Published in The Express Tribune
In places like Pakistan, if indeed there are any places like Pakistan, one can be forgiven false hope. It was thought, over the past few months that the country was picking itself up: terror was down, the K.S.E. was up, and the courts — rightfully or wrongfully — were deciding what was put to them.
Which is when Kasur happened — when we woke up to the biggest child porn ring this country has ever seen. Just the words ‘child porn’ induce rage and nausea, but they must be said. Because it’s not just about the sickest parts of our society; it’s about the scale. There’s no option but to act.
Consider the nightmare in Hussain Khanwala: a ring of pornographers raping and sodomising children, then selling video footage to paedophiles on the internet. The parents, extorted for money in exchange for erasing recordings.
There are no words to describe the content: the ring had been at large since 2006, involved in spinal injections, gang assaults, forcing children to have sex with each other, and abusing victims as young as six.
There are no words to describe the scale: 400 videos; 284 children; up to 25 assailants and abettors; thousands of CDs sold for Rs50.
Here’s where we hit the fault lines of The Modern-day Punjab Province; the same rotting apparatus of police and politicos since 1985.
The police were not listening until hundreds of villagers showed up outside Ganda Singh Police Station, threatening to burn the rapists’ houses down. The media wasn’t listening until Ashraf Javed, a staff reporter for The Nation, kicked the lid off the whole thing in the print press. And the Punjab government wasn’t listening until the media hit the airwaves, right in the living rooms of every urban voter.
The Punjab government denied everything, including itself: the head of the Child Protection & Welfare Bureau called it ‘the largest-ever child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history’. The law minister called it a land dispute.
Around when we stumbled over something deeper and darker: according to The Nation, Kasur MPA Malik Ahmed Saeed — in the classic vein of thana katchehri muscling in — pressured the police to let go of the suspects.
The police complied, besides ‘forcefully dispersing’ protestors too agitated by the whole thing. Post-uproar, they just closed rank: D.P.O. Kasur scratched his head, ‘I don’t know why they made videos.’ R.P.O. Sheikhupura said the abuse victims were teenagers, not children (while conceding the teens were abused for over seven years).
Of the six men the police arrested, brilliant detective work was hardly at hand: the police just identified the assailants from the video footage — footage the men recorded themselves.
Taking us back through the mists of time to Javed Iqbal, caught only after he mailed his own confession. Iqbal, the closest thing we’ve had to a Gacy or a Dahmer, has been swept clean from our conscience: a freak spree killer from the late ’90s. It should be harder to forget this country’s biggest manhunt. It should be harder, still, to forget its most reported rapist.
But though we forgot Javed Iqbal, we cannot allow ourselves to forget Kasur. As with Kasur, there was nothing spontaneous about Iqbal, from hydrochloric acid he dropped victims’ bodies in, to the perfect handwriting he labelled their photographs with. Iqbal was as much a stray animal as Kasur was a land dispute.
And, as with Kasur, there was nothing accidental about Javed Iqbal’s ties with the police. Says a press report from 2001, ‘Javed Iqbal […] invested in a monthly magazine […] where he published the ‘heroics’ of police officers and established good contacts in the department. He interviewed at least two dozen police officers, including S.S.P.s and D.I.G.s.’
Finally, again as with Kasur, there were layers and layers of police cover-up. A key witness who sold the acid ‘suddenly’ jumped to his death from the third storey of a building, mid-interrogation. Three officers were detained (Punjab police arresting Punjab police).
As for Javed Iqbal, he was found hanging in the middle of his cell, along with an associate. It was suicide, if suicide — as per the autopsy — meant they thrashed themselves with a blunt weapon, bled from the nose, and cut their own tongues, before trussing themselves up from the cell’s iron bars.
Kasur has yet to conclude, but the path thus taken is distressing. The chief minister has called for an inquiry. The prime minister has left for Belarus on a three-day trip. Belarus, as few know and fewer care to know, is Europe’s last dictatorship, led by a Soviet sock-puppet. Why Mr. Sharif chose to honour this tiny tyranny (Belarus has fewer people than Lahore) at a time when Kasur screams for justice, is best known to him.
In a just world, Hussain Khanwala — not I.M.F. tranches or Metro buses — would define Nawaz League’s fifth term in Punjab. The P.T.I., too, has vowed to raise the issue in parliament; it would do better instead to fight K.P.’s rising rates of abuse.
Besides ‘judicial enquiries’, the local M.P.A. must be sacked from office, suspended from party pending investigation, investigated to exhaustion, and tried in court. The Punjab police, mostly a glorified goon squad serving at their masters’ pleasure, must be depoliticised. Officers complicit in the hush-up require arresting; the assailants themselves require destroying.
As to the widespread murk of abuse itself, there are no quick fixes: Sahil’s ‘Cruel Numbers Report 2014‘, put together by Habiba Salman to her great credit, found that child sexual abuse had risen 17 per cent from 2013 — with over 3,500 incidents. The most vulnerable age range is 11 to 15, girls are more at risk, and nearly half the abusers are known to the children.
Something we find hard to talk about: the molester is rarely the mythical stranger lurking in the bushes, but an acquaintance, a guardian, a friend of the family. And Kasur figures in the top 10 most vulnerable districts, with Rawalpindi, Lahore and Quetta disgracing the top three.
It’s time we did what Sahil recommends: amend the Pakistan Penal Code to include child pornography provisions, implement the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000, establish child-friendly courts and protection centres, include self-protection in curricula, and provide knowledge to the community on protection. Sanctity of the child must take precedence over warped views of honour.
It’s hard, eight months after A.P.S. Peshawar, to fix a place that does this to its children. But it would be heartless not to try.