On January 31, 2016, middle-aged Faiz Rehman found the body of his six-year-old daughter Pakeeza in the underground water tank of the wedding hall he had visited with his wife a week ago.
“My world crashed. Seeing the body of my daughter left me numb. It was the most difficult time of my life. Later, my pain became so unbearable that I even thought of ending my life,” says the sobbing father. “But when the police said that the investigations revealed that my daughter had been raped before she was dumped into the dark hollow tank, I told my wife that we have to live to seek justice for our late daughter.”
Subsequently, the police arrested 19 people on suspicion of the rape and murder, and charged them after a year.
The tragedy was strong enough to find a place in the headlines for a night. Politicians of the area visited Rehman and promised support, while popular TV morning shows invited Faiz and his wife to express solidarity. But just after a week, the enthusiastic support fizzled out and the couple were left alone to fight the case of their late daughter in a district court, against the nominated wedding hall owners and their waitering staff.
When lawyers refused to take the case because of Faiz’s financial constraints, the bereaved father appeared before the court without a legal counsel. When approached for settlement, he refused.
“The promise on my daughter’s grave was strong enough so that no amount on the table could buy me,” the labourer says, sitting in his one-room residence in Karachi’s Orangi Town. He is surrounded by broken furniture, scratched utensils and a stray dog.
A daily-wage labourer struggles to get justice for his young daughter four years after she was raped and murdered, in the face of a weak criminal justice system and official ineptness
Little did he know that his ordeals were far from over.
Rehman was given the DNA report of deceased after a delay of five months. Interestingly, according to the report, no semen was found inside the deceased’s body, which was a blatant contradiction to the initial chemical examination. With the two reports contradicting with each other, police formed a medical legal board to ascertain the real facts. The board maintained that the police had contaminated the DNA, hence it could not be taken as evidence in the case, further adding that the deceased had been subjected to a head injury, water inundation and sexual assault.
Nearly four years later, on November 15, 2019, the court rejected the medical board’s recommendation by calling it an “opinion.” It did call out the botched police investigation but, based on the contentious DNA results, sobserved that the “prosecution [had] miserably failed to make out its case even by producing any circumstantial or documentary evidence or any other proof which [played]/ assigned any concrete role of the accused persons to give complete picture of the alleged crime.” Hence, on the benefit of doubt, the court released all the suspects, declaring them innocent.
The wedding hall in Orangi Town which had remained shut for being a crime scene opened again with a grand celebration, a week after the decision.
“I spent all my savings on this case,” says Rehman. “And in the end the court tells me, sorry, your daughter was raped and killed but because police bungled the investigation and, as there were no witnesses, we are freeing the suspects. Where is the justice? What I have done wrong that the state doesn’t honour Pakeeza’s death? Is it because I am poor and have no privileges to enjoy?” His trembling voice and uncontrolled tears in his eyes reflect helplessness. “I have been wronged, not only by the preparators, but also by the state,” says the labourer, who at best earns 10,000 rupees a month.
Sadly, Rehman’s case is not an exception. Gender-based violence or sex crimes against children are not a rarity — in fact their occurrence is so frequent that a study by the NGO Sahil reports that, only in 2019, at least 2,846 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the media. That means at least eight children are abused every day in the country.
The said number was crunched based on the news reports of as many as 84 national and regional newspaper reports on child sexual abuse — leaving a huge possibility that the number is inaccurately low. Age-wise information shows that children are most vulnerable to abuse in the 6-15 years age group. More boys than girl victims were reported. The major crime categories of the reported cases in the year 2019 were 778 abductions, 405 missing children, 348 sodomy cases, 279 rape cases, 210 attempted rapes, 205 gang sodomy cases and 115 gang rapes.
Sidra Humayun, the head of Sahil’s research and advocacy department which compiled the report, says that the staggering figure shows that the abusers are taking advantage of the weak criminal justice system present in country. “Unprivileged children have never remained a state priority. There are huge procedural lacunae in the existing justice system, which virtually sides with the rich and powerful preparators. The sad part is no one is taking the bull by its horns.”
The high-profile Zainab murder and rape case in Kasur in 2018 appeared to have broken the inertia, as it attracted the much-needed attention of policymakers on the often ignored issue. Two years after the horrific incident, the National Assembly and Senate passed the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency Bill in March 2020, under which offenders now will be sentenced to at least 10 years behind bars, and up to a maximum of life imprisonment.
Additionally, the government is now mandated to set up a helpline and the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency, which will issue alerts on missing children and maintain an online database. To counter the previous instances of police inaction, lethargy and insensitivity in handling such cases, law enforcement personnel will now be required to register a FIR within two hours of receiving a complaint by parents, while special courts will ensure a trial is completed within three months.
However, the law specifically focuses on missing children; the legislation has nothing to offer for the rising number of raped and murdered child victims. Nonetheless, Karachi-based lawyer Wasim Raza Naqvi believes that the legislation is a step in the right direction, adding that at least the state is now recognising the elephant in the room. But he immediately adds that the buck stops at the implementation of the law.
“It looks good on paper but we have to remember that, before this bill, all provinces had their child protection authorities which were passed after desk-thumping approval from the assemblies but, as expected, the fancy-worded commissions had virtually no impact,” says Naqvi. “The Pakistan Penal Code on child abuse was also amended in 2017 to tighten laws on child abuse, sadly to no effect on ground.”
Humayun believes cases like that of Rehman never reach their logical end because of the incompetence and ineptness of the police and their lack of understanding of gender-based violence (GBV) crimes.
“Our police don’t have specialisation in GBV crimes. It is seen that police delays the investigations of sex crimes, which weakens the case, and obviously things go south if the evidences are not collected and secured in early stages,” she laments. “The forensic teams are responsible for collecting circumstantial evidences immediately, and that requires expertise, but as our law enforcement treats gender crimes as any other crime. In the end, courts are bound to release the suspects.”
The activist also appreciates the Zainab Alert bill, which has now turned into law after its approval from the parliament. however, she maintains that there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, as the terms of reference and the required financial budget are yet to be finalised.
SP Shahla Qureshi, a police official who also heads a human rights desk of the department in Karachi, admits that police urgently require strict gender training to better deal with the gender-based violence cases. “Evidence is the key to resolve rape and murder cases and, to secure it, the police always need sufficient training and strong budgets for better prosecution,” she says. “The department tries its best to deliver but often faces challenges in terms of resources.”
Away from the legal intricacies of the matter, the incompetence and apathy of the state has not deterred Rehman in his quest for justice for his daughter.
“I know I will lose. I know I have nothing in hand, but I can’t tell my wife that. I know nothing will happen, they won’t bear the consequences of what they did with my daughter because they are rich and powerful,” his tears flow as he speaks.
“Doesn’t matter if my entire life is spent on this case or my little fortune turns to ash, I will fight. I will fight for my daughter, not because I will win but because she expects me to fight for her. They may have all the power and resources, but God is with me.”
The writer is a journalist interested in human rights and tweets @ebadahmed
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 9th, 2020