Kasur, Pakistan is Surviving a Brutal Epidemic of Child Abuse Dating Back 13 Years

Trigger Warning: this article contains mentions of rape and sexual abuse towards children, as well as kidnapping and murder.

If you look up the city of Kasur in Pakistan, the results for the first several pages of your search revolve around a singular deeply alarming phenomenon. The city, just south of Lahore and part of the Pakistani province of Punjab, has in recent years weathered a chain of child sexual abuse scandals, abductions and murders that are as extensive as they are seemingly unchecked. Even with high-publicity cases attracting international attention and the involvement of the country’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, in administering precautionary measures, the response of law enforcement and government officials to the city’s widespread instances of child rape and murder seem entirely disproportionate to the severity of the crisis.

As recently as this past September, protests broke out in Kasur after the discovery of the bodies of three boys, all under the age of 10, who had gone missing between the months of June and September. One body was found in full and the other two in a decomposed state. The post-mortem examination conducted on the body of Faizan, 8, revealed that he was raped prior to his murder. The discovery of the children’s’ bodies sparked outrage, with the local trade and bar associations calling for a strike, and protesters pelting a police station with stones as their anger towards the perceived inaction of law enforcement authorities came to ahead. Two weeks and 1,700 DNA samples later, the police arrested Sohail Shazad, a local rickshaw driver who confessed to luring the children with money and free rickshaw rides, then raping and strangling them to death.

[Read Related: Priyanka Reddy: 7 Years After Nirbhaya Women Still Unsafe in India]

Kasur first received global attention in 2015, when the uncovering of an extensive pedophile and pornography ring that abused more than 280 children since 2006 made it home to the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history. In January of 2018, the city again made headlines following the disappearance of 6-year-old Zainab Ansari, whose body was found five days later in a rubbish dump, having been raped and murdered. In both cases, regressive social attitudes and negligence on the part of law enforcement officials stood in the way of justice.

In the aftermath of the 2015 incident, victims of the child pornography ring fled Kasur, having been conditioned into feeling ashamed, being blacklisted by the rest of the village’s residents, or hopeless in the face of the authorities’ consistent failure to bring perpetrators to justice. In the second case, it was Zainab’s relatives, not the police, who recovered the CCTV footage of her last moments that lead to the arrest of Imran Ali almost 3 weeks later. Following Zainab’s death, protests in response to police incompetence killed 2, and it was mounting public pressure and the widespread circulation of the #JusticeForZainab hashtag that lead to Ali’s execution in October of the same year, an anomaly in Pakistan’s notoriously complicated and slow-moving judicial system. Residents of Kasur being interviewed following the most recent murders also described a double-standard when it comes to the gender of child victims. A girl being abused is a crime, but for a boy, being sexually abused or assaulted is common, almost seen as a rite of passage, and as with most rites of passage, the abuse is cyclical. Shazad, arrested for the rape and murder of three boys in the latest incident, revealed to police that he himself was sexually abused at his workplace for 12 years.

At the moment, authorities in Kasur are focused on preventive measures. Planned initiatives include educating the public about sexual abuse at Friday sermons at the mosque, and organizing events for parents to raise awareness on how to keep their children safer. The latter measure was put into practice in a number of schools around Kasur district following Ansari’s murder. This past October, Pakistani Prime Minister announced the creation of an app that will allow parents to report a child’s disappearance immediately, alerting officials in all four provinces of Pakistan. Khan also announced the removal of a number of senior police officers in Kasur, on charges of negligence. 

[Read Related: Patriarchy and Rape Culture Create Blame Game Instead of #JusticeforZainab]

In the last year, over 3,000 cases of sexual abuse towards children have been reported across Pakistan, according to Sahil, a child rights organization, Al Jazeera reported. While laws have been amended and formulated to address these issues, implementation is lacking.

Our laws are certainly strong enough for convictions in child abuse cases,” says Manizeh Bano, Sahil’s executive director. “The problem remains with implementation.

Child-friendly courts have been set up in parts of the country, where children can attend during certain hours to avoid confrontation with adult abusers, however, there is a gap in addressing a child’s psychological needs or mental health, Sahil has found.

When children come to court they should have a screen in front of them so they can testify without having to face their accuser, Bano told Al Jazeera.

To allow for children to testify in safe environments, Kasur is working to conduct home visits for statements instead of forcing children to testify in police stations or courts. Most recently, the Pakistani National Assembly approved the Zainab Alert: Recovery and Response Bill, two years after Ansari’s body was found in Kasur. The bill was presented last year in June but passed into law last month. Under the legislation, the maximum sentence for perpetrators of child sexual abuse has been extended to life with a minimum of 10 years; a hotline has also been set up to report missing children. Due to the limited jurisdiction of the National Assembly, the legislation can only be implemented in certain provinces. Once passed nationally, the bill will allow for reported child cases to generate automatic alerts.

Still, for many parents, these measures are too little, too late. Ongoing police investigations delay the return of the victims’ bodies to their families, and many have been thrust into further poverty, having left work to search for their children and taking out loans to print posters and get whatever information they can. Every new murder is a wrenching reminder of how authorities in Kasur continue to fail its children, first with negligence, then with injustice.

By Iman Saleem

Iman Saleem is a writer and aspiring journalist from Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is a recent graduate from the University … Read more ›

Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

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By Kiran Kaur Gill

Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).