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Handling of rape cases a chain of weak links

Handling of rape cases a chain of weak links

Tehmina Qureshi

Karachi: For a woman in Pakistan who has been raped, her best bet for justice is to approach the nearest government hospital… as soon as possible.

At least this way, the woman and her family can ensure a medical examination by a medico-legal officer, who would then also call the police station concerned to record the survivor’s statement.

This way, when the MLO writes her report, the circumstantial evidence, if present at the time when the case is reported, such as torn or bloodied clothes or injuries, will be duly recorded and hence included as evidence by default.

In rape cases, especially in Sindh, the primary circumstantial evidence is crucial for ensuring the conviction of the rapist.

Otherwise, especially when the reporting is delayed, it becomes a case of claims, the woman’s word against the man’s.

In a patriarchal society like ours where women are guilty until proven otherwise, that is a sure-shot recipe for disaster.

“Usually the families that dare to come forward first approach the police station,” says Karachi police surgeon Jalil Qadir.

“If their case is registered, by the time they come to us for a medical examination it is usually a couple of days after the incident and most of the circumstantial evidence has been lost.”

The survivors who try to have the assailants convicted pay for it through their noses. The cases of Dr Shazia and Kainat Soomro are bad enough examples to dissuade anyone from coming forward.

Last month, a resident of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Muhammad Sulaiman, spent a week in jail after his brother’s family lodged cases of fraud against him when he reported the rape of his 12-year-old daughter.

His nephew was arrested, that too on the orders of the high court, but later released on bail because his brother had connections with a certain SSP.

Right now, the case is stuck in arraignment in the lower court with judges and the brother’s family advising Sulaiman to reach a compromise.

This is the very reason why most families hesitate to register their complaints. The environment of police stations is far from comforting for anyone going to report a stolen identity card, let alone a vulnerable and violated woman and her grieving family.

Even if the police do not side with the powerful party, their attitude and insulting methods of investigation is like rubbing salt into the gaping wounds.

They families do not want to go through any more humiliation.

More often than not, the chain of investigation has kinks right from the beginning because the investigation officers do not even bother asking questions from eyewitnesses.

“For example, in cases where the bodies of women and minor girls have been found dumped, the investigation officers should ask those near the scene like shopkeepers about the description of the assailants or other clues, but they don’t,” says Rukhsana Siddiqui of the War Against Rape. “This creates doubt and in courts, it can be a determining factor as to whether the accused is convicted or acquitted.”

Often the investigation officers are not even aware of the amended or updated laws.

Technically a medical examination is only conducted on the request of the police. If there is no request, there is no medical examination or DNA test.

Most policemen do not even keep up with the recent laws and that leads to faulty charge sheets.

“There have been many occasion when I knew the accused was guilty and even the judge knew it. But they have to let the accused go free because of the sloppy charge sheets submitted by the investigating officers,” says Siddiqui.

The gang rape of a woman on the premises of the Mazar-e-Quaid in 2008 reflected the discrepancy in laws and implementation.

Add to that the factor corruption which permeates every layer of our government and administrative system, making convicting offenders a mammoth task, and dangerous too if you are up against the ‘wrong’ people.

The figures speak for themselves. Of the 487 rape cases registered with police stations across Karachi during the last five years, only 67 went to court and 11 accused were convicted, most of them at least four years after occurrence of the incident.

Faulty charge sheets

A deputy district public prosecutor talking on the condition of anonymity admits that policemen submit sloppy charge sheets.

A rape case has to be lodged under Sections 375, 376, and 377 of the Pakistan Penal Code, depending on the nature of the case, but many a time the policeman registering the case does not include the proper section in the FIRs.

However, the public prosecutor says that the prosecution has the authority to amend the charge sheets later, but this step is often skipped because conservative judges frown on it.

Another senior police official concedes that policemen are so overburdened with other work that investigating rape case does not take top priority.

An ‘ideal’ rape survivor?

Arfana Mallah of the Women’s Action Forum says police officers and sometimes judges too have the image of an ideal rape survivor in their minds who is bruised, battered and injured. In case there are no marks of injuries or no signs of struggle, their minds already made up, thus affecting both the investigation and trial.

DNA evidence

In Sindh, circumstantial evidence makes the case while a DNA test is allowed as supporting evidence. But then again, there are a lot of ‘ifs’.

If the policeman registering the case bothers to write the request, the survivor can go for a medical examination. If a female medico-legal officer is present on duty, she can examine the survivor and take a sample for DNA testing. If the suspect is arrested then he is also examined and his DNA collected for cross matching. According to figures obtained from the office of the Karachi police surgeon, 325 rape survivors were examined by medico legal officers last year in comparison with 177 accused. Then the samples are dispatched to the police station. If the samples are handled correctly, they might reach the forensic science laboratory in Islamabad.

The file is then put in a cupboard and forgotten about for at least three years until the court calls for it.

The DNA evidence is only acceptable in court if the medico-legal officer who performed the examination verifies it. “The police send the samples and then forget to inform us,” says the Karachi police surgeon. “Suddenly we are called to court and asked if we authorised the DNA test.”

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