SOCIETY: WHERE IS PAKISTAN’S SEX OFFENDERS’ REGISTRY?

20 Sep 2020

Email

A girl holds up a picture of Zainab Ansari who was raped and murdered in Kasur, during a protest in Islamabad | Reuters
A girl holds up a picture of Zainab Ansari who was raped and murdered in Kasur, during a protest in Islamabad | Reuters

Sohail Ayaz was a mere Google search away from being discovered. If a single curious colleague had taken the pain to look up his name, they would have come across in-depth articles in numerous international publications splashed with headlines such as “Paedophile who worked for Save the Children jailed”. Ayaz’s heinous crimes from a decade ago include raping countless children while being part of an international sex ring, subjecting them to sadistic acts and distributing these images through the internet. Not only was he sentenced to prison for four years in the UK, but was also tried in Italy for his involvement in a Romanian child sex ring.

But it was not this abominable transnational record that got Ayaz caught in Pakistan. Even though he had been deported from the UK, there is no reliable mechanism in place to determine the cause of deportation — which could range from losing one’s passport to being a convicted paedophile. A “crack” in the system meant that, since he had served his entire sentence, there was no information given to Pakistani authorities regarding his crime.

This enabled Ayaz to use his professional credentials in gaining employment on World Bank-funded projects with the planning and health departments of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government at an impressive salary — all while continuing his nefarious ways. By the time his crimes were reported in November 2019, Ayaz had confessed to raping at least 30 children since his return to Pakistan — as evidenced by the 100,000 pictures found on his phone. In July this year, Ayaz was found guilty in the police challan submitted to a local sessions court in Rawalpindi, and his long-awaited trial is finally underway.

While this debacle has raised alarming questions about chasmic gaps in the system, nobody from the KP government, police, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), World Bank or UK has taken clear responsibility. Everyone is to blame and yet, somehow, no one is to blame.

Following this tragedy of errors, the matter was brought up in the National Assembly on November 15, 2019. Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari declared, “Our ministry has started working yesterday on establishing a sex offenders’ registry so that we can receive and share information about sex offenders with the rest of the world. We have numerous laws already in place, but the problem we face is a lack of implementation.”

The minister is not wrong about the existing number of laws regarding the protection of women and children. As pointed out by MNA Mehnaz Akber Aziz in the same session, a legislative review shows that there are 108 laws specifically regarding child rights in Pakistan. The latest and most publicised addition to this is the Zainab Alert Bill, passed by the Senate on March 4, which calls for the creation of a federal agency aimed at preventing the kidnapping and sexual abuse of children by facilitating reporting, sending out alerts and creating a national database.

With reported incidents of sexual abuse in Pakistan on the rise, can the establishment of a sex offenders’ registry help curtail them? It may not be so simple

Most recently, Mazari brought up the matter again during a press conference to publicise the ruling party’s performance during their two years in power. Flanked by her fellow cabinet members, the human rights minister proceeded to tell the nation that her office was working with the interior ministry and the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) on forming the sex offenders’ registry. But besides the understandable preoccupation with Covid-19, what has delayed the creation of something so important for this long?

The answer to this might be found on the top floor of a plush new government building in Islamabad, that serves as the office of the Ministry of Human Rights. The Federal Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, Rabiya Javeri Agha, sits at her desk in a corner office with a commanding view of the Margalla Hills on a rainy day in the capital.

“The government policy is clear,” she says, “They want enhanced deterrence against sexual offenders, of which this registry is one part.”

Agha begins by untangling an interdependent web of institutions that must work together in order for a sex offenders’ registry to function — emphasising that the Ministry of Human Rights is not the principal authority, but is merely helping out where it can.

“Firstly, a database for this registry would have to be created by Nadra, which will then be filled in by the FIA, police, court reports and provincial home departments — administered under the Ministry of Interior,” Agha says. “The interior ministry will share this database with international sources and request information from them in return. But that can only happen if we have certain bilateral agreements in place, either with countries where there are sizeable Pakistani communities or with Interpol, which can serve as a conduit.” This is how the ministry has conceptualised it, explains Agha. However, since it is currently a work in progress, a number of policy decisions need to still be taken regarding its functioning.

One such decision, for instance, is how this data will be categorised. “The registry can be offence-based or risk-based,” says Agha. “The former simply means we sort the information by the level of offence committed, whereas the latter would entail a court placing offenders into one of three categories, according to the level of risk they pose to society. A name stays on the list for a certain number of years depending on this categorisation, while there is, of course, a separate list for juvenile offenders.”

The effectiveness of the registry, looked at in this light, will inevitably be linked to the performance of the judiciary — particularly in a risk-based system. A history of the judicialisation and politicisation of the Pakistani legal system means concerns regarding this would not be baseless.

In the case of access limited to the authorities, the question arises: how and when will this registry be used? Will there be a mandatory check for employment in both public and private sectors? After all, had Ayaz not been employed without a background check in the UK as a grants manager of an NGO literally aimed at saving children?

“Another consequential decision we have on our hands,” says Agha, “is whether to keep the registry open to the public — as it is in the US — or limit access to government officials, as in the UK. While the government is currently leaning towards a public registry, a decision in this regard has not been reached yet.”

This specific decision touches upon aspects of the sex offenders’ registry that questions our collective response towards sex crimes and the efficacy of this initiative. In the US, for instance, the National Sex Offender Public Website was created in 1994, as the first of its kind. The only public registry in the world, it has been criticised for making pariahs out of individuals who have served their sentence and are attempting to reintegrate into society.

Critics point out that sex offenders are pushed into a corner and never fully recover from their crime; they have trouble finding jobs and settling down. Additional measures, such as sending out mass notifications when a sex offender moves into the neighbourhood and heightened police surveillance, mean that individuals are pushed into a life of isolation.

A woman holds up a sign at a protest in Lahore against the recent gang-rape of a woman on the Lahore Motorway | AFP
A woman holds up a sign at a protest in Lahore against the recent gang-rape of a woman on the Lahore Motorway | AFP

Back home, public rage regarding sexual violence against children means that vigilante justice can also be a very real consequence of having a public sex offenders’ registry.

In the case of access limited to the authorities, the question arises: how and when will this registry be used? Will there be a mandatory check for employment in both public and private sectors? After all, had Ayaz not been employed without a background check in the UK as a grants manager of an NGO literally aimed at saving children?

“A run through the list will probably be compulsory for service provider jobs,” says Agha. “In particular, jobs that entail access to vulnerable groups, such as at orphanages, schools or hospitals.”

“Inevitably, a separate entity will have to be created for the implementation of this registry,” she adds, “Call it a committee, council or board — but it must comprise representatives from the FIA, police, provincial home departments and relevant federal ministries. This entity will have to determine these policy decisions at the highest level, keeping in view all pros and cons.”

Some form of a sex offenders’ registry currently exists in about 30 countries worldwide. When created in Pakistan, it would be comprehensive in scope and include sex crimes against both children and adults. Along with serving as a register for locally committed crimes, the purpose of this initiative is also to break Pakistan out of a cycle of inertia regarding international sex offenders.

For many years now, there has been a stream of deportations and escapes to this country — particularly from the UK — of individuals convicted of sex crimes. While Sohail Ayaz is only the latest addition to this disgraced list, earlier in 2019, another fugitive sex offender, Choudhry Ikhlaq Hussain, was arrested in Punjab after being found guilty in absentia of sexual offences against a child in the UK. In 2011, similarly, a Pakistani man named Zulfiqar Hussain was deported for admitted sexual activity with a minor, detaining a child and for drug offences. Meanwhile, Moazzam Tariq, a 29-year-old fled to Pakistan in 2016 after he was convicted of rape in Canada.

Probably one of the most contentious cases occurred in 2018, when a UK court upheld the deportation of the “Rochdale grooming gang” in Manchester — a group of men using underage girls for sex. Home Secretary Sajid Javid defended the ruling while speaking to writer Kamila Shamsie for an interview with the BBC. When Shamsie pointed out that a lack of sex offender registers in Pakistan would “make it easier for offenders deported from the UK to repeat their crimes”, Javid responded by saying, “My job is to protect the British public.”

One may or may not agree with the UK Home Secretary’s statement, but it does beg the question: whose job is it to protect the Pakistani public? How will they go about it? And why have they not gotten to it already?

The human rights minister proceeded to tell the nation that her office was working with the interior ministry and Nadra on forming the sex offenders’ registry. But besides the understandable preoccupation with Covid-19, what has delayed the creation of something so important for this long?

The idea of a sex offenders’ registry has been doing the rounds for a while — particularly since India created its National Database on Sexual Offenders in September 2018. Even though Mazari brought the matter up in parliament, at the moment it seems that the plan suffers from the most common ailment in Pakistani governance: a lack of ownership.

Currently, there are multiple agencies performing all kinds of tasks with hardly any coordination or information sharing. Going forward, the data between the FIA and police not being synergised may pose a considerable problem to the effectiveness of a registry. Until an overlapping entity is created, it might be difficult, for instance, to bridge the gap between monitoring deportations to the country and tracking the activities and whereabouts of sex offenders locally.

Meanwhile, reported incidents of sexual abuse in Pakistan have been on the rise — particularly against children. The issue began receiving widespread attention in 2015 after a child pornography gang was busted in Kasur. This has been followed by the Zainab case in the same town, the Farishta case in Islamabad and many others, from Mardan to Sukkur, whose rapes and murders did not receive the same publicity.

Sahil, an NGO working on child protection, reports 3,832 cases of child sexual abuse from 2018 — up 11 percent from the previous year and increased by a further 14 percent in the first half of 2020. On average, this means a child is sexually abused in Pakistan every 26 minutes. Not only does this harrowing statistic not include unreported cases, but is also separate from the thousands of cases pertaining to sexual violence against women. In 2018, a survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked Pakistan as the sixth most dangerous country in the world.

Statistics show that eight out of 10 times, rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. And in the case of juveniles, this number shoots up to an unbelievable 93 percent — of which one-third is sexual abuse by someone within the family. Women, meanwhile, are the most at risk of sexual violence within their own homes. In a country where channels of communication regarding sexual abuse are all but non-existent, these facts cast doubt on whether a majority of offenders will ever even be reported.

“At the very least, the FIA can begin by gathering reliable information on who is being sent back to the country and for what crime,” points out Dr Munizae Bano, executive director at Sahil. “How can they not be checking whether individuals deported to Pakistan have a history of sexual offences?”

Bano explains that the creation of a sex offenders’ registry, as important as it is, is not the only solution to the plague of sexual violence. “There have to be multiple mechanisms in place — of which this is one — if we want to effectively protect women and children,” she says. “We must remember that the most vulnerable in society are the most susceptible to sexual violence.

“Another aspect that we are incognisant of is sexual violence by men against boys,” she adds. “Because there is so much stigma attached to it in our society, the victims of such crimes find it extremely difficult to speak up about their experiences.”

Viewing the sex offenders’ registry in this larger context throws into question its effectiveness as a solution to sexual violence in society. While the registry may certainly serve as an effective deterrent, many believe conversations about the causes of sexual violence are overdue, if long-term solutions are to be put forward — ranging from entrenched patriarchal structures, severely under-reported cases, to the taboo of sex education.

A knee-jerk approach to a deep-rooted problem, coupled with governmental inertia, could leave the sex offenders’ registry as merely a well-intentioned idea.

The writer is a journalist and Senior Associate at Tabadlab. He tweets @dadamkhan

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 20th, 2020