The winter of 2018 was nothing short of a nightmare for 17-year-old Saqib*. He knew that he was trapped the very moment he saw a buckled 9mm pistol. The lanky minor wanted to run but couldn’t gather enough courage to do so. Clearly, the place he was invited to for a job interview was a trap, and he had fallen prey to it.
Soon five more men entered the room, gang-raped and videotaped him. He pleaded, cried, asked them for mercy but to no effect. The humiliation lasted for hours at an apartment located near the Karachi airport. Before releasing him, his assaulters told him not to inform the authorities about his travails otherwise his video would go viral on digital spaces.
Saqib complied with the demand, but his abductors didn’t.
The video went viral on international pornographic websites and multiple Whatsapp groups. The young man, who had kept his shame to himself, was exposed to the world.
On September 22, 2020 — nearly two years after the above mentioned gruesome crime — the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA)’s Cybercrime Wing announced the arrest of six suspects linked with a child pornographic ring, in two separate raids at various neighbourhoods of Karachi, including Gulistan-i-Jauhar and a housing society at Drigh Road.
Faizullah Korejo, the additional director at the agency’s cybercrime cell in Karachi disclosed in a media briefing right after the arrest that the suspects had developed their own mobile apps and websites specifically aimed to track down LGBTQ persons. He added that the underage boys who visited these websites, or used the app were given links to groups on WhatsApp and other social media for fake employment opportunities at call centres. The victims were invited for fake job interviews through these links, where they would eventually be subjected to sexual abuse at gunpoint and filmed.
A state resting on a weak criminal justice system, such as Pakistan, is prone to be a strong market for child pornography
Korejo says that the videos were not only uploaded to international pornographic websites for monetary gains but also to blackmail the underage victims of rape and sodomy.
“We believe that it is a child pornographic ring of 20 who trapped as many as 40 young people, the majority of whom were minors,” says Inspector Mumtaz Ahmed, the investigating officer of the case. He adds that the early investigation suggests that a few victims were made part of the ring through blackmail.
The arrests of the suspects marks the first unearthing of an organised child pornographic ring functional in Sindh connected to an international syndicate. Before this the FIA has reportedly busted rings based in Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Sargodha and Kasur.
According to an official document provided by FIA Karachi, their cybercrime wing received as many as 14 complaints through Interpol’s National Central Bureau (NCB) about procurement of child pornography, sharing or contact with international rings in the years 2018-20. As many as five other cases linked to child pornography booked by the FIA are under trial in different local courts of the city.
The FIA Islamabad office didn’t respond to multiple requests for Interpol’s countrywide data.
“Stats show that this crime warrants a serious response from all institutions of the state and stakeholders of the society,” says Korejo. “We can’t ignore its intensity. Cyber crimes especially child pornography, are an evil which must be dealt with an iron fist.”
The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 has defined child pornography as: a video content intentionally produced, offered, or made available, distributed, or transmitted through an information system for procurement for one or for another person, or without lawful justification, possession of material in an information system, that visually depicts (1) a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct (b) appearing to be a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct or (c) realistic images representing a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct; or (d) disclose the identity of the minor. If proven, as per the PECA, the convict “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years or with fine which may extend to five million rupees or with both.”
Journalist Nida Mujahid who reports on gender and society believes that the imprisonment and fines are too little in terms of the intensity of the crime. “We have a weak criminal justice system, where the conviction rate for sex crimes is horribly low, while on paper the imprisonment and fines aren’t heavy enough to establish fear among those criminal elements,” she points out. “We aren’t taking the bull by its horns. A lot more needs to be done to address this rising issue.”
Mujahid says that the official stats don’t represent a complete picture as a number of victims are reluctant to report the crime because of embarrassment. She says that access to child pornographic material through the ‘dark web’ is on the rise and this calls for a broader action plan against people who download questionable material and share via Whatsapp groups.
As per official data, child pornographic videos are not limited to sale and purchase by the rings but, in fact, the majority are of those shot coercively by individuals or through hidden cameras for blackmailing or to settle personal scores. “Majority of the cyber crime complaints related to the juvenile are registered by their guardians,” confirms Korejo.
Islamabad-based child rights activist Sidra Humayun believes that the unchecked rampant sexualisation through digital content is a growing problem in our society. She adds that while the state has finally started considering child pornography a serious offence, it should also take into account the rising demand for it in the country.
In the past the federal human rights minister Shireen Mazari has also asserted, in a National Assembly session, that Pakistan ranks among countries with the largest viewership of child pornographic material.
“It is quite easy in Pakistan to access pornographic content, including child pornography,” says Humayun. “It is an open secret that a number of roadside mobile shops are selling questionable material through memory cards and Whatsapp links and those who are consuming such content on their mobile screens would obviously want to practise what they are seeing and this is possibly why all over Pakistan there is a surge in sex crime cases committed by juvenile abusers.”
While the link between access to pornography — in general — and sex crimes is not borne out by evidence, Humayun paints a bleak picture on the issue as she believes that we are on a dangerous course where our women and children are among the most vulnerable of all.
Faizullah Korejo reiterates that to better address the rising challenge of child pornography, specialised courts and investment in technology for better investigation are the need of the hour. “Our forensic labs should be modernised and better equipped to investigate any crime involving technology,” he adds. “We can’t afford to be behind in this domain when people are using digital means for their nefarious motives.”
Humayun fears that a state resting on a weak criminal justice system, such as Pakistan, is prone to be a strong market for child pornography, which is estimated to worth between 3 billion dollars to 20 billion dollars.
“If collective strong measures are not taken by every relevant stakeholder of the state and society, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that, in little or no time, Pakistan can become a prime lucrative market for international syndicates,” concludes Mujahid. “And that will be a disaster which should be avoided at every cost.”
The author is a graduate of Politics and International Relations from Royal Holloway University of London.
He tweets @ebadahmed *Name changed to protect privacy
Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 18th, 2020