform the relevant police station immediately.
According to the bill, upon receiving information that a child is missing, the officer in charge of the police station will reduce the same into writing in the same manner as prescribed for a cognisable offence under Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), and will be mandated to start an investigation of the case and recover the missing child.
The provisions of CrPC will apply to the proceedings carried out under the Zainab Alert bill, except in case of juvenile suspects who will be dealt with under the Juvenile Justice System Act, 2018.
Senator Khokhar informed the house that the committee had held 7-8 meetings to discuss the Zainab Alert bill and made some amendments to it.
He said under existing laws, police often refuse to register a First Information Report when a child is reported missing by his or her parents. This leads to the wastage of crucial initial time after the child's disappearance.
But under the bill's provisions, police will be bound to register an FIR within two hours of a child being reported missing by their parents. Police officials failing to comply with this provision will be punished with imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of Rs100,000.
According to the bill, which Khokhar said now covers all crimes against children, special courts will be bound to decide sexual abuse cases involving children under the age of 18 within three months.
He said the committee was ready to incorporate further changes based on proposals by lawmakers to improve the bill.
Earlier, opposition Senators had objected to the immediate approval of the bill.
PML-N Senator Javed Abbasi said a report regarding the bill was presented in the upper house only yesterday. He said some clauses in the bill should be reviewed.
Abbasi said the punishment of life imprisonment mandated for a criminal who abducts a child for the purpose of sexual assault and murder is not enough and should be increased.
Jamaat-i-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan said an attempt was being made to end the provision of qisas (retribution) in the bill "through pressure", which he said was not acceptable. "Zainab Alert bill has weaknesses," he claimed.
JUI-F Senator Molvi Faiz Mohammad also said qisas should be added to the punishment for rape and murder.
In response, Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood acknowledged that some of the points raised by the opposition had merit, but he said "the entire nation is looking forward to the bill being passed."
He suggested that the bill should be passed and amendments should be made to it later.
PTI Senator Faisal Javed echoed his thoughts, saying: "Amendments will keep coming; it is inevitable to approve the bill right now."
The Senate subsequently approved the bill despite protest by opposition members.
Zainab was abducted, raped and murdered in 2018 and her body was found in a garbage dump in Kasur on January 9. It was the twelfth such incident to occur within a 10-kilometre radius in the city over a 12-month period.
Later, serial rapist Imran Ali, who had killed Zainab, was arrested and hanged till death in October 2018.
FM Qureshi briefs Senate on Afghan peace deal
Also on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi briefed the Senate on the Afghan peace deal recently signed in Doha, saying: "Pakistan was never a part of the deal. Our role has always been and will always be that of a facilitator."
The foreign minister maintained that Pakistan cannot take all the responsibility for peace in Afghanistan. "This is a shared responsibility, and all [stakeholders] will have to play their part. It is inappropriate to place all the responsibility on Pakistan."
"There are many powers, interests and motives [involved]," Qureshi said, adding that the true test of the Afghan leadership begins now. "Can they rise to the occasion and chart a peaceful way forward or not; only time will tell."