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Lessons from Zainab's case.

LAHORE: Six-year-old Zainab Ansari's rapist-killer was arrested in Kasur last month. The arrest could not have been possible without the herculean efforts of the Punjab Police. Some accolades are in order, but they should not distract from much-needed introspection. The failure of our system is evident from start to end.

The horrifying rape and murder of children continued for months. Precious lives could have been saved, if the culprit had been nabbed after the first or second incident. Following public outrage, it took intervention by an entire government, the superior courts, the media and political parties to move the Punjab Police to launch efforts on such a scale that it ultimately resulted in the nabbing of the culprit. A lot of debate is focused on the role of the public, parents and society but it goes without saying that legal process has to be the only deterrent. The police as a preventive organ, as a first responder and as investigator has many lessons to learn before we can prevent such crimes.

Crime starts with motive. Conventional motives lead to conventional crimes, which are solved by conventional police methods. For ages, the old dictum of zar, zan aur zameen, has been the starting point of investigation. Revenge, ego and bravado are said to be symptoms. Violence is overt and the criminal is said to be a manifestation of machismo. Even rape is considered to be a manifestation of power in our rural areas.

But a crime like child rape has always been considered an anomaly. This anomaly could not have existed in a society immersed in notions of honor. It has been happening ad nauseam and our system and society have ignored it. The mantra "Don't ask, don't tell" applied each time, to every case. Child rape was thought to be "not crime enough" to attract attention of serious law enforcement.

For ages, the old dictum of zar, zan aur zameen, has been the starting point of investigation. Revenge, ego and bravado are said to be symptoms

All that is set to change. First things first, we must set our priorities. Our police have to reorder their preferences. Society has moved forward while the police is slow and resistant to catch up. Crime motives are far more complicated now than they ever were before. The modern criminal is now "the guy next door"; they are meek but dangerous, and low-profile but lethal. This change in understanding, orientation and exposure is the first and foremost lesson that our police needs to learn.

Tragically, our police's energies are consumed by the pursuit of petty thieves and gamblers, and solving property disputes, while today's society wants something else. No one is now interested in numbers--the recoveries, proclaimed offenders and police encounters. The public now wants response, care and protection. Above all, the public craves a sense of security which will ensure that their children remain unharmed.

Investigation is the next area that needs to be looked into. In Zainab's case, the DNA of the accused was collected and preserved in time, and it matched with one of the suspects. This should put the crime scene units and forensic evidence in focus. The training of first responders and investigators leaves much to be desired. Collective DNA databases do not exist, not even for the criminals who are arrested and sent to prison for trial. And what if there were no DNA or the accused not a resident of the vicinity? The other option was Closed-Circuit TV footage. Despite the proliferation of public and private cameras all around, face and picture matching softwares are not available. Everyday videos of daylight robberies are circulated without any result and so many cases remain untraced.

Community policing is the next area to focus on. The lesson is to identify those offenders who show tendencies and questionable sexual behavior towards children. Their lists and record has to be maintained just like the record of badmaashes and 10nambris is maintained. Their activities have to be followed. Community outreach has to be developed to receive early warning signs. The profiles of suspects have to be compiled just like those of car thieves and robbers. There are thousands, if not more, pedophiles out there. There will be more criminal psychopaths and other sex offenders. Many are engaged in activities in which children are directly exposed to them; domestic helps, teachers and coaches. Many gated communities now register servants, their addresses, criminal records and references. How many of those are registered with reference to sex crimes? Zero so far. We have to make a start somewhere.

Investigation is followed by prosecution and then come the roles of other stakeholders i.e. the courts, the prosecution and prisons. Prosecution can lead to death penalty, imprisonment or acquittal. In every case, the accused will remain detained for years. There are no two views on the fact that our prisons are hardly centers for reformation. Juvenile wards have always been known by the pejorative title of "munda khana". If anything, sex crimes are said to be more rampant in prison than anywhere else. The figure of sex offenders in prison alone cannot guarantee that society would be safer. If at all, that can result in a multiplication of offenders instead of reduction. The solution lies in isolated detention facilities and profiling based on psychological centers.

It is convenient to ride on public paranoia and create more paranoia but lessons are hard to learn and even harder to implement. We are also carried away with passion but that creates more chaos than order. The order is in institutional responses and rising to the occasion. The criminal justice system and police can do that or wait for the next incident to happen and hope that that does not become news. In any case, society will be at a loss and the police's credibility will remain low.
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Date:Feb 9, 2018
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