Monday, September 28, 2020

Motorway incident reveals years of injustice

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There is no way to put into words the grief, horror and anger that people of Pakistan feel at the indescribable rape of a woman, on the motorway in Lahore, witnessed by her kids. Depressingly, just a few days before this heart-wrenching incident, a five-year old girl, Marwah, was raped, then hit on the head with a brick, and finally set on fire.

Soaring child sexual abuse cases

And yet, the law enforcement agencies of Pakistan continue to function in their callous silos, doing only as much as is necessary to show some ‘action’ to the media eye. And, if history is any indication of State conduct, our fast-paced media cycle will soon pass these events into memory, without there have been any institutional reform or legislative action to bring about fundamental changes for the protection of women and children.

No one should be allowed to argue that these events—especially the rape and murder of Marwah—is an isolated event in our societal quagmire. In 2019, according to Sahil—an NGO working for the protection of children from violence—a total of 2,846 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in newspapers. That averages to almost 8 cases a day! And these are just the ones reported in the newspapers. One can only imagine what the actual numbers are.

Read more: Death penalty for rape cases and the rule of law

Still, no institutional conscience was jolted. No political party or State machinery sprang into action. As a result, the average number of daily child sexual abuse cases reported in Pakistan increased in the first half of 2020. According to Sahil’s latest report—based on data from 84 newspapers, covering incidents from all four provinces, as well as Islamabad Capital Territory, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan—as of June 2020, some 497 child sexual abuse cases have been reported in the newspapers.

A majority of these cases, almost 57 percent, were reported in Punjab. Of the rest, 32 percent were reported in Sindh, and 6 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Sahil’s latest report also reveals that more than 35 child sexual abuse cases have been reported in Islamabad during this time, another 22 have been reported in Balochistan, 10 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and one in Gilgit-Baltistan.

For the day that “when the girl [who was] buried alive is asked, ‘for what sin she was killed’” (Quran 81, 8-9)

Sahil’s report reveals that girls are more vulnerable to child sexual abuse than boys, in the age brackets of up to 5 years and 16-18 years; however, boys were found to be more vulnerable to sexual abuse in the age brackets of 6-10 years and 11-15 years.

Out of the total reported cases, 62 percent were from rural areas and 38 percent reported from urban areas. Of these, 53 percent were girls and 47 percent boys. At least 173 children were gang-raped, whereas there were 227 reports of attempted sexual assault. And, if all this was not enough to rupture your heart, 38 children were killed during this time, after they had been sexually abused.

What caused this deplorable state of affairs?

This deplorable state of affairs can be attributed to a number of societal and legal issues, including cultural deprecation, porous investigative structure, and a broken judicial system. And over the past several years—especially since the heart-wrenching event of Zainab’s murder in Kasur—none of these have undergone any meaningful reform or improvement. And, as a result, a number of culprits of these heinous crimes are repeat offenders, who have been emboldened by a State structure that just doesn’t care for making institutional improvements.

Read more: Govt ready to present bill in parliament on castration of rapists: PM Imran Khan

As an example, on Saturday night, when Punjab government announced that its investigation had short-listed two suspects of the Motorway gangrape incidence (with more than 90 percent scientific certainty), it was revealed that the primary accused (one Abid Ali) had faced charges of sexually molesting a women and her daughter, back in 2013, in Bahawalnagar. Yet, predictably, he was released by our investigative and judicial system, making him bolder to doing even more gruesome crimes.

Inexplicably, our system of governance has no mechanism for keeping a track of such individuals. The siloed police structure has no system of tracking such culprits across the various jurisdictions of thanas and districts. And so, after Abid Ali committed such a crime in Bahawalnagar, he simply shifted cities, came to Sheikhupura and Lahore, where he had no past criminal record, and thus no reason for the local police to keep a track of his activities.

In 2019, according to Sahil—an NGO working for the protection of children from violence—a total of 2,846 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in newspapers

This is not the only instance of a repeat offender. Last year, when a child-pornography and racketeering gang was caught from KPK, it was discovered that its leader had earlier been convicted for sodomy related offences, and deported on such grounds from Scandinavia. Yet, our law enforcement agencies kept no record of the same, and found no reason to keep further track of his activities.

This is inexcusable. Worse, it is criminal, on part of the State.

The cries of a grieving citizenry

Naturally, this has resulted in public outcry and deserved backlash. The public mayhem and vigilante protests, being witnessed across the streets of Pakistan, are not simply the reaction to any one murder. They are the outcry of a people who have suffered the injustice of our political and administrative reality for too long. They are not just protesting against the Motorway rape, or Marwah alone. They are protesting for Zainab also.

Read more: ‘Hang rapists publicly’: Horrific motorway gang-rape case shocks Pakistan social media

They are clamouring for the fourteen martyrs of Model Town, for Shahzeb Khan, for Qandeel Baloch, for the police constable in Quetta who was killed by Abdul Majeed Achakzai, for the boy who was trampled to death by Nawaz Sharif’s cavalcade, for those martyred in Quetta and Parachinar, for the children sodomised in Punjab, for the acid victims of Sindh, for the children who died of famine in Tharparkar, for the victims of Joseph Colony, for those found in body bags in Karachi, and the hundreds who were burned alive in Baldia Factory.

Maybe our corridors of political power are immune to the cries of a grieving citizenry. Maybe our system of governance is beyond redemption. Maybe we are cursed to live and die, each moment, in silent despair. Maybe the few voices that muster the courage to speak, will have no impact in the face of entrenched insolence.

Read more: Op-ed: Punjab Police deserves commendation for solving motorway rape case

If that be the case, let us hold onto our grudges for that final Court of Justice. For the day that “when the girl [who was] buried alive is asked, ‘for what sin she was killed’” (Quran 81, 8-9).

Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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