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Executing Justice: Violence against children in Pakistan sparks debate on retribution

“You stay awake and pray at night,

The dogs are also awake, 

They are superior to you. 

They never stop barking,

And go and sleep on a pile of rubbish, 

They are superior to you.” -“Dogs stay up at night,” Bulleh Shah 

Kasur, a city known for its patron saint—the Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah—has, in recent years, become Pakistan’s byword for child abuse. Witnessed only by Shah’s nocturnal dogs, at least 12 bodies of underage victims of rape and subsequent murder were found in 2018 alone, dumped unceremoniously within a 6.5-mile radius of a garbage disposal in this small, industrial city in Pakistan’s Punjab province. 

Zainab Ansari, a bright-eyed six-year-old girl, was one of these victims. On January 4,  2018, Zainab, who had been on her way to a Qur’an recital class earlier that day, was declared missing. Five days later, her body was discovered in a trash pile near Shahbaz Khan road, only about 300 feet from her own house. Zainab’s case sparked national uproar. While protestors flooded streets and engaged in violent police clashes, a tide of hashtags demanding #JusticeforZainab overtook social media. Amid these enraged calls for justice emerged a unified stance. Only one statement remained on everyone’s lips: Hang the accused. 

Imran Ali, a 26-year-old man, was found guilty of Zainab’s murder and those of seven other girls. He was tried on multiple counts of kidnapping, rape, and murder, and charged with four death penalties, life imprisonment, and 31,000 dollars in fines by Pakistan’s anti-terror court. Rejecting appeals for a public execution, the court hanged Ali on October 17, 2018 in Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore. 

In Kot Lakhpat on execution day, Amin Ansari, Zainab’s aggrieved father, shared with local news channels: “No matter what, in my opinion, our family would have been more content had [Ali] been made a public spectacle. The entire country would have watched, and it would have been a lesson for those who commit such crimes.”

*** 

“We have seen it ourselves. Public executions, even capital punishment, do not work as an effective deterrent for cases of child abuse. Imran Ali was hanged post the Zainab case, [and the] number of child abuse cases has only risen since,” Imtiaz Somra, a Pakistani lawyer who has worked extensively on child abuse cases as the head of a legal aid collective in the country, said in an interview with The Politic.

While there are modern disagreements about the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent, the method has a long history within the Pakistani justice system. In 1981, then-General Zia-ul-Haq hanged the rapists and murderers of a young boy named Pappu on the 18th of January. As the sun set and the Maghrib call to prayer began blasting from the speakers of local mosques, the bodies of Pappu’s killers hung from wooden posts in central Lahore, where tens of thousands flocked to watch the scene. 

Whether or not the 1981 execution worked to discourage child abuse is a matter of great debate in Pakistan. Many quote a dip in numbers of reported cases after the public execution to argue that the deterrent had worked. Others, however, see this statistic as a result of the state censorship by a dictatorship actively invested in defending this form of justice. Many who question government-promoted statistics instead highlight alternative data from the Human Rights Committee that show ten such cases reported in Lahore alone in 1981. When General Zia was assassinated in 1988, public executions in Pakistan came to an end. 

Manizeh Bano is the Executive Director of Sahil, one of Pakistan’s only NGOs working to protect children in the region and collecting statistics from local newspapers on the number of incidents that take place. In a video interview with The Politic, Bano said that “A public hanging would only brutalize the spectators and the general public. They would be desensitized, when in actuality, issues of such nature require humans to be more sensitive towards the stakeholders.”

***

Over a year after Imran Ali was executed, Kasur, and the rest of Pakistan, remains haunted. Numbers of reported cases of child abuse have only grown. In 2018, according to Sahil, 3,832 cases of child abuse were reported in Pakistan. Accounts by Lahore Press Club count 1,304 cases of sexual exploitation of children under the age of 18 between January and June of 2019. Reports from the latter half of the year have not yet been added to the published statistics. The execution that was supposed to relieve the Pakistani people of their grief has not prevented them from experiencing new losses.

Two years after her own daughter’s smiling photograph—Zainab bedecked in a pink bomber jacket, matching pins in her hair—became the nation’s most circulated picture on the internet, Nusrat Amin solemnly reflected in an interview with the BBC: “Nothing has changed. As soon as you turn the TV on, you see cases similar to ours. Their names and pictures are different, but to me it seems as though they are all Zainab.” 

On May 20, 2019, following a similar trajectory to the Zainab case, a new smiling six-year-old girl’s pictures began circulating through Twitter. Raped and tortured, Farishta Nabi’s body was found in Islamabad. Following Farishta, the news media was rattled once again in September 2019 when Muhammad Faizan, Ali Husnain, and two other unnamed young boys were found victim to the same crimes in Chunian, in the Kasur District. What remains of these countless young kids are inconsolable parents, tattered clothes, TV-popular identification pictures, and a nationwide cry for a public hanging. 

In Pakistan, the demand for public executions is not a last resort. Various members of Pakistani society recognize discrepancies and issues in the system which should be addressed prior to resorting to capital punishment. The Pakistani public blames different actors for systematic insufficiencies, including the government, media, culture, and even poor parenting. 

Agha Nasir Mahmood, a police inspector and specialist in child abuse cases in Punjab, explained in an interview with The Politic that the families of victims are often slow to report cases to the police and instead choose to conduct a preliminary search by themselves. According to him, ideas of izzat, which means honor in Urdu, force Pakistanis to shy away from reporting cases due to the shame of being raped in a highly patriarchal society. Mahmood considers this “contributory violence.” He was willing, however, to recognize the police’s own inefficiencies. “This is two-pronged: The parent’s unsurety in reporting cases and the police’s half-heartedness in conducting an investigation often cause a 36-hour limbo period, which in such cases is deadly.” 

Families of victims blame the police. Farishta’s family informed local news outlets that before starting the investigation, police officers suggested that their six-year-old daughter might have secretly eloped. The family had to perform errands—a common Pakistani practice—in exchange for police services to investigate the case. In another case, local police found a man known only to the media as “Mudassar,” allegedly responsible for the murders of Iman Fatima and over half a dozen other children in Kasur. Mudassar, who was later found to be wrongly accused, was shot by the police in an extrajudicial killing, possibly in an attempt to satisfy popular frustration with investigative authorities. 

In an interview with The Politic, Deputy Superintendent of the Lahore Police Department, Muhammad Anwar addressed complaints: “We are using the most modern technology and conducting our best efforts. You know how sensitive the issue is. Why would a police officer ever want to deliberately delay an investigation?”

Apart from issues with the local police administration, many find Pakistani state departments and government to be liable. Somra stated that “Pakistan, alongside other countries in the subcontinent, is a signatory of the United Nations Child Rights Convention of 1989, yet not one of the convention’s 42 articles has been thoroughly implemented in the region.” He continued, “The government does not see this as a primary concern and keeps pushing this issue to the periphery. They make it seem as though there are no laws in Pakistan. Pakistan has laws, thousands of them. The issue is in their implementation. In order for there to be a change in society, the state will need to take an active stance.” 

Indeed, although Child Protection and Welfare Bureau Punjab Chairperson Sarah Ahmed publicly argued  in the aftermath of the Kashur cases that the issue is a lack of legislation in Pakistan, history indicates that the issue extends further than law. In 2015, after the breakup of a child pornography ring in Kasur which victimized hundreds of children, the Pakistani government tightened laws on child pornography, including proposing a seven-year sentence for the crime.

None of these laws seem to yield change. Somra added, “Laws only work when they are implemented. There are strict laws against child labor in Pakistan. Kids no older than 10 are making bangles in Hyderabad, selling balloons in the streets in Lahore, working in the fields in virtually all rural areas. Why do you think this is so?” 

Many also point out that such incidents are not limited to the Kasur region but rather plague the entire country. However, the media gives specific attention to Punjab, which causes local outrage yet leaves the rest of the country in the shadows. Somra stated, “This is all because of the media. The media brings the cases in Punjab to the limelight. There are probably thousands of such cases in Balochistan. However, there is no media attention there.” 

Despite Pakistanis’ widespread acknowledgement that the current system has shortcomings—such as limitations in police investigations, political inattentiveness, and the continuation of societal taboos—support for public hangings remains unchanged. Mahmood, the police inspector, said, “I am a father myself. If someone were to commit such a brutal act against my daughter, I would settle for nothing short of a public hanging.” 

The millions in Pakistan who back capital punishment, including public hangings, speak of matching the intensity of the punishment with the gravity of the crime. The question remains, however, of the intention behind the use of such a strict punishment. Is the death sentence, and call for public hangings, a demand for retributive justice? Is a desire for vengeance fueling a mob mentality? Or is it a failure of the legal system which purports to be rehabilitative? 

Among calls for public hangings and the continued support for capital punishment by the majority, one factor remains: There are issues in the Pakistani justice, legal, policing, and government systems which have not been addressed. A public hanging seems, in light of this fact, a hasty attempt to fix an otherwise deep-seated problem. 

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For what seems a sad reality with no potential for betterment, there is still hope, according to Sahil’s Bano. “For us, these rising numbers of reported cases are a positive indicator,” she told The Politic. “It means people are starting to recognize the importance of reporting, or going through with legal proceedings.” According to her, both government institutions and local nonprofits have expressed a desire for change. “Laws have been streamlined in the recent past. The government has taken a step ahead in clearly defining laws around age, type of abuse, [and other characteristics].”

But the work is far from over. “We need child-friendly cops; the potential for video recording survivors’ statements so they do not have to attend courts and face their abuser; psychological aid for survivors, as well as victim’s families; and so many other improvements. Implementation of laws also remains a major concern,” Bano said. “However, we are seeing positive reactions to our work in local, rural communities. People recognize the intensity of the issue, and they are willing to make changes.” 

She added, “The death penalty and public hangings are the angry outcries of a devastated public. What we need in Pakistan is to hang onto hope.”