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December 6, 2019

Child abuse is preventable


December 6, 2019

In March 2000, an additional sessions judge in Lahore sentenced an alleged serial killer Javed Iqbal, 38, to death by hanging for sexually molesting and murdering around 100 destitute children between the ages of 6 to 16. The verdict said that he was to be hanged in a public park in front of the parents whose children he was convicted of murdering.

After he was strangled, Judge Allah Baksh Ranja added, Iqbal's body "will then be cut into 100 pieces and put in acid the same way he killed the children”.

But Javed was never hanged. After 18 months of the sentence, he died in mysterious circumstances in Kot Lakhpat jail. His two accomplices met the same fate. Although he surrendered to the law in the Jang newspaper office in December 1999, he pleaded not guilty in a court of law and appealed against the verdict in the Shariat court, an appeal which is still pending.

The case itself came to surface in November 1999 when Javed conveyed the details of his crime to the authorities through parcels filled with evidence and pictures of his victims. The self-proclaimed killer left two human skeletons in an acid-filled container at the house from where the police recovered at least nine bags carrying clothes and shoes of the victims.

The parcels also contained a personal diary and a notebook of the self-confessed killer giving every detail of his murder. A letter bearing a confessional statement was also attached with the parcels which read: “I sexually assaulted 100 children before killing them, and disposed of their bodies in barrels of acid.”

Once again on February 12, 2018, an anti-terrorism court, finding Imran Ali, 24, – the man accused of raping and murdering six-year-old Zainab Amin in Kasur – guilty of the charges brought against him, and handed him four counts of the death penalty, one life term, a seven-year jail term and Rs4.1 million in fines.

The four death penalties were for kidnapping, raping and murdering Zainab, and committing an act of terrorism punishable under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

One life sentence, along with an Rs1 million fine, was handed to Ali for committing an "unnatural act." Two death sentences, accompanied by Rs1 million fine each, were imposed on him under ATA and Pakistan Penal Code. A seven-year jail sentence and Rs100,000 fine were further awarded for concealing the body in a trash heap. Additionally, Rs1 million from the penalties imposed will be paid to the victim's heirs, the judge ruled. Zainab's mother, Nusrat Bibi, demanded that the execution of the death penalties be carried out in public.

Ali faced further charges in the cases of at least seven other children he attacked – five of whom were murdered – in a spate of assaults that had stoked fears that a serial child killer was on the loose.

He was convicted based on his confessional statement to all eight attacks, including the death of Zainab. The Supreme Court also rejected his appeal, noting that he had admitted committing his crimes and did not deserve sympathy. Ali was hanged in October last year.

In both cases, ostensibly to calm public outrage, the judges seem to have applied the maximum moral and legal force they have at their disposal – capital punishments – but have these verdicts made Pakistan safer for children?

Traditional attitudes like ‘family honour’ still imply that a majority of abuse cases go unreported. The severe punishments might even have contributed to culprits killing children after the heinous act to remove any proof of the crime.

It's been 30 years since we committed to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), but our state institutions have failed to ensure that children have human rights, and they should be empowered to claim them.

If the Javed Iqbal case is directly linked to the non-implementation of Article 20 of the CRC, then Imran Ali's relates to not translating Article 19 into the country's institutional framework to protect children.

Focusing at prevention of child abuse, Article 19 calls for appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

Article 20 calls for special state protection for a child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment. When considering solutions, due regard shall be paid to the desirability of continuity in a child's upbringing and to the child's ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic background.

But the story does not end here. At the start of the century Pakistan also signed the protocol to eliminate sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. The document calls for adopting a holistic approach, addressing the contributing factors, including underdevelopment, poverty, economic disparities, inequitable socio-economic structure, dysfunctioning families, lack of education, urban-rural migration, gender discrimination, irresponsible adult sexual behaviour, harmful traditional practices, armed conflicts and trafficking in children. It also aims at efforts to raise public awareness to reduce consumer demand regarding pornography.

But before the state addresses all this, early last month, police in Rawalpindi arrested Sohail Ayaz for allegedly sexually abusing 30 children. Police have recovered more than a hundred videos from his laptop computer, which he reportedly sold on the dark web.

An investigation is still on to determine the exact magnitude of the local crime which may be linked to the international dark web which was recently busted by multinational police.

In October this year American, British and South Korean officials busted one of the world's largest child sexual exploitation networks. An analysis of a server seized by South Korean authorities revealed that the website had more than one million bitcoin addresses, signifying that the website had a capacity for at least one million users.

The operation led to the rescue of at least 23 minor victims residing in the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom, who were being actively abused by users of the site. Officials said that hundreds of suspects had been charged worldwide for their alleged involvement with "the largest darknet child pornography website," funded by Bitcoin.

While recapping our policing networks, the Pakistani policymakers must realize that child abuse is preventable. The initial response should come in by equipping children, parents, community elders, and school teachers on how to prevent abuse.

Given the fact that the contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) will remain lower – hovering around 30 percent in the near future – and the country will continue to have a youth bulge, ensuring a safer country for children to grow up in is a priority.

The writer is a freelancecontributor.

Email: [email protected]