September Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

It took the villagers of Hussain Khanwala village in Kasur district in Punjab nearly eight years to break their silence over the grisly sexual abuse perpetrated against their young children by a local gang. It took four months of protests and national media attention before the police registered 22 FIRs against the alleged perpetrators.

The number of victims is still unknown, but it could be in the dozens — if not hundreds — with the majority believed to be boys. Their rapes were videotaped and the clips sent to the children’s parents to blackmail them — and in most instances they got the desired result: silence. Finally, because of the adamancy of a few affected parents and a local activist, the story broke and hit the headlines.

The question that remains is not whether it happened — there is too much evidence to corroborate the crimes — but if the police looked the other way, or even abetted the criminals. The Punjab government initially tried to underplay the horrific crimes, but after media pressure, was eventually forced to order a high-level inquiry.

There are many issues that need to be investigated, such as the total number of victims, whether a land dispute may have had a part in spurring locals to take to the streets, and what role, if any, the police played in covering up the crimes.

Since 2007, a gang of 25 people in Hussain Khanwala have been allegedly raping young boys and girls aged between 5 to 12 years. Later, the suspects started filming these sexual acts on their cell phones and used the video clips to extort money from the victims’ parents.

Ittefaq Digital Photo Studio, owned by one of the eight suspects, allegedly compiled the videos and sold them for Rs. 50 per clip. The suspects were influential in the village and that, along with the shame associated with sexual offences, led to the parents staying quiet. Five of the suspects were low-level government officers and hence had connections to the police.

Thus, instead of apprehending the culprits, the police chose to investigate those who complained about the rapes instead. In May, a woman in the village, Surrayya Bibi, complained to the police that her son was raped and filmed, but the police did not register her complaint. Instead, the police showed video clips of her complaining to the police to the accused, who allegedly forced her to recant her statement. Earlier, in 2013, another woman, Bashiran, also reportedly filed a complaint with the police about the sexual abuse of her son, and in response, she claimed, she had been tortured at the police station.

It was only when one of the sex abuse victims stole the memory card from the cell phone of a perpetrator, and it landed in the hands of a local activist, Mobeen Ghaznavi, that people were mobilised to agitate against the gang.

On July 4, hundreds of villagers from Rajiwala, Elowala, Bazeedpur, Kharapar, Choriwala, Nooriwala, Bhadian Usman, Ratnaiwala, Rangaywala, Bhagay, Jora, Nathaywala, and Mahalam gathered outside the Ganda Singh Police Station and demanded justice. They even threatened to torch the houses of the suspects.

“We have been protesting these crimes for the past several months but the police did not take any action,” said the 60-year-old prayer leader in the village, who had even been kept in the police lock-up for making announcements, related to the crime, over the loud-speaker.

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The public outcry finally spurred  the police to negotiate with the villagers, and assure them justice would be served. However, although the police filed five FIRs from July 1 to July 6, it was reluctant to arrest those nominated in the complaints.

On July 8, the national media reported the incident for the first time, with a news report in Dawn. On July 16, the complainants held a press conference at the Lahore Press Club, protesting against the local police’s protection of the suspects, and held a demonstration on the Mall.

On August 4, the villagers again took to the streets in their village and clashed with the police. More than 20 police officers, including five senior ones, were assaulted.

Punjab’s senior minister, Rana Sanaullah, responded by denying that child abuse at such a scale ever took place and repeated the police line that the protests were engineered by those embroiled in a land dispute. On August 8, the Sheikhupura Regional Police Officer addressed a news conference in which he admitted that child abuse cases had taken place from 2007 to 2013.

Now, even the Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, was forced to take action. He transferred a number of police officers, including the Additional Inspector General of Police, Arif Mushtaq, District Police Chief, Kasur, Rai Babar Saeed, and SHO Mehr Akmal, and ordered an inquiry by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising both the police and intelligence agencies’ personnel.

On August 16, the Kasur scandal took another turn when Shafi-ur-Rehman, the brother of one of the main accused, was mysteriously found dead in Lahore. Allegedly, he was in the custody of the police and his body was thrown on the street after being tortured to death.

Shafi was said to be a witness against the police in their role of covering up the scandal. However, the police nominated Mobeen Ghaznavi as one of the accused in the murder case.  A few days later, local villagers boycotted the proceedings, saying that the police were implicating them in false criminal cases.  (On August 23, CM Sharif announced immediately ending all cases registered against the protesters).

On July 1, the Ganda Singh police registered four First Information Reports (FIRs) against 10 people on the charges of sodomy, video-filming of the crimes, and extortion of money through blackmail, under sections 377, 384, 385 and 506 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Five days later, the police registered another FIR against the suspects on the same charges. Three of the accused were arrested, but the police allegedly allowed five of the suspects to run away and obtain pre-arrest bail from the court.

In one FIR, a complainant said the suspects had subjected his 15-year-old brother to sexual abuse and then made him steal gold jewellery and cash from his house. He maintained his brother had so far given his attackers more than 50 grams of gold jewellery and cash worth half a million rupees.

In several clips, children appeared to be unaware that they were being shot on camera. In one clip, a boy pleads with the abuser, “Please, don’t close the door.” The perpetrator shuts the door, and the boy protests and tries to leave, while the abuser persuades him to stay, saying: “I won’t do anything.”

In some clips, abusers are heard to be whispering instructions for the victims to follow for the camera.

“Bhai yeh na banao,” (Brother, don’t make this film) begs a boy in a video clip. Another boy cries, “Bus, bhai.” In yet another video a child cries, while trying to hide from the camera.

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Activists and the lawyers of the victims claim that 280 children were abused and nearly 500 video clips exist. The police and government say this figure is exaggerated. Mehboob Ahmed, a senior officer of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), who led a fact-finding mission in the case, said: “It’s hard to figure out the exact number of victims and pornographic video clips.” But some deductions are possible. Ghaznavi said he has 130 video clips. He also said that there are people who know the facts about the case but were afraid as they were being threatened with dire consequences if they spoke up. The prayer leader at three mosques in the village claimed that the number of victims is higher than being reported in the media. And a young boy who was forced into oral sex and sodomised, stated, “I thought about killing myself every single day.”

If one were to go by the police’s side of the story, no eyewitnesses to these crimes are available, and medical evidence does not exist to corroborate any charges owing to the passage of time. But as other incidents from the past indicate, this is an old trick frequently used by the police and other investigating agencies, whereby they delay the registration of cases so that no evidence remains which would allow a conviction.

Nonetheless, owing to public pressure perhaps, medico-legal examinations of the victims who were mentioned in the FIRs were conducted. Doctors involved also believed that there was still a slim possibility that the victims would carry swelling or bruises caused by the sodomy even after a year. There is also a possibility that DNA tests of the victims and the accused will be carried out.

A former judge of the Lahore High Court, Justice Mian Aftab Farrukh, meanwhile said that if medical tests of the victims were not conducted, or not decisive, under current law, the court would be unable to convict the accused. While that is cause for concern, some lawyers and the HRCP-AGHS team fact-finding team contend that the compelling evidence on the videotapes and that garnered from the family members of the victims and the victims themselves, is sufficient for a conviction under the law.

The fate of these cases will depend on how much weight the courts give to the video clips, victims’ statements and admission of the accused in front of the police.

Street protests against the child abuse case had been brewing since May. On May 26, 2015, the police inspector and station house officer at Ganda Singhwala police station, Muhammad Akmal, sent a brief report to his superiors after visiting a protest demonstration at Chowk Hussain Khanwala. This report became the basis of the initial denial of the Kasur crimes by the Punjab government.

In his internal memo, the police inspector wrote that some people participating in the demonstration said that an unknown group of men had committed sodomy with boys from the village, made videos of these crimes and extorted money from them and their families to make the perpetrators desist from going public with them and thereby publicly shaming them.

However, the officer added, when the police asked for more data about the videos, no one provided any ‘useful’ information. So the police officer maintained, he concluded that such reports were based on rumours.

The SHO’s report further minimised the issue by including details of a land issue involving Mobeen Ghaznavi. Inspector Akmal wrote that Ghaznavi had told him he was in contact with an NGO in Turkey in regard to building a hospital on government land in the area.

The police officer reported that Ghaznavi had said there were 12.5 acres of land and a bungalow in the village that were originally owned by the irrigation department, but the property had been sold to some local people. Now, he said, he wanted to build a hospital and a cricket ground on the land with the help of the Turkish NGO.

The police officer said Ghaznavi also told him that he was in contact with the producers of a local television channel show, Sare Aam, because he wanted to convey his demand for the use of the land through the media. That is why, he said, Mobeen had gathered people together for the protest demonstration.

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Despite police prevarication, the charges did not go away. In early July, District Police Chief, Kasur, Rai Babar Saeed, told the media that the police were doing their best to catch those responsible for the alleged crimes, but simultaneously accused activists and the media of exaggerating the scale of the abuse. He said the case was an old one, dredged up by a group of villagers only to be used as a stratagem in a land dispute.

The father of a victim meanwhile, alleged that Rai Babar had tried to cover up the scandal. According to him, the villagers had gone to him time and again looking for redressal, but he did not bother to even listen to their ordeal.

Against this backdrop, Latif Ahmed Sara, a lawyer and activist representing the victims, maintained, “The police are protecting the criminals; they are supporting them and have provided them an opportunity to escape from the village.”

A 50-year-old villager added to this sorry tale of administrative neglect and complicity, saying local politicians of the ruling party were now pressurising victims to reconcile with the accused.

Punjab’s senior minister, Rana Sanaullah, lent credence to this charge, when he said the official probe had found no instance of child sex abuse and that such reports appeared when two parties involved in a land dispute had filed “fake cases” against each other.

In the wake of Sanaullah’s statement — and what they saw as an outrage — hundreds of protesters in the village clashed with the police, leaving 25 people, including two DSPs, injured near Dolaywala village. By now the story was the staple of all electronic media channels and in the country’s news publications. And so, the hitherto slumbering government woke up and demanded action.

Thereafter, on August 7, a government committee constituted to investigate the case informed the Punjab Chief Minister that six accused had been arrested and raids were carried out to nab another three accused in the case. Now the matter rests in the court’s hands, even if it has been decided in the court of public justice.

The Lahore High Court Chief Justice, Manzoor Ahmad Malik, on August 20, ordered the JIT to submit a detailed report on the Kasur case and confiscate copies of the videos on the market.  The CJ rejected pleas by JIT officials for extending the deadline.

According to newspaper reports compiled by Sahil, an NGO, over 3,500 cases of sexual abuse of children under the age of 18 were reported across Pakistan in 2014 alone. There must be many times that number of cases that go unreported, unacknowledged.

In a country where child abuse is rampant but buried under endless rugs, this scandal has served to awaken a nation. Other child sex abuse cases have surfaced since the Kasur story broke. Similar cases of child abuse and video filming of the abuse, were also reported from Ghotki in Sindh and from Rahim Yar Khan, Chiniot and Jhang in Punjab.

The hope is that perhaps a precedent can now be set so that such crimes never go unpunished again.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.