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Pakistan grapples with discontent over rape prosecutions

Less than four percent of Pakistan's rape cases result in a conviction, according to activists. Now some political parties are pushing to make it even harder to prosecute rapists.

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Mukhtaran Mai, the survivor of a notorious gang rape in Pakistan, hold a news conference in Islamabad in this file photo from March 2005. Mai's case is still the best-known of Pakistan's rape cases, but thousands languish unresolved.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters/File

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It seemed like yet another rape case, one of thousands that would remain unsolved.  

The family of a 13-year-old gang-rape victim in Ratta Amral, a shoddy neighborhood of single-room homes a few miles outside Islamabad, was pressured by police to settle out of court in exchange for money. But intense media attention prompted protests and the intervention of the Supreme Court, which ordered police to pursue the case and prosecute the officers that had facilitated the settlement.

Two years later, the rape case itself still languishes in a state court, but the hearing it earned in the Supreme Court produced a landmark set of reforms. As a result of the court's orders, police in Punjab, Pakistan's most-populous province, look for DNA evidence in every rape case. Sindh, the second-most populous province, passed legislation last year mandating the same.

While neighboring India has caught international headlines for brutal rape cases over the past year, rape is also a significant problem in Pakistan. Less than four percent of Pakistan’s rape cases result in a conviction, according to activist groups, who say that rape continues to go largely unpunished because of confusion about rape laws, a lack of resources for forensics analysis, and police skepticism of victims. The issue has taken on more urgency as Islamist political parties in parliament are pushing to make it harder to prosecute rapists.

Push back over landmark reforms 

Last month, parliament held a heated debate over the country’s rape statutes and whether under Islamic law rape could only be proven if four eyewitnesses to the crime were furnished. 

The debate underscored continuing resentment among some Islamists over reforms to laws governing rape and adultery enacted in 2006. These critics consider the changes unnecessary and un-Islamic. 

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“In our system anything can be made up,” says Senator Sajid Mir, who heads the ultra-conservative Ahle-Hadith movement and is a member of the ruling PML-N party, and has argued for the reforms to be repealed. “It's unfortunate, but without witnesses, you cannot prosecute rape in Islam.”

Between 1979 and 2006, rape was lumped together with laws criminalizing zina - extra marital sex and adultery - all of which carried a potential punishment of stoning to death if four male witnesses to the crime could be furnished. Without witnesses, rape and zina could be tried as lesser offenses under the criminal code, but police were often untrained and unwilling to collect forensic evidence that would prove force was used. Unable to prove their allegations, women were then often charged with zina based on their admission that they had had intercourse. While top courts threw almost all of the cases out on appeal, rights groups claimed thousands of women languished in prison for years awaiting the final verdicts. 

In 2006, rape was moved back to the criminal code, to be prosecuted based on forensic evidence, and the practice of pursuing zina cases against women who could not prove rape was specifically prohibited.

Rights activists heralded the law as groundbreaking at the time, but it has been enforced sporadically ever since. Last April, a Karachi judge dismissed a rape case, saying DNA evidence and the testimony of the victim were not enough to convict three government workers accused of gang raping a woman at the tomb of Pakistan's founder.

“It is not fair to rely on DNA reports in such cases, as they only deal with medical facts without ascertaining exactly if someone was raped,” the court ruled.
 
In 2011, to the dismay of women's rights groups, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of all but one of six alleged rapists in the high-profile case of Mukhtar Mai, an outspoken women's rights activist who pursued a case against members of a powerful rival clan who gang-raped her on the orders of a village council.  
  
A delayed investigation and a lack of DNA evidence meant Ms. Mai's claims were subjected to skepticism by the judges.

But the Supreme Court ruling in the Ratta Amral case may make it easier to prosecute cases like Ms. Mai's. Along with the order to collect DNA in every case, the Supreme Court ordered measures to ease registering rape claims, like assigning more female police to investigate sex crimes. 

Uncovering long-term challenges  

Violent crime goes largely unpunished in Pakistan – even cases tried in special antiterrorism courts net only an 18 percent conviction rate – but in the case of rape, a host of problems keeps the conviction rate in the single digits. Those include a lack of resources for DNA analysis, a dearth of female medical examiners, and a reluctance of victims to come forward.  
 
A report presented to the Senate last October said 10,703 rape cases were registered in Pakistan since 2009.  According to War Against Rape (WAR), a Karachi-based NGO, less than four percent of Pakistan's rape cases result in a conviction.
 
Just convincing police to register a rape case is an arduous process, says Salman Akram Raja, the victim's lawyer in the Rawalpindi gang rape case.  “In our society, prosecutors and police think a crime is something to be settled among the parties.”

There’s also a lack of resources for forensic analysis. “DNA is always collected, unless the parties reach a compromise, or the woman refuses to be examined,” says Ghulam Abbas, a spokesman for the Deputy Inspector General of Punjab.  Because there are only two laboratories capable of DNA analysis in Pakistan, Abbas says, and it takes a month to get results.
 
Over the last five years, Karachi authorities conducted 1,482 medical examinations of suspected sexual assault victims, but only registered 387 cases. By law, police are required to always register cases.
 
Karachi, with a population of 20 million, has just six specially-trained female medical examiners. Three police stations are staffed by and dedicated to women, but only one is allowed to register cases. Rape victims are usually forced to deal with male officers. 

Fareed Paracha, of the Jamaat e Islami party - which opposed the reforms in 2006  - decries the near impunity for rapists, but says that instead of passing new laws, Pakistan needs to enforce the existing ones.

"Rape is such a heinous crime, it should be prosecuted well and [the perpetrators] punished harshly."

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