The country's police force is being accused of the inept and insensitive handling of the case of 10-year-old Farishta, raising questions about the entire justice system.
ISLAMABAD — On the afternoon of May 15, in a suburban area of Pakistan's capital Islamabad, 10-year-old Farishta, whose name means ‘angel’, went out to play.
“She said she’d go play with her friend who lived close by and then come to my fruit shop from where we were supposed to go home together for Iftar as she loved making the fruit salad herself,” recalls her father, Gul Nabi Mohmand, a stocky man in his 40s.
But she neither showed up at his shop nor came home.
Farishta’s body was found five days later on May 20. A man from a nearby village spotted it after he saw crows circling overhead near a desolate hilly area. The body was in such a bad condition that Mohmand was only able to identify his daughter by recognising her shoes, according to a police official.
The family and neighbours had desperately searched for her soon after she went missing and even sought the police's help. The police did what they have been accused of doing on numerous occasions: they doubted the family, saying the girl might have eloped with someone.
Pakistani police officers often avoid cases which can be difficult to solve and often want to show a crime-free jurisdiction to their superiors - at least on the official record.
By the time a kidnapping case was registered on May 19, it was too late.
“I am a 100 percent certain had the police done its job that night my daughter would be here today,” Mohmand told TRT World.
Farishta's murder stirred national soul-searching in Pakistan, where 11 children have been killed in a similar fashion in the last four months. From human rights activists, musicians and sportsmen to the politicians, her death has mobilised people who are now calling for a change in a country scarred by high rates of murder and sexual violence.
Word of Farishta’s murder spread like wildfire, propelled by a picture of a helpless and tearful Mohmand sitting outside the police station making rounds on social media.
The Pakistani police came under severe criticism as details about the manner in which the preliminary investigation was carried out emerged. According to Nabi the autopsy was performed late, leaving the body in the morgue for hours. It was only when public pressure showed no signs of ebbing, they proceeded with the autopsy.
It turned out to be inconclusive and the police are yet to ascertain the cause of death and whether or not the victim was sexually assaulted.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently made a public statement saying Farishta's murder is "one of at least seven cases to have surfaced in recent months, with reports of children as young as two having been raped".
"Some were left to return home and live with the trauma they had undergone. Others were killed and their bodies similarly dumped, leaving their families to relive their ordeal," the commission said.
Between January and April 2019, around 11 children have been killed in cases of child abuse, according to the Jinnah Institute, a think tank.
Last year, more than 3,832 cases of child abuse were reported, with 2,327 cases of child sexual abuse alone, Sahil, an NGO working for child protection, said in a report.
It is widely believed that the actual number of such cases could be several times more as most victims and families don’t involve the authorities in the deeply conservative society.
Farishta’s case is not the only one which triggered nationwide fury and condemnation.
In January 2018, the country was shaken to its core by the rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab Ansari in Kasur, Punjab – a town notorious for child abuse.
The incident had stirred the otherwise dormant and disunited civil society into the #JusticeforZainab campaign. It did not matter that the case was from a small town of Punjab; there were protests in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad demanding justice, especially since it was revealed that Zainab’s killer had at least seven other victims.
The Supreme Court, prompted by the public outcry, compelled the authorities to take action — which they delivered by managing to arrest the perpetrator with a DNA match a couple of weeks after the incident.
The killer, a known associate of the victim’s family who denied the charges, was hanged in October last year after an anti-terrorism court found him guilty.
For months, that case in particular and the issue of child abuse in general dominated the airwaves, leading some to believe the public awareness campaigns, successful police action and severe punishment would serve as a deterrent. But similar cases continued to be reported and justice remains elusive.
“We have ample laws. It is the implementation that is missing,” says anthropologist and rights activist Samar Minallah Khan.
She regretted that even after the horrific incident of Zainab’s rape and murder, “we have witnessed the apathy, inaction and silence towards Farishta, that too from our law enforcement agencies”.
A month before Farishta’s abduction and murder, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari introduced “The Zainab alert, response and recovery bill, 2019” in the National Assembly.
Explaining the purpose of the proposed law, ruling party member Asad Umar wrote on Twitter: “[The] act is designed to improve the systems in place to fight the most heinous of crimes...the abduction, rape and murder of children which has become unfortunately rampant. Protecting our children has to be our highest priority.”
The bill is currently with the human rights sub-committee for debate and will move further towards becoming law once it is cleared.
But laws seldom work in Pakistan. Despite passing a robust law against acid attacks in 2011, and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar winning documentary on the issue a year later, around 400 incidents of acid attacks are still reported annually in Pakistan, according to rights organisations. At the end of the day, it is up to the police to not only register cases with the correct information but to ensure watertight investigation.
Former police officer Tariq Khosa, who headed the Federal Investigation Agency, blames past civilian and military governments for having failed to depoliticise the force and reinvent it as a community service than a coercive arm of the state.
“The unfortunate Farishta incident also speaks volumes about the police command’s failure to improve training, especially at the police station level,” he said.
Sitting atop a double bed in his cramped, rented house, Mohmand vented about the country’s defunct criminal justice system. He said that had he given the police a bribe, a common practice in the sub-continent, the officials at the police station would’ve likely heeded his call for help. He said he's against corruption and hopes "there can be a change in this culture”.
Shopkeepers outside Mohmand's house remember Farishta as an argumentative child who would negotiate over the price whenever she came with her mother to buy groceries.
“The entire locality is in shock. Her teacher has stopped coming to school, saying ‘how will I teach now that my best student is gone’,” Mohmand said.
As someone who had no formal education, he understood well the importance of education and spent all his meagre monthly earnings, after rent and groceries, on his children’s schooling.
However, scared for the safety of his children after the life-shattering events of the past couple of weeks, he’s taken them all out of school. “I don’t want to lose another one,” he said.