[Islamabad] Pakistani police this week arrested the prime suspect in a September 9 roadside gang rape that has horrified the country.
Abid Malhi was taken into custody on October 12 in the Manga Mandi region of Punjab Province. He was transferred to the provincial capital of Lahore, where he appeared before a judge in an anti-terrorism court the next day.
He was driven to the court in an armored vehicle.
An additional suspect, Shafqat Ali, was arrested on September 15. He also appeared in the Lahore court on October 13, where the two were remanded for 15 days, by which time the police will have to appear with a complete report on the incident.
Malhi and Ali are accused of forcing a 30-year-old woman out of her car on a main route in Lahore, dragging her to a remote area and raping her in front of her two children. Police will not identify her to protect her privacy.
A police investigator involved in the apprehension of Malhi told The Media Line that authorities had cast a wide net in their search, conducting raids in Lahore, Sheikhupura, Kasur, Sahiwal and Nankana Sahib.
The suspect was ultimately traced through phone records. He was traveling in disguise.
The investigator said Malhi had confessed that he and Ali committed several robberies near the roadway that night.
“They saw a car with flashing hazard lights parked at the side of the road,” he said.
“[Malhi] was carrying a gun. They asked the woman to come out, but she refused. [Malhi] broke a window, took her kids hostage and thus forced her to exit,” he said.
“They cut through the roadside safety fence and dragged the woman and children to a nearby field, where they raped the woman at gunpoint and [later] fled,” he said.
He noted that five of Malhi’s close relatives, including his wife, were also in custody.
Usman Buzdar, the chief minister of Punjab, announced that Ali‘s DNA matched samples found at the crime scene.
Syed Najem Ud Din, a senior police official, told The Media Line that the woman may have run out of gasoline.
“Stranded and alone at night, she called the highway police helpline but was informed by the operator that assistance could not be provided,” Din said. “The area was outside their jurisdiction.”
She then called a relative, who advised her to call the police.
“When police reached the spot, they found a terrified woman whose clothes were covered in blood,” he said.
The victim was immediately transferred to a nearby hospital for treatment.
The gang rape sparked protests throughout the country.
Tanzeela Javed, a Rawalpindi-based women’s rights activist, told The Media Line that Malhi had been wanted for 10 other offenses.
“The police only bothered to go after him following his last crime, which received media attention,” she said. “This horrific incident could have been prevented if [they] did their job and caught him sooner.”
The September 9 incident was just the latest in a long string of attacks on women that have shocked Pakistanis and led them to question their country’s social mores.
According to Punjab police, this year alone there have been at least 2,043 rape cases and 111 cases of gang rape.
Federal Minister Fawad Chaudry said last month that there is an average of 5,000 rape cases registered each year. He added that fewer than 5% lead to guilty verdicts.
Yasir Bashir Chaudary, a Lahore High Court attorney, told The Media Line that the paltry conviction rate stems in part from the reluctance of women to come forward.
“Social pressure, fear of stigma and other issues are the main reasons,” he said.
A day after the rape, Umar Sheikh, Lahore’s police chief, suggested that the victim should not have been out at night without a male escort. He also wondered aloud why she had been traveling on a secondary road rather than the Grand Trunk Road, part of Pakistan’s national highway system.
His remarks ignited a firestorm.
Mariam Aurangzeb, a spokeswoman for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, told The Media Line that such insensitivity was totally inappropriate for “a man who is fully responsible for protecting our lives and property. How could he express such disgraceful words?”
Shahbaz Shareef, a leader of the opposition in Pakistan’s National Assembly, called Sheikh’s words “a “matter of national embarrassment.” Addressing lawmakers, he described the remarks as “evidence of a completely broken legal system.”
Sherry Rehman, a former ambassador to the United States and now a leader of the Pakistan People’s Party in the Senate, tweeted that she was “shocked” and “furious” that police could question the judgment of a woman traveling at that hour.
“Instead of doing their job protecting citizens, they are asking why women are driving or waiting for help on the motorway,” she wrote. “They need to be dismissed.”
Sheikh ultimately issued a public apology.
“I apologize to the victim and anyone else who was hurt by my remarks. I had no intention to convey the wrong impression,” he said.