Pakistan has been horrified by revelations that a blackmail gang filmed some 270 children being sexually abused as part of a child abuse ring that operated for years in a rural town.
Residents of the town of Hussain Khan Wala say the gang forced children at gunpoint to be abused or drugged them into submission. Members of the gang later blackmailed the families of the victims, threatening to release videos of the abuse on the internet. It was only after one family spoke up that others rose against the gang, with police later arresting 11 suspects.
The case shows the dangers facing poor children, many of whom work as domestic servants and face abuse at the hands of their employers. It also raises questions about how such a gang could operate for years, with some questioning Pakistan’s police and political elite.
“They destroyed me,” one victim said. “They destroyed my family. They just killed me”
The gang probably began targeting its victims years earlier, Kasur district police chief Rai Babar Saeed said. Saeed said police already confiscated some 30 videos, nearly all of which included sexual abuse of children as young as 12. The gang then used the videos to extort money from families, threatening to release them publicly and shame their children and their relatives, Saeed said.
If a family couldn’t pay, there were some cases in which a victim would be forced to find another child to be filmed being abused, said Latif Sarra, a lawyer representing some victims. He, as well as other town residents, said the gang filmed at least 270 children being abused. Saeed said he didn’t know of that many children being involved.
“It was a gang that has 15 to 21 members. These people have been … raping boys and girls under the age of 15 and then filming them since 2009,” Sarra said. “It is a case of extortion. It is their business.”
Saeed said authorities began investigating the case in June after receiving a complaint, but many families declined to press charges, even after officers drove through the town of Hussain Khan Wala, asking over loudspeakers for victims to come forward. But on Aug. 4, Pakistani media reported that hundreds of protesters descended on a Kusar police station and briefly fought with officers, demanding investigators take action.
On Monday, a court in Kasur ordered five suspects in the case held without bail. Six others also have been arrested in connection to the case.
Haseem Amir, accused by police of being one of the ringleaders in the gang, shouted to journalists from lockup: “We have got nothing to do with it!”
“We have been trapped!” Amir yelled. A lawyer for him and the others arrested could not be immediately reached.
District police Office Rai Baber Saeed told Telegraph that: “All arrested culpritin their statement claim that they were innocent.”
“The main accused, Haseem, 25, said he was innocent because none of the films seized by police showed him indulging in any abuse,” he said.
“When asked whether he used to film the child abuse, he said he would sit in the classroom where his classmates would commit the crime”.
The allegations have dominated Pakistani newspapers and television stations. Many compared it to the case of Javed Iqbal, a man in Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore, who one day in 1999 confessed to kidnapping, sexually abusing and dissolving the bodies of some 100 children in acid. Families identified their children from scraps of clothing left behind or by the snapshots he took of each of them before their death. Later sentenced to death, Iqbal killed himself in prison in October 2001.
For now, those living in Hussain Khan Wala, a poor farming community, are trying to come to terms with what has happened. Another victim who spoke to the AP said the gang extorted some $7,000 from him over five years while threatening to release a video, forcing him to steal jewelry from his own family.
“It shattered me so badly that I would often walk out of my school. I would miss my classes,” the victim said. “I had no idea how to handle all this.”
The gang ultimately released the video and his mother saw it. It caused her to finally confide a secret to her son she’d never told anyone: The same gang had raped her years earlier.
“They are beasts,” she said.
Sahil, Pakistan’s leading campaign group working against child abuse, says more than 3,500 cases of child molestation were reported in 2014, of which 67% were reported from rural areas.
“Very few are reported because the victims and families are shy to disclose the sexual offence against them because of cultural, social and religious barriers.”
The Sahil report said sex is a taboo subject in the deeply conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan and the unwillingness to discuss it was making it easier for abuse to happen”