In the slummy Sohrab Goth area on the outskirts of Zhob city in Balochistan, 12-year-old Ismatullah lived with his parents in a reed hut. Since schools were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, fourth grader Ismatullah worked as a daily wager in the bazaar, carrying goods such as groceries, vegetables and fruit on his wheelbarrow, barely earning 100 rupees a day.
On a chilly day this past January, Ismatullah wheeled his cart out as usual, hoping he would make a little more money than usual. But he did not return home. Announcements were made from mosques about his disappearance and when Ismatullah was not found anywhere, his father Khudai Rahim informed the police.
In February, when some passersby informed the police about the charred body of a boy lying under rocks in a deserted place near Hassanzai, the police identified it as Ismatullah’s. According to the latter, the boy had been killed as a result of severe physical torture, doused with petrol and set ablaze.
“I did not have the courage to look at the body,” says Khudai Rahim, himself a labourer. “I have lost my beloved son, but the murderer must be hanged publicly,” he adds with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Because of social taboos, child rape and abuse often goes unreported in rural Balochistan. It is only when it leads to murder that cases enter the record books. But even when perpetrators are caught, justice is not guaranteed
This incident triggered fear and panic in the entire region. Ismatullah’s relatives placed his mutilated body at the Kaliwal Shaheed Chowk in Zhob, and held a sit-in along with political, tribal and social activists. After the assurance of justice by the district administration, the protest was postponed till the next day and the body was buried.
The following day, a complete shutter-down strike was observed in the city and the protest at Shamsuddin Shaheed Chowk was attended by thousands of people.
According to Sher Ali Mandokhail, the Station House Officer (SHO) at Zhob police station, after Rahim filed an FIR, the police found CCTV footage from a local filling station where Ismatullah can be seen walking with the accused 50-year-old Abdul Sattar, who was arrested within 24 hours from his sister’s house in Lakaband.
During the interrogation, Abdul Sattar confessed to police that after raping Ismatullah for two days, he killed him and set his body on fire near the IT University campus.
“After his confessional statement, Abdul Sattar appeared before the judicial magistrate under section 164 CRPC and a complete challan was submitted to the court,” says Mandokhail. “The case is pending in the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) and presently Sattar is in Zhob Central Jail.”
In February, Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Alyani visited Zhob and announced a compensation of 500,000 rupees for Ismatullah’s family.
In Balochistan, child rape and abuse is often stigmatised by the male-dominated, tribal system and therefore goes unreported. When children go missing, the disappearances may be reported, but if these children survive the sex crime, it is often hushed up. If the child is killed and police discovers the body, however, it then becomes an officially reported case.
For instance, Abdul Sattar was previously involved in two similar cases, and even sentenced to life imprisonment by the District and Sessions Court, Zhob. But in both cases, he was freed after reconciliation with the victim’s families. In 2013, according to the locals and the police, Abdul Sattar raped and murdered an 18-year-old boy in Qamardin and the body was recovered from a well. In 2018, after marrying a widow known as Irani, Sattar raped and murdered her six-year-old son, whose body was found buried in the courtyard of an abandoned house and recovered by the police.
Newspapers are full of these tales of horror. For example, in March 2020, Faridullah, a six-year-old child, was abducted from the Barshor area of Pishin district, adjacent to Quetta. The child’s father received a message on Facebook demanding a ransom of one million rupees for the child’s release. According to Levies officials, the child was killed as ransom money could not be delivered to the criminals.
Last year in October, eight-year-old Inamullah from Killi Davian left for his madressah and never returned. Two days after his disappearance, his body was found hanging from a tree in Killa Abdullah. According to the police, Inamullah had been raped and strangled to death. In the same month, another eight-year-old boy from Kalat district was sexually assaulted and murdered, and his body recovered from the nearby mountains.
Following Ismatullah’s case, the burnt body of 10-year-old Sher Ali Hazara, who was abducted from Hazara Town in Quetta, was recovered from under a bridge in Saranan in Pishin district. According to Ahmed Kuhzad, secretary general of the Hazara Democratic Party, a family member of the boy was involved in this murder over a financial dispute. The four men arrested in this case are in jail in Quetta, as the hearing of the case is yet to begin.
In its annual report, the NGO Sahil found that there has been a slight increase in documented cases of major crimes against children in 2020 from the previous year. “One of the possible reasons behind the increase was the pandemic-related closure of educational institutions,” says Manizeh Bano, the NGO’s executive director. She points out that because of schools being shut, children are either stuck at home or out and about in the streets and, in both cases, easily accessible to perpetrators who are often either blood-relations or familiar with the children. It’s important to realise that, even out of the cases of child abuse reported in the media, only 87 percent were actually registered with the police.
“Other than the social stigma, another reason why these cases in Balochistan remain unreported is that accusing the perpetrator leads to tribal feuds and bloodshed,” says Abdul Wahid Kakar, a lawyer at the Balochistan High Court (BHC). “The abduction of an underage child leading to his or her murder or rape is punishable with a death sentence under Section 364-A of the Pakistan Penal Code. But when a jirga settles disputes, criminals are often set free to commit more crimes.”
Last year, during a child sexual abuse and murder case hearing, the Chief Justice of the BHC, Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail, and Justice Abdul Hameed Baloch directed all the deputy commissioners and deputy inspector generals of police to ensure such incidents were prevented in their respective jurisdictions and to bring all culprits to book. But that may be a tall order without the requisite education and social awareness of crime and punishment, as well a reformed legal system.
The writer is a Balochistan-based journalist.
He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 18th, 2021