It was a crime most heinous. The incident happened not very far from Pakistan’s Lahore city on the motorway and not in some desolate backwaters. So the outrage was not unexpected. While the tragedy has shaken people it has also brought out some ugly facets of our society: how one sees crime against women. For instance, what the Lahore police chief said reflects the thinking of a large segment of society that prefers to blame the victim.

Capital City Police Officer Umer Sheikh was compelled to apologise and to retract his callous comments. But there are still many apologists in the government protecting him. Not surprisingly, he stays in his post. Could he have done so in any civilised society?

What Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said in his interview to a private TV channel the other day may not be as crude and provocative as the Lahore police chief’s comments, but many will see in his words the reflection of a similar mindset. He blames a broken family system, Bollywood and “rampant obscenity” in society for the growing number of sex crimes in the country.

He proposes “chemical castration” to suppress libido or making sex offenders impotent. He believes in the public hanging of rapists. But the idea that such punishments can purge society of sex crimes is a mediaeval one.

A photo of a protest in Islamabad against the gangrape of a woman on a motorway in Lahore on September 11. Photo credit: Ambreen/Twitter

Failure of the system

The leadership has failed to understand that what happened to the victim of the motorway rape case was not because the criminals had sexual urges. The crime was the result of the failure of law enforcement agencies to provide security to citizens. It also shows how vulnerable women are in this society.

They are unsafe because of the attitude of people such as police officer Umer Sheikh sitting in high offices. It is the culture of impunity that makes women more insecure.

Instead of taking the case more seriously, the tragic incident has been turned into a political spectacle. A constant running commentary on the electronic media on how the investigation is proceeding indicates a non-serious attitude. The administration seemed more interested in political point-scoring than in focusing on the investigation. The names of the suspects were revealed before they were even arrested or the investigation completed.

The motorway rape case has exposed once again the failure of our law enforcement and legal systems. The suspects were reportedly involved in multiple criminal cases including gang rape but never prosecuted. They were either bailed out or would be freed by the courts. The police had failed to track down these absconders.

A politicised police force

One cannot agree more with Pakistan’s Supreme Court chief justice that incidents like this are reflective of a “politicised” police force that has failed to provide adequate protection to citizens’ lives and property. The chief justice noted that “effective policing” was indispensable to the government to perform its prime function of maintaining law and order.

But unfortunately, it seems that neither Imran Khan nor the Punjab provincial administration is willing to accept this basic fault in the police system. One recent example of using police for political ends is the appointment of Umer Sheikh, who was earlier bypassed for promotion because of a controversial record. His moving up the ladder and given one of the most powerful posts is based on political expediency.

The prime minister went out of his way to defend his appointment. Surely, his apology notwithstanding, Sheikh’s remarks on the motorway case are enough to get a good idea of his calibre as a police officer.

Of course, the politicisation of police has not taken place only now. Every military and civilian government has been responsible for using the police for political control. After decades of misuse and neglect, our police force has lost its effectiveness in combating crime, upholding the law or protecting citizens.

But it is most unfortunate that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government that came to power promising to reform the police and other institutions is following the same old path. Professionalism is sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. The frequent change in the command of Pakistan’s Punjab Police has demoralised the force. Officers of Umer Sheikh’s ilk are now the face of the premier law enforcement agency in the country’s biggest and politically most powerful province. The latest rape case is just the tip of the iceberg of the deteriorating law and order situation in the province.

Instead of addressing these systemic faults, the government would like to welcome a regime of harsh punishments such as public hanging and the “castration” of those involved in rape and other criminal cases. Such punishments may have considerable populist appeal but will not end crime.

It is effective law enforcement and depoliticisation of the security agencies that are needed to control the crime situation and give citizens a sense of security. It is our corrupt investigation and legal systems that allow the criminals to go unpunished. Public hanging is not the solution. Such suggestions are not new in Pakistan and we have seen this form of capital punishment carried out in the past.

In 1981, during Gen Zia’s military regime, the abductor and killer of a young boy were executed in public and their bodies remained hanging till sunset. But such a horrible spectacle did not bring an end to crimes against children. Pakistan is said to be among the countries with the highest number of cases of sexual abuse of children, including rape.

Every other day, we hear of children being killed after being sexually assaulted, but there are very few convictions. In fact, most cases of rape go unreported because of societal attitudes towards such crimes. Lack of trust in our law enforcement agencies and the legal system also deter victims who then do not file complaints. These are the real problems the government needs to address rather than approving of mediaeval punishments. In fact, such populist slogans are meant to divert public attention from the real issues.

Interestingly, Imran Khan knows well that such antediluvian ideas cannot be implemented given the universal abhorrence of such actions. Pakistan cannot be Saudi Arabia or Iran. But, perhaps, it gives Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters something to harp on.

This article first appeared on Dawn.

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Pakistan: 15 arrested for allegedly raping woman on motorway in Lahore, protests erupt across cities