Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar on Saturday evening announced that the government has been able to reach the "real culprits" in the motorway gang-rape case that caused countrywide outrage and exposed the lack of security on a key route.
He was addressing a press conference alongside Punjab Inspector General of Police Inam Ghani, Law Minister Raja Basharat and Information Minister Fayyazul Hasan Chohan.
Two ‘robbers’ allegedly raped a woman at gunpoint in Gujjarpura area on Wednesday while she was waiting for help on the motorway after her car developed a fault.
"I want to inform you all, [we] have been able to reach the real culprits in this tragic incident in less than 72 hours," Buzdar told the news conference.
He said the investigation of the case was being carried out in a scientific manner and he was personally monitoring the probe.
Buzdar said the "beasts" involved in the incident will soon be arrested and given appropriate punishment as per the law. He added that he has directed the Punjab Police and other departments to take effective measures to prevent such incidents in the future.
The chief minister said he had personally talked to the victim and assured her of justice. He announced a reward of Rs2.5 million each for the persons that helped lead to the identification of the suspects.
IGP Ghani said it was confirmed through scientific evidence last night that the primary suspect in the case is 27-year-old Abid Ali, a resident of Fort Abbas in Bahawalnagar district.
He said police initially only had the information that the DNA samples collected from the crime scene matched with the samples in government records of a minor suspect collected in some other case.
"We dug through the records to obtain details of the suspect and got hold of his identity card and [cellphone] number. We traced him to his address and obtained all the details.
"After checking the record we had previously and the phones he had, we found that he had four sims registered in his name but he also had another sim not in his name. Geo-fencing confirmed his location and we were also able to reach his accomplice through this."
IGP Ghani said police were "95-96 per cent" sure of the identity of Ali's accomplice, whose presence at the crime scene was shown by telephone data. They were also able to obtain his address and CNIC number.
"We were ready by today afternoon to conduct raids at their houses and arrest them but we found they were not in Lahore but in a village, Qila Sattar Shah, in district Sheikhupura," he said.
"Unfortunately, because this information had gone into the public domain, the suspects had definitely received the tip-off that police was near them ... When we went to [Ali's] house, located between agricultural fields, in civilian cars and clothes, he along with his wife fled into the fields."
Police were able to locate Ali's house and also found his daughter there, Ghani told the presser, adding that his nikahnama and other documents were also recovered.
He said Ali's accomplice, identified as Waqarul Hassan, 37, had also fled when police raided his house.
"We have the entire record of both the suspects [and] police, CTD, CIA and Special Branch teams are after them," the IGP said, adding that police were also using scientific aid available with intelligence agencies.
"I hope we will be able to reach them (suspects) very soon," he said, urging the public to help in the manhunt by informing police about their presence on 15 helpline.
Buzdar said Abid Ali had seven criminal cases registered against him between 2013 and 2017, including two of gang-rapes, while two robbery cases were lodged against Hassan. He added that Hassan was released on bail only 14 days ago.
Answering a question, IGP Ghani acknowledged that the victim could not get "timely assistance" because the Motorway Police did not have its presence on the route where the incident occurred.
He said the woman had called the Motorway Police helpline but she was redirected to FWO's number. "Ultimately, Dolphin Force reached the scene after a passerby ringed 15," he added.
Chief Minister Buzdar in reply to another question termed as "irrelevant" the statement given after the incident by Lahore CCPO Umer Sheikh, in which he shifted blame on the gang-rape victim.
"It was an irrelevant thing that he said. The IG has issued him a show-cause notice in this regard and sought his reply within seven days, saying that such irrelevant statements should not be made, and on the basis of his reply legal action will be taken," he said.
Earlier in the day, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Political Communication Shahbaz Gill said that the DNA of a suspect wanted in the motorway gang-rape case had matched with government records, suggesting that one of the primary culprits had been identified.
In a tweet, he said the suspect "will be arrested soon".
Gill congratulated Chief Minister Buzdar, the provincial police chief and the Lahore capital city police officer, saying the three were in a meeting regarding the case until 4am in the morning.
"The chief minister has monitored the entire case himself," Gill, who previously served as Buzdar's spokesperson, added. "Work speaks, not words."
In an update on the case, Azhar Mashwani, focal person on digital media to the Punjab chief minister, said a committee formed to probe the incident had submitted its initial report to the chief minister.
He said all law-enforcement agencies were jointly working on the case and DNA profiling of suspects was ongoing.
Mashwani said personnel of Punjab Highway Patrol had now been deployed on the motorway where the incident occurred. The government has also decided to link motorway's helpline (130) with 15 and 1124 helplines.
The developments in the case come more than three days after the gang-rape resulted in an outpouring of anger across the country and raised questions over the lack of security on the Lahore-Sialkot Motorway, which has been unmanned since it became operational nearly six months ago.
According to the details available so far, a woman in her early 30s, a resident of Lahore’s Defence Housing Society, was stuck on the motorway with her two children at around 1am after her car ran out of fuel. As she tried to arrange for help, two men approached her and took her and her children (under eight) into the nearby fields at gunpoint.
Once in the field, the attackers raped the woman in front of her children. By the time a police party and a relative of the woman had called arrived at the scene, the attackers had fled, taking with them the cash and valuables the victim was carrying with her.
As the investigation into the incident started, there were reports that the victim had called the helpline of Motorway Police, but she was denied assistance because the area in question was not covered by the Pakistan National Highway and Motorway Police.
On Friday, a host of investigators pooled in their expertise in the pursuit of two violent suspects who might have left their fingerprints and DNA behind as they went about smashing windows of the car while forcibly taking the rape victim and her children away. Reports said many of the nearby villages had been combed for the suspects by investigation teams.
In the first progress report submitted by the Lahore police to Chief Minister Buzdar, it was claimed that some 15 suspects were taken into custody during a search operation launched in the vicinity of the crime site.
Buzdar also constituted a five-member committee, with the provincial law minister as the convener, to investigate the case.
Punjab IGP Ghani earlier told Dawn that 20 teams were working on the case. "Lahore DIG (Investigations) Shahzada Sultan is leading one of them. A crime investigation agency is separately working. Another one is being led by divisional SP," he said.
He said the data from geo-fencing at three points, including where the car stopped, where the woman was raped, and the area pointed out by a local tracker hired by police to trace the footprints of the culprits, had been recorded.
“We have also obtained data of men of between 25 and 35 years living in the nearby villages from Nadra besides conducting profiling of 70 young suspects,” Ghani said.
Police had also confirmed on the basis of medical reports that the victim was raped by more than one man. He also hinted that police had managed to get some clues from the crime scene that could lead them to the culprits.