On the trail of Javed Iqbal, one of the most prolific and less-studied mysopeds of our time. New film on his life and crimes renews interest in the man who committed suicide in jail in 2001.
On the morning of July 9, 1999, Faisal Razzaq, just nine years of age, left his home in one of the many overcrowded neighbourhoods of Lahore, a city in Pakistan’s Punjab province. He worked at a workshop where children his age spend long hours folding cardboard into paper boxes, earning meagre wages to support their families. His parents never saw him again.
A few weeks later, Shakeel Hassan, 13, said his morning goodbyes as he stepped out for school. He didn’t show up for class that day.
It shouldn’t have taken Faraz Khan, another teenager, more than a few minutes to get back from a nearby grocery store where he had gone to buy some flour. He, too, vanished.
Tasleem Ullah, 14, Abdul Majeed, 16, Zeeshan Nazir, 13, and Dilawar Hussain, 15, all went missing over the next few months — all of them among dozens of teenagers from poor families who were lost in the labyrinth of Lahore’s historical streets.
Among the missing boys was Ejaz Muhammad, lovingly called “Kaka” by his family. He and his older brother — both in their teens — were masseurs. They roamed the streets in worn-out sandals and hung out in parks, clinking colourful bottles of ointment to get the attention of customers. The brothers were Shia Muslims and they wore ankle bracelets studded with shiny stones. Men paid them for head and shoulder massages. Sometimes, the men also would take them to their bedrooms.
One day in October, Kaka and his brother were approached by two boys in the gardens of Minar-e-Pakistan, the site where Muslims gathered in 1940 to demand a separate homeland. “Our boss needs a massage and he’ll pay you double the price if you come with us,” Kaka’s brother later recalled one of the boys telling them.
Together, they zigzagged through the streets and went down a narrow lane to a house numbered 16-B on Ravi Road, located just a few minutes’ walk from the Minar-e-Pakistan monument.
Kaka was told to go inside to meet the boss: a small, bespectacled man with neatly parted hair named Javed Iqbal. His brother left in search of another job — it wasn’t uncommon for them to work like this. That was the last time anyone saw Kaka alive.
What happened over the next few months is the stuff of a stomach-churning drama involving a psychopathic and manipulative serial killer whose crimes were never conclusively proven (in spite of the human remains discovered in his house), bungled police investigations, the never-ending wait for justice of grief-stricken parents, and a city gripped by fear.
Javed Iqbal’s story has been pulled back into the limelight more than two decades after the case was closed with the recent release of a film on the life of the twisted mind who admitted to murdering the children and disposing of their bodies by dissolving them in tanks filled with acid.
A number of articles and online videos with bits of new information have been published in the past few months as journalists and bloggers try to put the pieces together of a serial killing which bears a striking similarity to the infamous Nithari serial killings in neighbouring India.
The young masseur was among a hundred victims of the serial killer, who systematically assaulted and strangled them before dissolving their bodies in vats of acid. Various websites place him alongside some of the most despised serial killers of the previous century. His story is not just that of a sick, disturbed mind; it’s also an indictment of a society that failed to take care of its most vulnerable segment: children.
No country for children
In Pakistan, thousands of boys run away from home every year. Most of them end up on the streets. At night, they huddle together near garbage dumps, high on heroin or Samad Bond, a highly addictive polychloroprene adhesive sold off the shelves.
Most parents don’t file missing person reports with the police because they are usually turned away. “Go and check with your relatives. He must be there,” police officials told Majeed’s father.
In recent years, a series of brutal assaults and killings of minors has put the Pakistani authorities on the edge. Children’s rights activists say police take the matter of the missing children seriously only after it gets hyped up on TV news channels.
With large families to feed, parents usually give up the search for their missing child after a few days of visiting hospitals and morgues. All of them hope to hear a knock on the door one day and to find their child on their doorstep.
The year 1999 was a tough one for Pakistanis. In May, military leader General Pervez Musharraf took over the government in a coup. The economy was reeling under US sanctions imposed in the wake of the nuclear tests conducted by the military a year earlier. Young people were worried about the Y2K bug.
For the police, reports of missing children were very low on the priority list.
So when, in late November, a letter from someone who claimed to have killed 100 runaway boys arrived at the Lahore police office, it raised little suspicion.
Tariq Kamboh, a deputy superintendent of police (DSP) — a mid-ranking officer — along with a few constables reluctantly went to the address from where the letter was mailed: 16-B Ravi Road, the same place where the young masseur had gone missing.
Public records of what happened at the house that day reveal just how unprepared the police were in dealing with the master manipulator.
Iqbal was at home. But as police questioned him about the letter, he began to behave erratically. At one point, he took out his gun and threatened to shoot himself if he wasn’t left alone.
Police didn’t take him into custody. They didn’t even bother to go inside the three-bedroom house, which was constructed like a Russian Matryoshka doll with one room built inside the other. Kamboh left and let Iqbal keep his licensed gun.
Iqbal should have been known to the police. Over the past decade, at least two sodomy complaints involving minor boys had been filed against him.
“This man can’t be a killer of a hundred kids. He’s a nutcase,” Kamboh told his superiors.
Where did he go?
Iqbal, 38, had an inflated sense of his own importance — his acquaintances recall that he regularly boasted about his alleged ties with politicians and bureaucrats. Now he was frustrated the police weren’t taking him seriously.
That must have felt similar to the rejection he endured as a child when his family refused to accept that he was unlike other boys.
“As a boy he was violent and eccentric. He would give a lot of headache to our parents,” Ziaul Haq, Iqbal’s brother, says, recounting that if he wanted anything, he’d threaten to hurt himself until his father relented.
With the police not taking him seriously, Iqbal mailed the same letter, along with pictures of dozens of boys, to the office of Jang, Pakistan’s most popular Urdu-language newspaper.
The heavy envelope landed on the desk of Jamil Chishti, editor of the paper’s crime section.
“After going through the contents of the envelope, I thought there could be two possibilities: either someone was trying to frame him, or this man has really done it,” Chishti said in a recent youtube interview.
The letter, written in Urdu, was an admission of a series of brutal murders. Iqbal chronicled how he strangled the boys and dissolved their bodies in acid. He shared their names and addresses and even described minute details, such as the shapes of their faces and the type of sandals they were wearing — and what body parts aroused him the most. He disclosed how much it cost him to buy the acid, how long it took for a body to dissolve and who helped him.
If what he said was, indeed, true, then the count of Iqbal’s victims is more than that of Samuel Little, America’s most prolific serial killer, who murdered 93 women.
If the story was to be published, it was important for the newspaper to check the house where Iqbal claimed he had left evidence.
Chishti and a colleague found 16-B Ravi Road on a dead-end street, resembling thousands of similar structures in Lahore with bare-brick walls and wooden doors.
The house was abandoned and padlocked. No one was there.
The nearly two-metre-tall front wall was climbable, so the journalists scaled it. Inside, they found blue-coloured plastic canisters and bundles of clothes and shoes — just as Iqbal had described in his letter. A strange stench hung in the air.
They removed the cover of one of the canisters and were hit by a pungent whiff. Inside the canisters were what appeared to be half-decomposed human remains suspended in liquid that smelled like formaldehyde, a chemical used to preserve bodies. The newspaper contacted families of some of the missing boys whose addresses Iqbal had meticulously recorded in his diary and shared in his letter. When it was confirmed that the boys were actually missing, the journalists decided they had enough evidence to write a story.
The next day, December 3, Jang printed the story on its front page under the headline, “Claim of Murder of a Hundred Kids.” The newspaper published the names of the victims, along with pictures of 57 of the slain boys, many of them wearing cheeky smiles.
All hell broke loose as soon as the issue hit the stands.
The bundles of clothes and shoes found at Iqbal’s house were brought for identification to a police station. As word spread, grieving parents flooded the evidence room. Mothers wailed as they recognised the kameez and shalwar (shirts and pants) of their missing boys. Fathers cursed themselves for failing to protect their children and swore to take revenge.
Police confiscated two large blue drums and more than a dozen plastic cans from Iqbal’s home that contained a mix of hydrochloric and sulphuric acids.
Inside one of the blue drums, investigators found a human torso. In the other, two feet amputated at the ankles and a chopped up hip girdle were discovered.
The medical examiner noted that the body parts were severely decomposed and difficult to examine. However, he opined that they did belong to boys aged between 13 and 17. One of the feet had an ankle bracelet around it — just like the one Kaka had been wearing the night he was last seen with Javed Iqbal.
Police also collected bags full of human hair from Iqbal’s house, where hair was everywhere: on a comb, on an iron rod, on utensils, on the floor, on a bed, and in a jug. (Hairs can take weeks to completely dissolve in acid).
As foreign journalists descended onto Lahore, police investigators felt the heat from the government to quickly bring the case to a close. They had an admission of guilt and evidence.
But Javed Iqbal — who, like American serial killer Denis Rader, baited the police and journalists with his exploits — was nowhere to be found.
The boy with a secret
Unable to locate Iqbal, police arrested his relatives and friends. That’s when his dark and complicated past began to unravel.
Iqbal came from a large family with five brothers and four sisters. They lived on Brandreth Road, Lahore’s old commercial district, where their father owned a steel pipe-making business, Muhammad Ali & Sons. By the middle-class standards of the area, the family was well off.
“We owned multiple properties. We had stores, buildings and plots. Many people in Lahore knew about the business of Muhammad Ali & Sons,” Awais Zia, a nephew of Iqbal’s tells TRT World.
The Ali family was an ardent follower of saints whose shrines dot the province of Punjab. It also believed in faith healers and their prophecies.
From an early age, Iqbal had been a voracious reader. He kept diaries and wrote for magazines. He constantly made a ruckus at home and got into fights with neighbourhood peers. At times, he behaved in ways that were hard to explain.
“Javed will go into a trance. Sometimes he’d wake everyone up in the middle of the night and ask us to line up behind him,” says Ziaul Haq, his brother. “It was like some spirit had possessed him. I really think he was possessed as a kid.”
But Iqbal was actually a homosexual, a reality his conservative Muslim family refused to acknowledge, yet one that everyone around him knew. Years later, Iqbal would write that a faith healer had warned his family that bad things would happen if he was forced to marry a woman.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was difficult for individuals — even in the liberal United States — to come out openly as being gay, says Professor Stephen Holmes, who has spent years studying violent serial killers.
“Their families rejected them, they were completely shunned,” he tells TRT World.
For Iqbal, his identity as a gay man must have started to grow and fester with the realisation that he wasn’t being accepted by those around him, says Holmes.
But over time, his neighbours and friends say they started to see glimpses of a sinister demon in him. As he entered his 20s, he began exhibiting traits of a manipulative paedophile who had a liking for pubescent boys.
The lives and lies he lived
In the early 1980s, Rao Nafasat — who was 11 years old at the time — and some of his grade six friends from the F. G. School in Sargodha, located some 180 kilometres from Lahore, picked up a copy of Al-Tahir magazine from a roadside stall.
Email, MSN Messenger and internet chat services were years away. People advertised their names, age and home addresses in magazines to find penpals. Writing letters was a way to meet new people.
That’s how Nafasat and some of the boys from Sargodha began corresponding with Javed Iqbal.
“He used to write about his interest in collecting stamps and how he wanted to exchange them,” Nafasat tells TRT World.
Iqbal was persuasive and cajoling.
“I remember he wrote with coloured markers — green, blue and yellow. His letters smelled good, like they had been sprayed with a perfume.”
Iqbal encouraged the boys to share their pictures by offering them tempting rewards. “He’d send 20 rupee notes along with his letters to lure us to share our pictures and asked us to visit him. He’d share his own pictures as well.”
In his Brandreth Road neighbourhood, Iqbal was gaining notoriety as a child predator. And his family was struggling to deal with rising complaints about his paedophilic behaviour.
“It was an open secret. Everyone knew he molested young boys,” says Rizwan Bajwa, who grew up in Iqbal’s neighbourhood.
With the passage of time, Iqbal got bolder and became violent. He was no longer looking for consensual encounters. In 1990, he lured a nine-year-old boy to his home and assaulted him.
A sodomy complaint was filed against him, but he bribed the police and the parents to hush up the matter.
That incident put a wedge between him and his brothers, who wanted to go their separate ways. So once the family inheritance was distributed, Iqbal came into possession of a hefty sum.
The account of Iqbal’s life becomes bizarre from this point onwards. He built a house and opened a metalworks workshop of his own. Almost all his employees were underaged boys, most of them runaways.
“He loved those boys a lot,” Ziaul Haq says.
He provided them with food and lodging, bought them new clothes, and often took them for road-trips to Murree, a resort town in the north. One of the boys was Sajid, who became one of his trusted lieutenants.
In some ways, Iqbal’s behaviour resembled that of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who raped and murdered more than 30 young men in the US in the 1970s. Gacy ran a construction business where he, too, employed young men — some of whom he later killed.
Despite being known as a child molestor, authorities didn’t stop Iqbal from engaging in activities that put him in close proximity to young boys.
He opened up a videogame arcade in a store close to his house. Like flies attracted to a sugary syrup, boys would flock there at all hours of the day.
“He spent lavishly on kids. He would buy us firecrackers. He even built fish aquariums and enclosure for snakes for the entertainment of neighbourhood kids,” recalls Awais, his nephew.
Strangely enough, Iqbal married twice, but both unions ended in divorce within a few years. He had a daughter from his first marriage and a son from the second.
“The fact that he was married twice doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Holmes. “A lot of these people hide their true self from partners and friends. Marriage is an attempt to fit in with others even if it was probably very difficult.”
In Iqbal’s case, it was his family who forced him to marry, hoping it would help him settle down and that he’d stop hanging out with young boys.
Over the years, he was accused at least twice of raping young boys belonging to working-class families. But he bribed the victims’ parents to avoid police investigation.
Iqbal was fond of boasting about his connections and about how important he was. In the early 1990s, he published his own magazine, Anti-Corruption, in which he featured interviews with senior police officials.
People who worked in the Shadbagh market where his metal workshop and video gaming arcade were located say he tried to cosy up to government officials as well.
Once, he organised a flea market — something that cannot be done without official patronage — and invited a politician to its opening, Khalid Sohail, a Canadian psychiatrist wrote in a book on Iqbal’s life titled The Myth of the Chosen One.
Iqbal was again reported to police in February 1998 after luring two young boys from the famed Data Darbar shrine and raping them at gunpoint. Just as he’d done before, he evaded the law through bribery.
“Data Darbar was the hub where runaway boys would come to take shelter from all over the country,” says Ifthikhar Mubarik, the CEO of Search for Justice, a Lahore-based NGO that works for children’s rights.
“Security and surveillance was nothing like it is today. There were no cameras to record where the kids were going or who took them.”
But Iqbal’s confidence in his ability to subdue his underaged victims was about to be put to test.
Rebirth of a monster
One September night a few months later, Iqbal hired a masseur. What happened afterwards is a bit sketchy, but police say he raped the boy, aged 15. In the middle of the night, that boy — by himself or with help of someone else — attacked Iqbal, fracturing his skull and breaking his jaw.
The beating was so severe that Iqbal remained in coma for 20 days and wasn’t able to walk without assistance for months afterwards. His businesses suffered and his bank balance quickly depleted due to his medical treatment, which included a surgery.
It was then that Iqbal moved to the much smaller Ravi Road house with his ageing mother who took care of him during his recovery.
If Iqbal’s own statements are to be believed, his mother’s death a few months later, while he was still struggling to get back on his feet, left him yearning for revenge.
“I decided to make a hundred mothers cry just like my mother cried for me,” he wrote in his diary.
Between July and December 1999, Iqbal used the young employees who worked and lived with him — including Sajid — to lure teenagers to his house, where he then assaulted and strangled them with a metal chain.
After he had recovered from his injuries, he curiously began to refer to himself in the past tense: “I was killed that night when I was attacked,” he wrote in his diary.
That reference to his being ‘killed’ has been a subject of debate among the people who have studied his case.
Faisal Najeeb, Iqbal’s defence lawyer, says it has to do with the fact that he didn’t feel like a man after he was hospitalised. “I think he had become impotent,” Najeeb told BBC Urdu, which, last December, ran a comprehensive story on Iqbal’s life.
That incident might have triggered a more brutal predator to surface in him after he was partially paralysed.
“When we talk about the fissure in the personality of these individuals, their personality changes, they go from being a person who touches the kid and believes they are doing something special, to someone who viciously attacks them,” says Holmes.
“So what appears to have happened is that the attack on him really made his personality split. The beating he took, it changes the person, it changes them in their fantasy.”
Holmes, who looked at Iqbal’s case after TRT World approached him, classified him not just as a paedophile, but as a hebephile and mysoped — the rarest type of predator: one who takes pleasure in dominating and killing children.
Iqbal had, all along, exhibited traits and aspects of his personality that resemble those associated with well-documented serial killers.
He took pictures and kept diaries containing detailed descriptions of his victims and how he’d met them. Child molester Westley Dodd did the same before he was caught and, later, executed.
When people began questioning why Iqbal would only hire young boys at his workshop or keep them as helpers in his house, he’d say he was doing the run away children a favour and that he loved them.
“Most hebephiles molest kids and think they are sharing something special with their victims — that’s how they justify themselves psychologically and subjectively,” says Holmes
Announcing oneself as a serial killer as Iqbal did is not uncommon among serial predators.
Edmund Kemper, who severed his mother’s head, eventually turned himself in to the police saying he was tired of the murders. Police officers didn’t initially take him seriously; they joked with him and even smoked together.
“They kill and they behead and after a while there’s nothing left but to go down in infamy. That’s likely what happened with Javed and he went to the newspaper,” says Holmes.
‘I am the killer of 100 kids’
After being on the run for nearly a month, Iqbal showed up at the office of Jang newspaper on the night of December 29 — two days before the new millennium celebrations.
The police, who were facing public pressure over their failure to arrest him, were dumbstruck. Investigators had already nabbed the teenage employees who had helped in luring his victims.
But Iqbal had continued to evade arrest, hiding among faqeers (nomadic ascetics) at a shrine outside of the capital, Islamabad.
Iqbal’s admission was right out of a Hollywood serial killer flick: He walked up to the newspaper’s reception desk in worn-out slippers, with a days-old beard and in clothes smeared with dust.
“I’m Javed Iqbal…the killer of one hundred children,” he calmly announced.
He spoke to journalists for an hour, detailing how he had committed the murders and disposed of the bodies, before he was handed over to the police. That interview was recorded and would later be used as evidence in the court trial against him.
His trial, which took place under a constant media spotlight, was a public affair, with the court often crammed to the brim with people. Throughout December, parents from different cities around the country kept trickling into Lahore to identify the clothes and shoes of their lost boys.
Public anger was such that Iqbal had to be escorted to the court under the guard of more than a dozen police officers for fear that parents might lynch him.
Iqbal’s trial landed in the court of Judge Allah Baksh Ranjha, who, from the start, made it obvious that he wanted to conclude the case quickly. Police filed murder charges, with Iqbal as the main suspect, along with three of his employees: Sajid, plus Muhammad Nadeem and Muhammad Sabir, both minors.
Police had Iqbal’s confession to present, along with the barely recognisable human remains of at least two young victims.
But for a conviction, the prosecution needed dozens of witnesses, but Iqbal had left no survivors to testify against him.
The court appointed Burhan Moazzam, a 35-year-old criminal lawyer at the time, as the trial’s special prosecutor.
“Initially, like everyone else, I wondered how a man killed so many kids in a city like Lahore without being noticed,” he says.
A generation of Pakistanis remember Iqbal’s image from the time of his trial: a calm demeanour, neatly combed hair, a trimmed moustache, square glasses and a grey sweater.
“Javed Iqbal was very manipulative. He knew how to use the circumstances for his own advantage,” says Moazzam.
Knowing well that this was a high-profile case and that police wouldn’t dare thrash him like other petty criminals, Iqbal even threw tantrums in court — tantrums which could almost be considered comical.
For someone facing a charge of having killed 100 children, Iqbal appeared extraordinarily jovial in court.
“One day he asked the judge to order Masood Aziz, who was a feared police officer, to bring him a sweater because he felt cold,” recalls Burhan.
“Another time he made the judge pay for naan chana (a chickpea curry dish) because the weather was pleasant. The judge kept relenting.”
Over the next four weeks, prosecutors presented more than 105 witnesses, including dozens of family members of the missing boys.
The police managed to find the driver of the rickshaw that one of Iqbal’s employees had used to take acid drums to a river in order to dispose of them.
They also had testimony from a street-cart vendor who had seen two of the missing boys with Iqbal’s trusted employees before they disappeared.
Some parents not only identified the clothes of their children, but also shared details about the garments which only they could have known. In working-class neighbourhoods across the country, women stitch their children's clothes themselves.
A few days into the trial, Iqbal went back on his confession. His lawyers claimed he had staged the killings just to highlight the issue of runaway children. As for the clothes and shoes, they were bought from a second-hand market.
The prosecution and police investigation was not without loopholes.
Tariq Kamboh — the police DSP who had first been sent to investigate Iqbal’s house, but left without bothering to look inside — was accused of killing a man named Ishaq Billah, a friend of Iqbal’s. Police said Billah committed suicide after he jumped from the third floor window of the police building where he was being interrogated. But an enquiry found that Billah was tortured. Kamboh and a few other police officials were suspended.
The body parts found in the plastic drums were examined by the forensic expert only. A more thorough DNA analysis linking the remains of the missing boys to their families couldn’t be carried out since Pakistan’s first DNA laboratory wasn’t established until 2006.
The trial lasted just over a month, during which time Judge Ranjha conducted proceedings almost every day under a constant media spotlight.
In the end, the defence lawyers for Iqbal and the other accused had little chance against an overwhelming body of evidence.
They did try to poke holes in the prosecution's evidence. For instance, Faisal Najeeb, the defence lawyer, questioned why none of Javed’s neighbours heard or saw anything when one teenage boy after another was vanishing into the house.
But the defence was never able to find any of the missing boys alive.
Judge Ranjha wrapped up the hearings and, on March 16, 2000 — a little over a month since the trial began — announced his judgement, which was nothing short of flimsy.
It was an unprecedented judgement which, in many ways, violated constitutional rights: the judge ruled that Iqbal and Sajid were to be hanged at Minar-e-Pakistan, and that their bodies were to be cut into 100 pieces and dissolved in acid in front of the families of the victims.
“That was a bit too much. The judgement violated some of the human rights laws,” says Moazzam, the prosecutor.
Iqbal and Sajid were sent to the maximum security Kot Lakhpat Jail. Even there, Iqbal’s inflated sense of his own importance never faded. He insisted that his case had attained such prominence that a foreign NGO was willing to defend him.
While he was awaiting execution, he told Khalid Sohail, the Canadian psychiatrist and author, that God had chosen him for a special purpose.
“Look here, in between my eyebrows you will see a sign. Most people either have a blank space or hair joining the eyebrows but I have three prongs. It is a star, a special sign from God,” Khalid quoted Iqbal as saying in his book.
A year after their conviction, Iqbal and one of his helpers Sabir committed a double suicide in their prison cells, which were next to each other. They used their shirts as ropes to hang themselves, according to police.
Iqbal’s lawyer and family suspect that police killed them because Iqbal had wanted to name some senior government officials who had attended his parties and abused children.
To this day, Iqbal’s brother and lawyer insist that he didn’t kill anyone. They say that he constructed a narrative, planted the evidence and hoodwinked the investigators just to gain notoriety and publicity.
But Moazzam, the prosecutor, is not buying any of that.
“Show me one boy who has been found. I don’t know of a single kid who went back to his parents. He was a monster and I think he killed more than 100 boys.”