ONE of the most infamous cases of sexual harassment has come to a fitting conclusion. An Islamabad Magistrate’s Court on Friday sentenced five men to life imprisonment for holding a couple hostage at gunpoint, physically assaulting them, forcing them to strip naked and perform sexual acts in front of the camera. After committing this depravity, the gang then used the video to blackmail the couple for money. When the video surfaced on social media in July last year, it went viral and sparked outrage across the country. Even the Prime Minister intervened, ordering the police to ensure the men were brought to justice. The main accused was arrested during the day and several others were apprehended soon after. The charges against the gang, based on victim statements and backed up by video evidence, made up what appeared to be a watertight case. And then the social dynamics of Pakistan kicked in and everything started to fall apart.
Earlier this year, the prosecution told the Sessions Court judge that the victims’ phones were switched off. Then, in January, the female victim backtracked on her statement against the defendant and told the trial court that she did not want to pursue the case. The next day, however, Parliamentary Law Secretary Maleeka Bokhari announced that the state would pursue the case regardless of recent developments. “Irrefutable Video and Recorded Forensic Evidence; anyone who harasses and strips a woman must face the full force of the law,” she tweeted. The government has taken the right approach; clearly, attempts were being made to intimidate witnesses and pervert the course of justice – a crime in itself. Unfortunately, this is far from uncommon in this country. Powerful groups bribe, threaten and blackmail witnesses into recanting their testimony, often weakening the case and allowing perpetrators to escape prosecution. These schemes are even more common in cases involving female victims, as in this case, when the stigma attached to sex crimes already prevents women from coming forward to file a complaint. Until the criminal justice system can inspire confidence in victims and instill in them the assurance that their perpetrators will be brought to justice, women will remain vulnerable to such pressure tactics. Even if not, witness protection programs need to be strengthened in the country. In this case, the video evidence was compelling enough to result in a conviction; It’s not always the case.
Posted in Dawn, March 29, 2022