Few issues in policing have received more attention in 2020 years than the recent Gujjarpura gang-rape case. This attention is long overdue, because issues were neglected for decades in the way sexual assault crimes have evolved in Pakistan.
In fact, a key problem is that most sexual assaults never even come to the attention of police. There are many reasons for this. Rape victims/survivors suffer physical as well as emotional harms that can be devastating. As victims try to cope with the trauma of the crime itself, they often suffer additional harm when they are subtly, or not so subtly, blamed for being victimized, in ways that victims of robbery or theft or any other crime are never blamed.
Finally, sexual assault victims who summon the courage to report the crime to the police are often subjected to a criminal justice system that seems insensitive, uncaring, or even hostile to victims. Policing in Pakistan is still very far from a ‘victim-centered’ approach in all interactions with crime victims, particularly victims of sexual assault.
A victim-centered approach involves a focus on the needs of the victim, to ensure that services are delivered to the victim in a compassionate and nonjudgmental manner. A victim-centered approach can help prevent re-traumatization of the victim, and can empower the victim to actively participate in the criminal justice process. Even though there was an outpouring of empathy for this particular incident, can we truly say that there exists any institutional support for all such victims for such offences in Pakistan?
Another key concept that law-enforcement agencies do not consider is incorporating ‘trauma-informed’ practices into their response to sexual assault. This involves recognizing the symptoms of trauma and its prevalence, and understanding how those symptoms can affect an individual who has experienced trauma.
The trauma of sexual assault can affect a victim’s memory and behaviour in unique ways, both during and after the crime occurs. Police officers must understand these dynamics in order to respond appropriately to sexual assault victims. Sexual assault is one of the worst types of crimes, so it requires the best efforts of law-enforcement agencies to investigate it thoroughly, prevent new crimes, and treat victims with respect and compassion.
The Gujjarpura event has brought attention to the importance of the role of law enforcement in the response to sexual assault, the need for high-quality sexual assault investigations, and the impact that the police can have on sexual assault victims’ experience with the criminal justice system.
Victims of sexual assault must cope with the physical, mental and emotional aftermath of an intimate crime, and often are faced with the additional challenge of combating rape myths and gender bias that perpetuate victim-blaming. Additionally, not in this case but often in Pakistan, the justice system itself can deter victims from reporting.
Improper or inadequate police practices and procedures such as exhibiting disbelief, improperly dismissing a victim’s report as ‘unfounded’, incorrectly categorizing the nature of the crime reported, incompletely or inadequately investigating the crime, the anticipation of a long and difficult trial, and the uncertainty of the final outcome, can influence a victim’s decision to even report sexual assault to police.
Also, we should bear in mind that it was not robust police investigation that brought the crime to light. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. It was a hit on the DNA database at the Punjab Forensics Science Agency that initiated the cascade of events leading to identification of the accused.
While it is true that DNA evidence has changed how crimes are investigated and how assailants are brought to justice, this database at the PFSA is not something which is robustly used by our police in all sexual offences. While it is an extremely important initiative, this is something which should be accessible and much more widely used in all serious offences.
This raises issues regarding storage, access and disposal of DNA as evidence, all of which need to be covered by legislation in Pakistan. It is not very far away in the past that even our courts ruled DNA as being inadmissible as sole evidence. However, it has helped in cases such as the Zainab case which was actually a spate of serial murders of innocent young children, and many more, Gujjarpura being just one of the latest. However, talk to any police investigator about how much s/he uses this evidence, and one will discover that the incidence will be zero for most, almost all, police investigators in the Punjab Police.
The absence of a robustly structured and maintained DNA database at the PFSA exacerbates this problem; this is at best ad-hoc and not regulated properly. There are many issues around DNA on which there is growing global consensus on the need for legislative provisions for the destruction of biological samples and deletion of innocent people’s DNA profiles. There are also emerging best practice on scientific standards and standards for the use of DNA in court which are necessary to prevent miscarriages of justice.
Crucially, there is ongoing debate regarding the appropriate safeguards for DNA collection from suspects, restrictions on access, use and data sharing across borders, and data protection standards. Currently in Pakistan, we have none of the above.
Sexual assault cases should be investigated in an unbiased manner, free of assumptions and stereotypes about victims. For example, the police should not base judgments about victim credibility on assumptions about the ‘types’ of people who can be victims of sexual assault or how victims ‘should’ respond or conduct themselves before or after an assault.
It is important that the police department in Pakistan adopts a victim-centered approach in all interactions with crime victims, particularly victims of sexual assault. A victim-centered approach involves a focus on the needs and concerns of the victim, to ensure that investigations are not compromised by judgments an investigator makes about a victim, and that victims are treated in a manner that accounts for the unique traumatic effects of sexual assault.
This will convey to victims that the police take their case seriously and that the department will conduct a thorough, fair and human-rights compliant investigation.
The writer is a retired inspector general of police and ex head of Nacta.
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